That Was Your Life: The Good Place final season review

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

SNAPSHOT
The series focuses on Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a deceased young woman who wakes up in the afterlife and is welcomed by Michael (Ted Danson) to the “Good Place” in reward for her righteous life; however, she eventually discovers that Michael’s “Good Place” is a hoax, and she is actually in the “Bad Place”, to be psychologically and emotionally tortured by her fellow afterlife residents. Eleanor and Michael claim that “the points system” for assigning humans to the Good Place or Bad Place is fundamentally flawed; in the real world, assigning a certain action as categorically Good or Bad is practically impossible due to unintended consequences. In the fourth season, they are given a chance to prove their hypothesis. They design an experiment meant to demonstrate that humans in a simulated Good Place can show moral development. One of the experiment subjects is Eleanor’s boyfriend, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who has volunteered to have his memory erased to preserve the integrity of the experiment. Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, and D’Arcy Carden also star as Eleanor and Michael’s friends and collaborators in the experiment. (synopsis (c) Wikipedia)

SPOILERS AHEAD … AND ONE LAST DISH OF HEAVENLY FRO-YO

Saying goodbye is next-to-near-impossible thing.

Quite how next-to-near-impossible it is became clear to me last year when my wonderful mother died from ovarian cancer, weakening over a period of weeks, after months of slow decline, where we tended to her and tried to make the end of her life as comfortable as we could.

It wasn’t, of course, and I guess it never is for most people, but what struck me most profoundly, and which is a key theme in the final season of NBC’s superlatively clever and funny four-season sitcom The Good Place, is that saying goodbye to anyone comes loaded with so much emotion, loss and yes, even contentment about a live well lived, that saying farewell is never a simple, emotion-less matter.

How can it be? Too much water has flowed under the bridge, too great a connection has been made, for a simple “goodbye” to suffice when you’re parting.

As Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) realises in the two-part finale of the show, appropriately titled “The Final Chapter” it is far better to never have to say goodbye at all, but if that comes to pass, and it appears it does even in the all-new, re-designed Afterlife, making it happen is an act of such selflessness and loss that it is almost easier not to do it at all.

After a season where the gang of Eleanor, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), Tahani Al_Jamil (Jamella Jamil), Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet )D’Arcy Carden) have fought to save themselves, humanity and completely revamped life after death, all told with the show’s characteristic hilarity, pithy oneliners and expert eye for affecting, fully-realised characterisation, the show finally bids farewell to people we have come to know and love.

Many people talk about the characters in a show they love as family but in the case of The Good Place, at least for this reviewer, losing both my father (2016) and my mother (2019) over the course of the sitcom’s run, gave it a huge amount of extra familial resonance, quite aside from the fact that the storytelling took part, for the greater part, after death.

What really hit home is how much we come to mean to people in ways that are almost too vast and deep to even quantify.

In this case, four very different people – a white trash gal from Arizona, a high society disaffected name-dropper from the UK, an indecisive though hunky philosophy professor and a dopey but sweet street dancer from Florida not only changed from the people they once were but became so different and close and true to who they actually were, stripped of life’s corrupting influences and open to the very best of humanity, that they became a family who changed the course of humanity’s post-life existence.

These four people, aided by two beings who had spent their entire immortal lives in the realm of the supernatural – reformed demon Michael who fell in love with all things human in the most delightful and heartfelt of ways, and all0knowing intelligence Janet who could make anything happen in the blink of an eye but who simply wanted love and friendship and got them – made not just a fundamental difference to each other but to humanity who, at one point in this expansive season, are very close to being wiped from the face of the mortal and immortal realms by wacky eternal Judge (Maya Rudolph in stunningly funny fine form).

That they did with humour and good grace – the show was and is funny in ways too numerous to mention though Tahani’s name-dropping was a particular favourite – but even more so, that they did with real grounded humanity made all the difference.

This was a show that, thanks to creator and The Office and Parks and Recreation alum Mike Schur, tackled its themes of brokenness, redemption, loss, connection, friendship and family that it couldn’t help but affect you right through to the very core of your being.

That might seem like a massive overstatement for a “mere” sitcom but when have the really good sitcoms like MAS*H, Cheers, Frasier and yes, Parks and Recreation, ever simply just been funny?

They have all been that, of course, to the point where aching sides and sore mouths were all but inevitable, but what really sets them and The Good Place apart is the way they dissected who we are as people, how how they made us think and feel, and how, in the end, after that much-dreaded last episode has seen the light of day, we are left better, wiser people for having spent time with the characters in the show.

Certainly, after watching The Good Place, with its successful mix of silly quips, humourous observations and pithy musings on what it means to be human, you can’t help but be different, to look at life a whole different way.

Yes, it is and was that good.

Pivoting off an off-the-wall but genius premise, The Good Place dared to ask whether it is possible for people who are all but seemingly cemented into their personas and places in life, and then, naturally given the show’s locale, death, can actually change?

I mean, really, really profoundly, universe-alteringly change?

It turns out they can, and when they do, the difference it makes to humanity as a whole but to the small group who make up an intensely meaningful family is beyond profound.

The final two-parter episode brings it home in ways that make you realise all over again why this sitcom will live on as one the true classics of the genre, deftly and affectingly mixing humour and gravitas to impacting effect, so impacting in fact that crying like a baby all through the finale is all but impossible to resist.

Recalling the elegantly poetic goodbye sequence at the end of Six Feet Under, where we watch each of the Fisher family and those in their intimately flawed orbit shuffle off this mortal coil over a period of decades, The Good Place offers up scene after scene where our hearts are ripped from our chest, tears from our eyes and our soul feels like someone has trampled over it in the best possible way.

It’s truly beautiful television, and as we bid goodbye to first Jason, then Chidi and finally Eleanor – Tahani, as an intern Architect, Michael as a nascent human being (a real boy!) and Janet, as eternal lovely, all-knowing Janet stay behind, it’s own peculiar kind of goodbye – the tears can’t help but flow.

They flow, and copiously, because through all the jokes, quips and oneliners, Schur and his gifted team, have given us a journey into what it means to be human, to really matter to other people, to change, develop and grow and to do something with all that unexpected evolution.

It turns out, it means a lot, a damn lot, particularly in the case of Eleanor and Chidi, two wholly different people at the beginning, who somehow found a connection so unyielding and vitally eternal that its severing in “The Final Chapter” is like the end of all things.

It hurts to say goodbye to them as they take that final step out into the vast oneness of the universe after endless Jeremy Bearimys – it’s a goofily cursive concept of time and space that makes perfect sense when you ruminate on it – in the Afterlife, but then that parting underscores, as it does in real life, how much our links to those we love so dearly matter to us.

They matter, we know that, but just how much only really becomes clear in death which may sound desperately sad, and kind of is, but which is also rich beyond measure.

That is very much the case with The Good Place whose departure from our screens, while triumphantly and creatively executed in such a way that it is intensely sad and yet ridiculously funny and massively meaningful all at once, leaves us richer and better off in ways that only the very best of shows can.

Are we sad to see it go? Yes. Will it leave an Afterlife-sized hole in our frog-shaped hearts? (That’s an in joke that makes sense when you watch the show which if you haven’t, you really should). How could it not?

But after we immensely better off for four season of its time with us? Yes, we are, and even if it makes us ruminate to the point of gut-wrenching tears when we think of all we have lost, it also reminds in ways too numerous to mention that we are blessed in ways we never even knew, and perhaps life, and maybe even death (though that can wait thank you very much) are far richer and more wonderful than any of us have ever given them credit for.

Posted In TV

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