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Catching Up With The Good Place: What You Need to Know Before Watching Season 4

Whether you're new to the twisty comedy or just need a refresher, here's what's happened on the series so far.
  • Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell and D'Arcy Carden in a promotional image for The Good Place (NBC)
    Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell and D'Arcy Carden in a promotional image for The Good Place (NBC)

    The Good Place began with a deceptively simple premise: What if heaven was like Earth, but with Ted Danson and lots of frozen yogurt? It started as the story of a really crappy Arizonian, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, lovable even at her worst), and the question of whether or not she could earn a spot in the Good Place by learning about ethics and becoming a better version of herself.

    That seems like such a long time ago. As it enters its fourth and final season, the show, by design, now feels like a completely different beast. It has taken detours, rebooted itself more often than a bad Windows 10 update, and chewed through more plots and reversals than perhaps any other primetime comedy ever. That it wasn’t sustainable for infinite seasons never seemed to matter to creator Mike Schur and his ace stable of writers. This was a show with bigger ideals and ambitions than sticking around for 100 episodes. It explores the nature of good intent versus good actions, what it means to be a person with ethics living in the world, and why bad things happen to good people, even after they’re dead.

    The downside of a series grappling with such high-concept topics at warp speed, continually reinventing itself to surprise and delight viewers, is that it can be hard to keep up. Even if you love the The Good Place, it throws so much at you week after week, that it’s hard to remember when things happened where in the afterlife and to whom. As we enter the final hereafters, let’s piece together where Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, Michael, and Janet stand and how they got there.

    Season One

    Shitty person Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in the waiting room of an office, where she meets the angelic Architect of “The Good Place,” Michael (Danson). He informs Eleanor that she has died, but good news, she is in heaven, where she will meet her soulmate and be part of a community of do-gooders who scored enough points during their lifetimes to earn their spots in paradise.

    We soon learn, however, that something is very wrong. Eleanor knows she doesn’t deserve to be in the Good Place, she’s actually a petty, irresponsible trash person with enough self awareness to realize she’s there by mistake. The rest of Season One is largely about Eleanor and her not-really soulmate, an ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper), trying to hide the mistake while educating Eleanor on what makes a person good in order to improve her chances of staying.

    They befriend soulmate couple Jason (Manny Jacinto), a silent monk who turns out to be a dim Florida DJ also in the Good Place by mistake, and Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a socialite who was always overshadowed in life by her famous sister, Kamilah. Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who is like Google in the guise of a friendly and wonderful robot lady (not a robot!) in a purple vest, tries to help them, but falls in love with Jason. After a series of efforts to figure out why Eleanor and Jason were mis-assigned, it turns out (huge spoiler!) that the Good Place was actually an evil experimental project devised by demons in the Bad Place.

    The scheme was Michael’s innovative idea to re-invent Hell: a plan to make Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani torture each other for all eternity due to their distinct personalities and differences. With Michael’s plan discovered, he wipes their memories, with the intent of starting the experiment over. And that is the end of the show’s first season.

    Season Two

    And here’s where things get super wonky. The (not-really) Good Place is rebooted with memory-wiped Eleanor starting over. But before Michael cleared her memories, she left herself a written clue inside Janet’s mouth reminding herself to find Chidi. Where a normal sitcom would spend a good chunk of a season exploring this different version of what happened in Season One as each of the four main characters has been paired with new soulmates, the pace accelerates, with Eleanor figuring out the Bad Place twist much more quickly, over and over again, as Michael tries desperately to keep the experiment going and his demons from revolting and spilling the beans to his boss, Shawn (the incomparable Marc Evan Jackson). It is revealed that in some of the more than 800 reboots, Eleanor and Chidi fell in love. After hundreds of attempts to get it right, Michael gets depressed and agrees to an alliance with the four humans, promising that he can get them all into the real Good Place, including himself. (He’s a demon, though. You really gonna believe that?) Michael says he’s helping them in order to avoid letting his failure lead to a forced “retirement,” a euphemism for a torture in Hell so bad it’s called, “The Eternal Shriek.”

    We learn more about Chidi, Tahani, and Jason’s lives on Earth in flashbacks, while in the (not-so) Good Place, Michael tries to learn about human ethics from a place where he likens people to cockroaches. The alliance is dubbed Team Cockroach. Eventually, he grows very fond of humanity and his new friends, although a few times throughout the season it’s unclear if it’s just an elaborate trick. (Spoiler: Michael doesn’t go back to being evil, at least as of the end of Season Three. He’s quite protective of these humans.) Janet creates a boyfriend named Derek (Jason Mantzoukas) after she glitches from suppressing her love for Jason. The gang all learn about “The Trolley Problem,” an ethical dilemma in which you have to choose between a set of train tracks that lead to killing a single person, versus tracks that will kill five people. It’s more complicated than it seems at first.

    Michael’s scheme to hide all the reboots is discovered by Shawn, leading to Michael’s neighborhood creation being destroyed and the gang having to escape. A plan to get everyone into the Good Place via a hot-air balloon that can determine entry turns out to be a stalling technique by Michael, but he comes up with a better plan. He wants to get Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in front of an all-knowing Judge, who may be able to help settle their case. Unfortunately, the Judge can only be reached via the Bad Place, which is where everyone winds up next in disguise. There’s a lot of talk on the show about unimaginable tortures and very vile things being done to bodies, but based on all we really see of Hell and its demons, it’s not so much serial killers and Nazis as people who talk at movies screenings, who are incredibly sexist, and who say stupid, boorish shit all the time. Improbably, the four make it out of the Bad Place with Michael and Janet’s help and find the Judge, who at first is thought to be a burrito, but even better, turns out to be Maya Rudolph.

    As great as Maya Rudolph is, her character is as loopy as everyone else in the afterlife, and after giving each of them separate tests to gauge their growth as good people, she determines that Jason, Chidi, and Tahani have failed, while Eleanor has passed. Their deal was one-for-all, though, so none of them are going to the real Good Place. However, before they’re sent to Hell, Michael and Janet intervene, suggesting that the entire system might be broken (more on this next season). The Judge argues that the foursome only improved themselves because they knew it could get them into the Good Place, which negates their positive actions. Michael argues that with a little encouragement, it would have happened anyway on Earth and the four improved each other. They agree to a new timeline test where the four would have not died on Earth to see where they would have ended up, in terms of their worthiness.

    That leads to another reboot of sorts as Eleanor is sent back to Earth to continue her life, having not died from being run over by shopping carts in a parking lot. She starts to become a better person for a good six months before she suffers a few defeats and goes back to being terrible. Michael intervenes by appearing as a friendly bartender who gives her advice that gets her back on track. She finds an online video of Chidi giving a lecture on ethics and it affects her so much that she decides to fly to Australia, where he is teaching, in order to find him.

    Season Three

    Eleanor meets Chidi and convinces him to help her learn about ethics, Chidi befriends and becomes romantically involved with a neuroscience professor, Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who agrees to conduct a study with him on people who have had near-death experiences, something he and Eleanor have in common. Michael and Janet work behind the scenes to bring Tahani and Jason into the picture as well. The study, which seems a little on the small side in terms of human subjects, ends up consisting of the four of them, plus Trevor (Adam Scott), a recurring demon character since the first season and an absolute asshole.

    He’s there to ruin the study and throw Michael’s plan off track. Trevor starts to succeed, causing schisms in the group, and leading the Judge to summon Michael, Janet, and Trevor. She banishes Trevor for being a kiss-ass, and moves to end the experiment. Janet uses her afterlife powers to overwhelm the Judge and they escape back to Earth to help their friends.

    A year passes as Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, and Simons become close. As the study winds down, Michael and Janet keep finding contrivances to keep the group together, but it gets harder and harder. When, out of desperation, they decide to reset the timeline again, the group finds them opening a portal to the afterlife. And they have a lot of questions. Rather than wiping anyone’s memory, Janet and Michael come clean to Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, explaining the situation as best they can, including “Jeremy Bearimy,” the idea that time in the afterlife moves in a shape that resembles the words “Jeremy Bearimy” spelled out in cursive.

    Chidi’s brain breaks from this new knowledge and he has a pretty major shirtless freakout. Once he comes to his senses, Chidi breaks up with Simone to keep her out of the mess.

    By knowing the stakes of their actions, the group has invalidated the test of their worthiness to get into the Good Place. Eleanor suggests that despite that, they should use the opportunity to help as many people as they can, points be damned. This leads to a few episodes in which they each try to fix a part of their lives on Earth by helping someone they care about. Tahani marries Jason to help distribute her wealth to those in need. Jason tries to help his pal Donkey Doug, who is actually his father (they’re close). Donkey Doug goes to jail, but they mend their strained relationship.

    Eleanor confronts her negligent mother and learns that she has actually changed for the better and has found a good domestic situation with a new husband (hey, it’s Andy Daly!) and stepdaughter. Tahani learns to forgive her famous sister when they both realize it was their parents who pitted them against each other throughout their entire childhoods.

    Eleanor can’t stop thinking about the Good Place/Bad Place timeline where she fell in love with Chidi, and her romantic feelings for him blossom. Meanwhile, Janet and Michael visit Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), renowned in the afterlife for being the human on Earth who has most closely figured out the points system that gets people into the Good Place.

    The point system, however, has turned Doug’s life into a paralyzing series of microdecisions, and even with all his care, he still doesn’t have enough points to get into the Good Place. This leads Michael and Janet to visit the afterlife’s accounting department, led by Neil (Stephen Merchant), who reveals that nobody has gotten into the Good Place for 521 years. The system is completely broken after all, not due to tampering, but because of the increasing complexity of the world, where any decision with good intentions can still lead to bad consequences.

    The group is still being chased down by Shawn and his demons. Janet and Michael fight them off, but in order to protect the humans, she has to hide them all in her void, which causes their deaths on earth and for Janet to start glitching in more dramatic fashion. In an episode featuring many Janets representing each of the four humans, Chidi and Eleanor declare their love for each other, and with Janet’s void no longer in danger of collapsing, they all go through a portal to the real Good Place. Michael meets with a committee that promises to look into the matter, which the committee was apparently unaware was happening, but it proves to be an ineffectual group that is unlikely to do anything for hundreds of years. Janet and Michael decide that the only way anything will change is if they take matters into their own hands. Somehow in all this, Jason and Tahani reconcile their feelings for each other, allowing Jason and Janet to resume their romance.

    Everyone goes back to meet the Judge, who goes to Earth to see for herself what’s going on, and realizes that Michael is right. She and Shawn and Michael agree to a new plan. Four other humans will be put through the same test at a neutral site in the Medium Place to see if they can really improve enough to deserve entry to the Good Place. Shawn skews the experiment by choosing humans who’ll create problems, including a gossip columnist who harassed Tahani, as well as Simone. Chidi will also be one of the test subjects. In order to keep the test pure, Chidi will have his memory wiped, which will also cause him to forget that he and Eleanor fell in love.

    Michael has an uncharacteristic panic attack from the stress of it all, causing Eleanor to step up in his place and greet the gossip columnist, John. Janet gives Eleanor, who is trying to find meaning in it all, a pep talk suggesting that in all the randomness and pandemonium of the universe, the love and happiness Eleanor and Chidi found, and that she has found with Jason, and that comes with being present in moments of joy, may be the only things that actually make sense. As the season closes, Eleanor greets Chidi, who has no memory of her, and who has been sitting in the waiting room.

    And that’s where we are! You’ll have to tune in to the season premiere to find out what happens next, but in the meantime, NBC  has some webisodes meant to bridge the gap between Seasons 3 and 4.

    The Good Place's fourth season premieres Thursday, September 26th at 9:00 PM ET on NBC

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    Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG. 

    TOPICS: The Good Place, NBC, D'Arcy Carden, Jameela Jamil, Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto, Maya Rudolph, Michael Schur, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper