"What I kept coming back to over the course of 'Whenever You’re Ready,' Thursday night’s transcendent one-hour finale, was how much The Good Place also functioned as a metaphor for television itself, with its godlike creators, its capricious fans (Maya Rudolph’s Judge Gen foremost among them), its formulaic constraints, and its inherent potential," says Sophie Gilbert. "Both the secret hell-dimension of the Good Place and the comedy The Good Place begin with the premise of four entirely dissimilar people being brought together in a place that they believe is heaven. Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) is an 'Arizona dirtbag' whose higher purpose on Earth began and ended with tequila and celebrity-baby plastic-surgery magazines. Chidi (William Jackson Harper) is a pathologically indecisive moral-philosophy professor. Tahani (Jameela Jamil) is a name-dropping socialite obsessed with luxury and status. Jason (Manny Jacinto) is a Floridian doofus defined by his love for wings, Molotov cocktails, and the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the Good Place and in their roles as TV characters, these people are supposed to torture one another for the entertainment of the people watching—their demon overlords, and us, the viewers at home. It’s the setup of sitcoms and reality shows since time immemorial: Put some contrasting characters or odd couples together and watch them drive one another crazy. When The Good Place revealed its big twist at the end of Season 1, the show got more interesting but also more meta. How would heaven reboot itself? Could the series function outside its carefully constructed premise? What might happen without the specific formula of the original configuration?"
It's a miracle that The Good Place thrived within the constraints of network TV: "With its endless reboots and play-acting demons, The Good Place was as much a show about TV shows as it was about the mysteries of the universe," says Sam Adams. "One of its underlying questions was whether we can inch our way towards enlightenment by replaying the same scenarios over and over again, or whether real change involves ripping everything up and starting afresh. As a network sitcom—perhaps the last great one—the show was inherently incrementalist, bound to commercial breaks and setup-joke structures, although there were stretches of the last season when humor took a distant backseat to heart. But as virtually all of TV’s creative energy drifts in the direction of cable and streaming, the show’s dedication to working within those constraints—its insistence that you could make something meaningful and distinctive and still send it out over the airwaves for free—was in itself a small act of moral generosity."
The series finale rescued a frustrating final season: Michael Schur is "an optimist who believes the sweetness of his characters will be rewarded," says Darren Franich. "His masterpiece Parks & Recreation wrapped on a success-for-everybody flash-forward: best-selling authorhood, mayoralty, a governorship, maybe a presidency? In that spirit, I think The Good Place cut some corners when it became a catharsis-of-the-week redemption procedural. A sisterhood was redeemed, a fractured mother-daughter relationship started to heal, old love was reformed through various amnesias. Like the philosophers say: You can’t save Donkey Doug, but at least you can save Pillboi. Actually, the finale revealed, you can save Donkey Doug. You can save everyone!"
It feels cheap to say that the final twist of The Good Place is there is no twist: "But there’s something lovely and right about the show’s decision to abandon its twisting mechanisms and accept the obvious," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It has always been two kinds of mystery at once: A puzzle-box mystery that continually offered up solutions to new problems, doling out “aha!” moments of revelation and then immediately producing the next puzzle to be solved; and a John Donne, key-to-all-mythologies, epistemological kind of mystery. Why are we here? What happens after we die? What is the nature of goodness? While The Good Place pulled off the structure of its puzzle box remarkably well, the reality is that there could never be a satisfying answer to its second mystery that was not also deeply obvious. There’s no answer to 'What is the nature of goodness?' that could be surprising, and there’s no answer to 'What happens after we die?' that could ever be truly satisfying."
The series finale was hard to accept: "It didn’t work for me because they were ... given something we never will," says Michael Walsh. "They had a choice, and they had a choice to never go through that door. I can’t believe any of them did. I found no hope in the show’s ideal version of death, because I know there’s no such thing. We can’t escape the pain others feel when people leave us, and we can’t spare them the same when we go. Fortunately I will always find hope in The Good Place‘s message that we are not alone. It’s the idea that gives me comfort and meaning and purpose when those are hardest for me to find, especially when I think about those who are no longer with me."
The Good Place stuck the landing by tying up the macro so it could devote the finale to the macro: "Endings are, for better or for worse, when shows reveal their true priorities," says Alison Herman. "In the past year, we’ve gotten a whole lot of them—some better received than others, all indicative of what their series had become. Game of Thrones was a slapdash race to the finish line; Orange Is the New Black was an unwieldy yet earnest bait-and-switch; Catastrophe was all the more romantic for how f*cked up its central romance was. The Good Place tied up the macro so it could spend its final minutes in the micro, where it’s always belonged. The show was hardly disingenuous in its exploration of ethics, moral philosophy, and the guiding principles of a just society. It just understood that these broader concepts are an aggregate of a far more granular one: That people can be narcissistic, indecisive, arrogant, or impulsive, but they can also learn and grow when given the chance. I’ll raise one last margarita to that."
The Good Place was always about the little things: "The interesting thing is that the show pulled it off by zagging instead of zigging, by giving us the old okie-doke, by going small instead of big. It was never really about those big questions," says Brian Grubb. "It was about the characters attempting to grapple with them, and the little things that made up those big things."