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The Good Place managed to stay great because it cared more about its characters than plot twists

  • The Michael Schur NBC comedy, which ends its four-season run tonight, kept viewers on their toes after the big Season 1 reveal. Yet unlike other mystery box shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld, The Good Place never cared about topping itself. "Despite unleashing one of the most impressive plot twists in recent memory, The Good Place has continued to operate in service of its philosophical base and characters rather than try to pull the rug out from under us for a second time, and possibly fail," says Miles Surrey. "What’s driven The Good Place hasn’t been any ill-fated attempt to outsmart its audience, but the growth of its characters in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. After being placed in an experiment designed to have them torture one another, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani have instead charted a path toward self-improvement through ethics lessons, owning up to their flaws, and seeing the fundamental decency in just about anything. Even Michael, who went from gleefully torturing his human subjects to becoming their biggest ally, has become a better, uh, demon—his journey feels like a natural extension of the show’s 'finding the good in everyone' storytelling. Not to repeatedly dunk on Westworld, but that show set up a similar path to enlightenment—robots living in their own eternal hell loop before rebelling against their demonic human overlords—but failed to maintain emotional investment; too many characters were left intentionally inscrutable. (Some humans are revealed as robots, all Anthony Hopkins did was creepily quote Shakespeare, etc.) The Good Place has never lost sight of what matters—its characters—and never sidelined that in favor of more disorienting plot machinations. All told, The Good Place is telling an engaging story on its own terms, and enjoying the series for the past three seasons hasn’t required fans to scour Reddit for the latest theories."


    • How The Good Place mastered the mystery box: "Too often, series with lots of twists set up each new big reveal despite eroding our interest in the story and characters," says Brandon Katz, adding: "Mystery boxes ironically end up leaving creatives boxed into an unwinnable shell game in which audiences are inevitably dissatisfied with the answers or burnt out on guessing games. The Good Place executed a perfect Season 1 twist but never attempted to one-up itself in subsequent seasons. Instead, it kept things interesting by creatively clearing the table with memory wipes and timeline reboots ('Jeremy Bearimy' should be taught in film school as an example of prime exposition) while further focusing on the mission of our characters: self-improvement, even after death. In doing so, The Good Place achieved the ideal mix of great characters who acknowledge their flaws and grow as individuals and an entertaining plot that never bent over backwards to recreate early magic."
    • It's baffling that The Good Place decided to do a quasi-reset for Season 4: "For a show that has worked so earnestly to make the argument that people can grow and change, it saddled itself with some distinctly unpromising new test subjects, including a smarmy male chauvinist and a needlessly cruel gossip columnist," says Scott Meslow. "The Good Place isn’t beyond telling a redemption story—this is, after all, a series that utterly redeemed an unrepentant demon—but the series never really bothered to turn these new cartoon characters into human beings, and it ultimately just sort of hand-waved them off the stage altogether."
    • Words matter on The Good Place: "The show has given us endless food puns and a host of new curse words, but there’s also always been deeper meaning hidden in its language," says Jack McCluskey, adding: "The Good Place argues that what you do matters, that actions have consequences—intentional and unintentional—and that things that appear to be black-and-white often are, on closer inspection, many shades of gray. And if choices matter, then the language of a show about why choices matter must also matter."
    • What it's like to serve as The Good Place's art director: Adam Rowe, who assumed the art director job in Season 3, implements the ideas of the showrunners, directors, and production designer by working with set decorators, costume managers, props masters, visual-effects producers, and others. "Season 3 was so adventurous and fun and was moving around a lot. And Season 4 was interesting and beautiful, but it’s a totally different show, because (the characters) are not moving like they were in 3," says Rowe. "This season we were doing a lot of things that were established in Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3: It was like a greatest hits. We were pulling out a lot of things from storage, or reaching around to find the thing that was lost in Season 2, or we were like, 'Oh, okay, we gotta remake this.'" Rowe also says The Good Place really didn't do much with their heaven filming location, Los Angeles' Getty art museum "because the architecture speaks for itself."
    • In what ways did The Good Place evolve that surprised creator Michael Schur?: "Well, there was a gigantic evolution of what the show actually believed, which was interesting," Schur tells The New York Times. "I wrote this long document to all the writers at the beginning that laid out the stuff I’d been reading and the basic ideas we’d be discussing. And I wrote a note that basically said, “At some point this show needs to figure out what it believes. There’s a lot of theories out there and they’ve been discussed for thousands of years, and if things work out and we stick around long enough, the show has to take a position. But I didn’t know what that position was going to be. So what ended up happening was by writing the stories and figuring out what interested us as a group, the show ended up having a philosophy about what matters. And that was really fun — it felt like a four-year conversation among a lot of really smart and funny people about what’s the best way to just approach the impossibility of being alive. And that was delightful."
    • Manny Jacinto and William Jackson Harper on being kept in the dark on the Season 1 twist: "We had no clue where the first season was going. Which was probably for the best because we probably would have spoiled it right then and there," says Jacinto. "At the time, it was one of those things where we were being asked to talk in-depth about something that we were really, really unfamiliar with," adds Harper. "I was trying to answer questions and not appear to be aloof, but I just really didn’t know anything."
    • D'Arcy Carden on the final day of filming: "It was emotionally as high and low as could be," she says. "It was loving a group of people so much and feeling so proud of the work that we've done and feeling like this should go on forever or at least a couple more years even though we knew it was good we ended on our own terms. I remember on the last day, again in a van, the cast was driving to our location. I was a little emotional and I made everybody go around the van and recall when we each met each other for the first time. It was pretty sweet, everybody was feeling very, lovey and nostalgic. There was a lot of hand holding."
    • Jameela Jamil's advisory for watching the series finale: "I would recommend having some tissues ready"
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    TOPICS: The Good Place, NBC, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, Michael Schur, William Jackson Harper