5 out of 5 stars
Those of us without regular cable TV have been impatiently awaiting the streaming services arrival of season 4 of “The Good Place,” created by Michael Schur, after the series finale aired on NBC. On Sept. 26, exactly a year after the season’s original 2019 premiere, Netflix finally delivered.
Whether or not you managed to avoid spoilers for this long, the wait was well worth it. Season 4 is a testament to everything that makes “The Good Place” great — a 13-episode rollercoaster of emotion, laughter, moral philosophy and character development culminating in a bittersweet sense of closure.
In season 3, demon-turned-guardian-angel Michael (Ted Danson) breaks the rules of the universe to save his four human friends from the Bad Place, resurrecting them on Earth to see if they can improve themselves enough to change their fate. After concluding that life on Earth has become too complicated for anyone to ever accrue enough points to make it into the Good Place after death, they all embark on a new experiment: proving that in an ideal setting, such as the fake simulation of the Good Place neighborhood that the main cast first experienced back in season 1, humans will choose to become better people.
The season leaves off on the heartbreaking goodbye between Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper), as Chidi has his memories erased ahead of the arrival of the new human test subjects, one of whom is his ex-girlfriend, Simone. This leaves the Soul Squad — down to Eleanor, Tahani and Jason, guided by Michael and Janet — to operate the neighborhood and put the new arrivals on the road to self-improvement.
To further complicate matters, Michael has a nervous breakdown, forcing Eleanor to step into the role of “architect” of the neighborhood.
Moving into season 4, we get to know the new test subjects: John, a former gossip blogger who notoriously targeted Tahani; Linda, an unassuming stoic old lady who nobody can seem to connect with; and Brent, an egotistical former CEO whose rampant sexism quickly gets under Eleanor’s skin. Simone, too, presents new challenges for the team, as her logical nature and former occupation as a neurosurgeon leads her to believe the afterlife is only a dying hallucination.
Eleanor struggles to focus on the big picture of getting the test subjects to learn how to become better people through Chidi’s ethical expertise, even if it means sacrificing her own feelings and allowing Chidi and Simone to bond. Meanwhile, Jason undertakes a daring rescue mission in the Bad Place, and Tahani overcomes boundaries of class and status to connect more deeply with John.
Brent remains the most problematic new subject, literally and figuratively, as he seems almost incapable of achieving self-awareness around his own flaws, especially regarding the way he treats the women and characters of color around him.
And I haven’t even touched on the second half of the season.
Despite the frustrations and tensions that underlie the first half, you still end up rooting for almost everyone on-screen. This is, in no small part, driven by the stellar performances from the cast you already know and love.
Bell shines as the fiery, determined and witty Eleanor, seeming to be almost one and the same with her character, while Danson continues to radiate the protective warmth and patience of a positive father figure. Harper settles into Chidi’s skin in much the same way that Bell does with Eleanor, projecting the compassion and intelligence that define his character while also following along a natural route of character development as Chidi becomes more self-assured.
Every character grows, stepping outside their limitations and truly embodying the central moral theory, contractualism, self-defined in the title of the book by contemporary philosopher T.M. Scanlon that is referenced throughout the show: “What We Owe to Each Other.”
Michael says something key at the end of episode 6, about why he believes so strongly in the human capacity for growth and a new rehabilitation model for the afterlife: “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”
The final season does an excellent job of setting high expectations for itself. You want Eleanor and Chidi to reunite, you want the Soul Squad to be rewarded with their happily-ever-after and you want to believe that Michael is right, that all people really can change for the better.
All I can say is that the finale left me in a puddle of tears, with a smile on my face. Not only is this ending true to everything you love about “The Good Place,” but it also goes a step further; it gives you hope.