“The Good Place” returns Jan. 9 … and I have absolutely no idea what to expect.
That’s nothing new. When I got a look at the show’s pilot in the spring of 2016, I was impressed and amused … and puzzled. There’s never been a show that has seemingly written itself into a corner in every single episode — 48 and counting — only to execute a brilliant escape that carries the narrative in unexpected directions.
All that from a show that’s hilarious on a regular basis.
When the show premiered, we were introduced to Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a pretty terrible person who died in a freak shopping cart accident and accidentally ended up in the Good Place. We know she’s bad because she swears a lot, though in the Good Place her curses come out as “shirt” and “fork” instead of, ahem, more colorful words.
Eleanor was assigned to an idyllic neighborhood designed by angelic Michael (Ted Danson) and kept running by Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an artificial being with seemingly unlimited powers. And she shared it with uptight ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto).
Only — and this is full of SPOILERS if you haven’t seen Season 1 — they were actually in the Bad Place; Michael is a demon; Jianyu is really Jason, a childlike criminal, and the whole show was turned on its head. And it’s turned again and again since then. You’ve got to expect more twists in the remaining four episodes.
(“The Good Place” returns Thursday, Jan. 9, at 8 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5; the hourlong series finale is set for Thursday, Jan. 30.)
Bell said she and Danson were clued in about that big first-season twist before production began, “but beyond that, we didn’t know anything.” And they were as baffled by creator/showrunner Mike Schur and his writing team as anyone else.
“As much as we trust Mike and everyone, we were all, like, ‘Where are they going to go with this? This is crazy,’” Bell said. “But very quickly, you just learn to trust.”
And we have to trust that Schur made the right call to end “The Good Place” after four 13-episode seasons.
“From the moment I pitched the show to Universal and to NBC, baked into it was we’re going to move really fast,” he said. “And I remember thinking — if I’m going to execute this show the way that I think it should be executed, it wouldn’t be a 22-episode, 24-episode-a-year show.”
The American television model is that when something works, you try to keep it on the air as long as possible — often long after you’ve run out of ideas. “The Good Place” has been great TV in no small part because of shorter and fewer seasons.
“I think it was exactly the right number of episodes per season,” Schur said. “I think it ended up being the right number of seasons. We got exactly the story that we wanted to tell in under the wire.” (Production ended months ago.)
Neither he nor any of the cast members would talk about how “The Good Place” ends, and I’m glad. It’s hard to imagine a show that would be hurt more by spoilers.
Danson would only say that he’s glad Schur got to end the series the way he wanted, that he didn’t have to pad out the story, and that “it ended with as much integrity as it started.”
Danson has been through this before. He decided to call it quits on “Cheers” after 11 seasons, but other decisions — like ending his sitcom “Becker” after six seasons and ending “CSI” after 15 (he starred in the final four) — were out of his hands. “Usually you are informed by a network that the show’s over, or there’s some turmoil around it, so it feels like something’s been taken away from you,” he said. “This time we all got to be part of...”
And he choked up, momentarily unable to continue.
“We all got to be part of the going, ‘Here. Here’s our gift,’” he continued. “I hope that doesn’t sound pompous. But here’s the gift of this show and we’re all part of it and we all were part of the decision [to end it]. And ... please enjoy.”