There are twists, and then there are the jaw-dropping reveals that practically force you to pause the DVR so you can digest it before moving forward. This was one of the latter.
NBC’s high-concept comedy The Good Place has been a strange fit on network television all season, telling the story of four souls trying to find their way around their little corner of heaven, but that’s never been more evident than in Thursday night’s season finale. It’s now clear this show doesn’t belong on network TV. Heck, it doesn’t belong on cable, streaming or anywhere else. It shouldn’t even exist at all, because the world doesn’t deserve a sitcom this weirdly ambitious.
The series wrapped up its 13-episode season with “Michael’s Gambit,” which dropped the bombshell that the entire series has been set in The Bad Place all along. Turns out there’s a reason Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) have driven each other crazy ever since they woke up in “utopia”—they were hand-picked to get on each other’s nerves. The entire season has been one big experiment staged by Michael (Ted Danson), who actually works for “The Bad Place,” to create a new type of hell where the tenants don’t actually realize they’re being tortured. It was a legitimate surprise and game-changing reveal, fundamentally changing the series at its core. That’s a rare move for a sitcom, especially one on NBC in primetime. It will also undoubtedly inspire more than a few immediate re-watches to go back and look for clues we might have missed.
The twist puts all the subplots from the previous 12 episodes into an eye-opening new perspective, from the mismatched soul mates to the insecurities that almost always seemed to be agitated. Turns out that wasn’t just sitcom-y silliness, but a coldly calculated plan to cause maximum emotional damage. Who knew a show called The Good Place could go so dark? In the season finale, we get to see the back story of how Michael’s gambit came together, as the aspiring afterlife architect pitches his outside-the-box plan to the Hell brass. Everything about this world is fake. Literally everything. The four main characters were the only “real” people in the entire neighborhood, with the rest of the cast populated with actors from the underworld.
The setup for the episode revolves around the core cast trying to decide which two of them would be sent to The Bad Place, after the afterlife judge arbitrarily decides that it doesn’t matter which two of them catch the train, so long as Hell gets two more residents. When Eleanor figures it out, it almost feels like her theory will be brushed off and played for a laugh. Yes, she’s grown a lot this season, but it wouldn’t be the first boneheaded idea Eleanor’s had since her untimely death. Instead, it sets in motion a fundamental rewiring of the world they’ve spent all season building. It also shines a light on the flaws in these characters that have been peeled back in the process. Nobody is perfect, and when you break it down and start keeping score, as The Good Place shows, believing you deserve a spot in “heaven” is mostly a matter of perspective.
Pivoting to reveal that literally the entire series has been a lie is a tough twist to sell, and it all hinges on Danson to make us believe it. Luckily, the Cheers alum eats sitcom tropes for breakfast. Danson’s Michael has been a polite, rule-following figure since the pilot—and he turns that off in one deliciously terrifying second. The real Michael is pure evil, taking gleeful pleasure in trying to craft the most annoying version of Hell he can. It’s pretty much impossible for Danson to turn off his charm, and letting him use it for evil instead of good is a stroke of brilliance.
That twist would have been more than enough to carry a season finale, but The Good Place has never been a series to pull punches. Michael snaps his fingers and erases everyone’s memory, beginning a shiny new take on his grand “Good Place” experiment. (He’s made a few tweaks to the formula.) Eleanor had the foresight to leave herself a clue crammed into Janet’s (D’Arcy Carden) robo-mouth, telling her to find Chidi in this new life, but she’ll have to look past the distraction of her devilishly handsome new “soul mate” to track Chidi down.
With “Michael’s Gambit,” The Good Place pulls off an early contender for the best TV twist of the year. Considering the series comes from comedy genius Michael Schur, who’s had a hand in everything from The Office to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s no surprise that his latest project would continue to push the boundaries of the sitcom for. It was only a matter of time before he transcended the genre itself.
The Good Place is on the ratings bubble, but if there is a God, it will be back for Season Two.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.