The following contains massive, Earth-shattering, life-changing spoilers for season one of The Good Place. Tread lightly.
It’s fitting that one of the best twists in TV history debuted roughly three hours before the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, Split.
Shyamalan has rightfully become synonymous with last second twists in cinema, with Split being no different.*
*You’ve probably heard that there is a twist in Split and while I will not confirm nor deny it’s existence, the movie is well worth seeing and another step in the right direction in Shyamalan’s career rehabilitation.
While Shyamalan is rightly known as the “twist” guy, there is a better term for the tricks he often pulls off in his films: paradigm shifts. Shyamalan, himself, has come to prefer the term “paradigm shift” over being the “twist guy.”
A twist is a broad term for almost anything unexpected in a film or TV show: a last second reveal, an unexpected change of direction or an out and out ruse. “Paradigm shift” is a little more specific. Paradigm shifts reveal that what the audience has been watching and understood to be reality, isn’t really the case at all. Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) in The Sixth Sense isn’t really a kindly doctor with marital issues – he’s a full-blown dead dude. The paradigm shift encourages the audience to rewatch the whole movie or TV seasons to understand what was really going on.
The Good Place’s first season finale is a perfect example of a paradigm shift and one of the best I can ever remember seeing on television.
In The Good Place, Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop – a selfish, all-around mediocre human-being who is surprised to found herself in a heaven-esque afterlife called “The Good Place” after dying from an unfortunate accident in a grocery store parking lot involving Margarita mix.
Eleanor quickly realizes there must have been some sort of mix up as she is clearly not the Eleanor Shellstrop that Good Place neighborhood architect Michael (Ted Danson) thinks she is. Throughout season one, Eleanor works with her assigned soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to become a better person worthy of The Good Place and also clashes with nearby neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). Eventually Michael finds out that both Eleanor and Jianyu (who turns out to be a grimy D.J. from Jacksonville named Jason Mendoza) are frauds and is forced to call an Eternal Judge named Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) to determine her fate.
This is all a strong enough concept for a show as is. Afterlife bureaucratic nightmares are almost always funny (see: Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life). But the last minute paradigm shift in the finale “Michael’s Gambit” reveals an even headier, funnier and ultimately more tragic show.
Eternal Judge Shawn rules that two of the four among Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason must go to the Bad Place and he doesn’t particularly care who the two are. While the four are debating among themselves, Eleanor comes to an important realization: this is torture. All of it. Not just the weird Psychology 101 demonstration of deciding who has to go to Hell and who gets to stay in heaven but the entire Good Place neighborhood itself . She confronts Michael with her theory: this isn’t the Good Place at all. This is the Bad Place.
Michael smiles a literally devilish smile and admits that she is correct. It turns out that the demons of The Bad Place have grown weary of torturing humans through traditional methods – fire and brimstone and all of that – so “young” upstart Bad Place architect Michael came up with an ingenious idea to entertain himself and his coworkers: get the humans to torture themselves. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are the only real humans int he neighborhood – everyone else are Bad Place actors. And the perfectly mathematically mismatched Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason have all caused one another tremendous psychological torment, mostly due to the ruse of Eleanor not belonging.
The first question we should ask ourselves in appreciating any twist or paradigm shift is: did we see it coming? In the case of The Good Place, the answer is an emphatic no for the most part. Most reviews and comment sections seem to be nearly unanimous in agreeing that close to no one predicted this ending.
For awhile it seemed that legitimately shocking twists were a thing of the past, in no small part to Mr. Shyamalan. Shyamalan’s predilection to tricking audiences combined with the Internet’s pathological need to figure everything out made it likely that writers would just stop trying. It seemed even more likely that serialized weekly TV shows would stop trying as well, given that A.V. Club review comment sections and TV show subreddits are essentially a gathering of people with Ph.D.s in theorizing where TV shows will go next.
Within the past couple of years, however, TV creators have begun dipping their toes back in the waters of paradigm shifts and twists. The answer was not to abandon surprise endings but just to get better at them. The Leftovers second season had a large, completely unexpected twist in its penultimate episode. Likewise season two of Mr. Robot was seemingly nothing but twist after twist. Even TBS’ Search Party’s resolution, while not being a twist or paradigm shift, was shocking and satisfying.
The Good Place outdoes them all though because in addition to being both unexpected and clever, it fundamentally changes the nature of the show we were watching and for the better.
The Good Place that we watched in season one was excellent. But The Good Place that we were unaware we were watching in season one was somehow even better. A twist or a paradigm shift can’t just switch things up for the sake of switching things up. It has to leave the story in a better place than it found it. That is absolutely the case for season one of The Good Place.
The twist in “Michael’s Gambit” does something enormously important for the show: it places all four “main” characters on the same footing. For more than half the season, Eleanor and Jason were hopeless ne’er-do-wells while Chidi and Tahani were idealized heaven-worthy people. With the reveal that The Good Place is actually the Bad Place, the show acknowledges that there is a diverse array of ways to fail at being a human being. There’s also a newfound level of empathy and brotherhood there. To eventually get out of this mess, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are going to have to come together (with the help of Janet, of course) to become better people. It turns a show about a bureaucratic slip-up into a show about humanity attempting to defeat sin through friendship. And if that sounds too heady for a half-hour comedy on NBC, you clearly don’t know Michael Schur.
There is always the risk with paradigm shifts, of course, that the new paradigm we’ve shifted to will invalidate the one that came before it and therefore make the experience of watching it a waste of time. Thankfully, this is not the case with the four hours or so of The Good Place that lead up to the finale. Sure, the twist in someways “invalidates” what came before it. We weren’t watching what we think we were watching after all. But the hours preceding the twist are entertaining.
The Good Place, despite inspiring this rather eggheaded and potentially dull essay, is a comedy first and foremost. It’s designed to ask its audience questions about the nature of good, evil and morality but it’s also designed to make us laugh. In both goals it is successful but particularly the letter. The first season of The Good Place is flat out funny from Chidi’s paralyzing indecisiveness, to Tahani’s self-indulgent form of charity to Jason’s rushed pronunciation of the term “Bud Hole.”
In that way, it’s kind of revelatory. For years we’ve looked to dramas and the Shyamalans of the world for our narrative innovation and trickery. And a lot of the time, it’s left us feeling, well…tricked. It turns that that if something is funny, we can appreciate a narrative-smashing paradigm shift because while you can retroactively take away our understanding of a plot, you can’t take away a laugh.