After season 2, The Good Place is no longer The Good Place. The show has fundamentally changed what it is without sacrificing what it is about, which is both admirable and a little scary. For one thing, more shows need to take the Michael Schur approach to blowing up their own conceit from time to time just to see where the lack of a once familiar foundation takes them. For The Good Place that was ‘Somewhere Else’, an unexpected half hour of television that toyed with some of the audience’s steadfast belief that there would be yet another earth-shattering twist at the end of season 2, while also twisting the plot just enough to ensure season 3 was full of new possibilities.
With the exception of Jason’s admission that he used to whip empty spray paint cans at flamingoes and Chidi’s “Hot diggity dog”-eliciting kiss on Eleanor, ‘Somewhere Else’ was surprising for reasons beyond Michael’s ploy of sending everyone back to Earth, saving them at the moment of their deaths to push them to become better without awaiting their “moral desserts.” Chief among them was the fact that, after the opening sequence, Jason and Tahani didn’t appear at all, while Janet was relegated mostly to reading a stock ticker with Michael as Eleanor took steps toward self improvement and earning herself a spot in the Good Place.
That sort of shift is tantamount to a huge twist in a way, considering just what a strong ensemble the cast of The Good Place is. But, looking back on how the series first began, with Eleanor being welcomed by Michael into the fake Good Place, having to answer all his questions, and learning about the point system that dictates who goes where in the afterlife, the intentions of ‘Somewhere Else’ and, to a larger extent, The Good Place are gradually revealed. Though the specifics of where Jason and Tahani are, and how Eleanor and Chidi will be reunited with them — presumably without any knowledge of their experiences in the Bad Place — remain undisclosed, Schur and his writers are essentially doing the heavy lifting of creating a brand new start for the series.
It is a bold move that’s in keeping with the audacious twist at the end of season 1, but without trying to get away with doing the same thing twice. ’Somewhere Else’ didn’t try to obscure its intentions from the audience; it moved the characters and the story in a new but apparent direction, one that gives Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason a real shot at achieving decentness, while also giving the show a much-needed out with regard to the group’s predicament in the Bad Place. And that’s not a failing on behalf of the show, either. Instead it establishes a willingness to burn through story and plot, and to discard things — even beloved things — when they’ve outlived their purpose or entertainment value. Schur and his writers are talented enough that they probably could have done some version of season 1 over and over again before ending the series on some huge revelation, but they chose instead to constantly keep the story and its characters moving forward, pushing toward an understanding of themselves and the questions at the heart of the series, and ‘Somewhere Else’ is a giant step in that direction. That probably explains why it feels so much more like the beginning of a series than a season finale.
Beyond that, though, the episode was notable for going light on the jokes — at least the sort of jokes that propelled so much of season 2, anyway. It makes sense, as Eleanor’s life on Earth means the metaphysical zaniness that typically follows her and everyone else around would necessarily have to be curbed. And with the exception of Michael stepping in to push a “frozen” Eleanor out of the way of a deadly shopping cart stampede and again to throw a towel over his shoulder and welcome her to a place where everyone knows her name, the finale is remarkably unlike The Good Place that’s been unfolding over the past two seasons. It’s likely that Eleanor’s hasty trip to Australia after watching all three hours of Chidi’s lecture on What We Owe Each Other is also our first glimpse at what season 3 will be like — or maybe the first episode or two — but instead of a feeling of concern that leaving the afterlife behind, however temporarily, will be one change too many, Schur’s created real sense of anticipation in the promise of watching these characters be reunited and meet one another for the first time.
There is something genuinely thrilling in watching The Good Place reposition its characters to better explore and discuss the ideas central to the series. There’s a good amount of uncertainty with regard to the next season, especially that a storyline set outside the afterlife may be a step too far. After all, the otherworldliness of the series’ setting is a big part of its appeal. But, then again, so was the idea that Eleanor was trying to game the system and stay in the Good Place before learning she’d never even made it there. And besides, the only thing preventing Michael and Janet from influencing matters down on Earth is the need for the characters to not know the Good Place awaits them if they are successful in becoming their better selves. So that doesn’t necessarily limit the show’s ability to be itself when it comes to the demonstrations of omnipotent beings.
Thankfully, The Good Place has already shown time and again that becoming a better person is hard work. As Eleanor’s backsliding showed, change won’t happen overnight and there’s probably going to be some margarita- and possibly molotov cocktail-fueled mistakes along this new path. But if this series has proven anything, it’s that The Good Place is up to the challenge.
The Good Place will return with season 3 on NBC in the fall.
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