One of the most appealing things about NBC’s stellar comedy The Good Place is how it makes the progression of its narrative from season to season look like reinvention. There’s always something new and surprising to see and experience, as made evident in the season 3 premiere, ‘Everything is Bonzer!’, which gives the series a whole new set of circumstances to deal with, while still moving the story forward in interesting and often very funny ways.
Mike Schur’s show set partially in the afterlife took on a whole new identity when it revealed at the end of its first season that its characters were, in fact, not in the Good Place but rather the Bad Place, and that their charming, somewhat folksy tour guide Michael (Ted Danson) was not the beneficent being he claimed to be. That Michael was actually a demon and that Eleanor (Kristen Bel), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) were kinda crappy humans — not entirely bad, but pretty far from good — had a huge impact on the audience’s perception of the show, and in one of the biggest surprises following that game-changing reveal, The Good Place continued to deliver the goods.
The series’ second season ended with another surprise: the gang was transported back to Earth for a moral do-over. The chance to prove they could learn to become better people and earn a place in, well, the Good Place, came with some pretty serious caveats, however. Caveats that allow The Good Place to continually change the rules of its sometimes-surreal world to better suit the needs of the narrative, as it humorously philosophizes about morality, the nature of humanity, and whether or not people can actually change. This time around, the degree of difficulty is made greater as Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason have essentially been reset to their factory settings, placed back on Earth with no memory of their experiences in the afterlife, yet unwittingly assigned to the task of becoming better people.
There’s a lot to explore at the start of season 3, which is why it’s great that NBC gave the series an hour-long premiere. ‘Everything Is Bonzer!’ begins with a small recap told from various different perspectives, as Eleanor survives what would have been her death to become a more altruistic, empathetic person, only have the transformative elements of her new lifestyle wane over time, until she’s back to being the same old bitter Eleanor Shellstrop. This retelling of the end of season 2 may feel superfluous at first, but it soon proves necessary. Schur and his writers cleverly retrace their footsteps at the end of the previous season, while planting new information, like how Michael found his way to Earth to interfere with these humans’ progress, despite being forbidden by the Judge (Maya Rudolph) from doing so.
Michael’s rule breaking is nothing new for the character — he’s been doing it in one form or another since the beginning — but here it not only manages to feel different, it also sets up interesting new circumstances that are bound to cause trouble for Michael, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and the others as it opens a backdoor for Shawn (the reliably funny Marc Evan Jackson) to interfere with the big plan.
Along the way, The Good Place finds time to introduce two new characters, one on Earth and one guarding the doorway there. The first is Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who is having one hell of year after already appearing in both Barry and Killing Eve, as Australian neuroscientist Simone, who is fascinated by and attracted to Chidi and his seemingly broken brain. The second is Mike O’Malley (Justified, Survivor's Remorse) as, simply, Door Man, the guy who watches over the doorway to Earth. He also has a penchant for frogs, which is almost certainly going to play into the season’s story in some unexpected way or another. The new characters, like the season’s slightly altered circumstances, add to the series overall, and to the enjoyment of watching. There’s a hint of mystery in O’Malley’s Door Man and in his interactions with Michael, who is not exactly inconspicuous when it comes to the fact that he’s breaking some pretty strict rules to return to Earth with brilliant aliases like Gordon Indigo and Zach Pizzaz.
There’s a clearer plot at this point season 3 than there was in the two previous seasons after their respective premieres. That seems to work in favor of The Good Place this time around, as it makes the effort put into reuniting the core cast and having them not remember one another at all seem not more significant. It also imbues the new season with a newfound sense of urgency. Michael’s shenanigans are bound to be discovered — by Shawn blowing his cover or through some other means — and back on Earth things seem to be progressing nicely until the series throws another surprise at the audience: the return of Adam Scott’s Trevor.
It all adds up to a fascinating and entertaining premiere of what is certainly NBC’s best comedy, but also one of the most reliably inventive series on television period.
The Good Place continues next Thursday with ‘The Brainy Bunch’ @8:30pm on NBC.