The Good Place follows up its fantastic season 1 twist by literally rebooting its characters in season 2 to some hilarious results.
It is safe to say that the forkin’ huge twist at the end of The Good Place last season took most people watching by surprise. More than the revelation that Kristen Bell’s Eleanor, as well as Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) were in the Bad Place, and that their guide Michael (Ted Danson) was not the kind, patient, and slightly overwhelmed gentleman who can actually pull off a bow tie he seemed to be, the bigger question that came from the twist was: Where would the series go from there?
It is a bold choice for any series to blow up its basic set up (one that’s working pretty well, too) at the end of season 1 and attempt to tackle its premise from a new angle. While that might seem like a peculiar move for creator and executive producer Michael Schur to undertake, like the Good Place he’s placed his characters in, things aren’t necessarily as they seem. For one, Schur is pretty familiar with switching gears in season 2. Parks and Rec (the show he co-created with Greg Daniel) underwent a slight retooling after its writers strike-shortened first season, transitioning Leslie Knope from a Michael Scott-like dunderhead whose exuberance often lead to disappointment to a far more competent go-getter whose decisions were typically derived from only the very best of intentions. That shift in the character of Leslie Knope helped transition Parks and Rec into one of the most charming and kindhearted (and, perhaps, one of the best) sitcoms on NBC since the heyday of Must See TV.
Despite the twist, The Good Place is still fundamentally the same show it was in season 1 and, more importantly, it’s still very funny. Meanwhile the same kindheartedness is on display throughout the hour-long season 2 premiere and beyond (critics have seen the first four episodes), even though its characters are recipients of one-way tickets to hell. What sets The Good Place apart is that some series reboot because they need to, not because it was built into the narrative from the get-go. Reboots happen because something isn’t clicking creatively, or there’s some behind-the-scenes restructuring, or, as is the case with comedies sometimes, the writers and actors tend to develop a rhythm and figure what the show really is over the course of the first season. That sort of trial-and-error approach isn’t what’s going on here. Schur, his writers, and especially the cast, have been clicking from the start. Blowing up the series not only makes the prospect of discovering what happens in season 2 more alluring, it also gives the series a chance to double-down on its amusing exploration of what, exactly, constitutes awful human behavior and whether or not people can actually change (or want to change) for the better.
The turning point of season 1 was really two-fold. It came when Michael confirmed they were all in a specialized version of the bad place designed to watch four people drive each other insane over thousands of years, but it was followed up by Eleanor’s dismissal of Michael’s cynical read of human nature. The characters all have aspects to their personalities that are somewhat unbearable, but they aren’t awful people by any means. And when Eleanor explains to Michael how they eventually came together to work toward a common goal and in the interest of improving each other, The Good Place really established what it was about and explained where season 2 was headed. Being in the Bad Place is a solid motivator for change, and Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are presumably capable of it – under Chidi’s tutelage, Eleanor seemed on the verge of improving herself in season 1 before everything literally went to hell – but it’s difficult to learn anything when your memory is repeatedly erased by a demon in a Sam Malone suit.
Like the other shows Schur helped bring to life – Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine – The Good Place differentiated itself in season 1 by putting the cynicism of Eleanor (and later, Michael) on blast. Sure, the show also gets a lot of mileage out of its unique, almost abstract premise and the way it sidesteps any specific religious connotation to the afterlife, but in season 2 that rebuff comes into play in a much more entertaining and often humorous way. The two-part premiere ‘Everything is Great!’ makes terrific use of the flipped concept and quickly sets about answering the question of just how long The Good Place can sustain itself and build any kind of narrative the audience will care about when Michael is constantly wiping the memories of the other characters.
As with season 1, much of the success of the first two (well, four, really) episodes is due to Ted Danson, who now not only plays the charming otherworldly caretaker but also an evil minion whose job it is to torture four people in an increasingly elaborate version of hell. Danson showed he was up to the task last season when that mischievous laugh confirmed Eleanor’s suspicions, and it’s exciting to see him expand on that part of the character’s personality. Danson’s so effortlessly good in the series as the benevolent Michael that it’s no surprise he’s able to transition from Good to Bad Place representative in the blink of an eye.
What makes the new season work, though, is how The Good Place shifts from being about Eleanor keeping a secret from everyone to more of a workplace comedy, wherein Michael’s failed Bad Place experiment is kept from his boss, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s (among many other things) Mark Evan Jackson. This repositions the familiar notion that “hell is other people” – i.e., the crux of Michael’s plan – to “work is hell.” In this case it’s literally true; it also happens to be the professional hell of the guy whose job it is to make life a living hell for four humans. Given the twist, finding a way to care about and be invested in Michael in the same way you are Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (and also Janet, who’s still, not a robot) was one of the biggest obstacles The Good Place faced this season, and it seems to have figured out a way over that very quickly.
In all, The Good Place remains one of the best, most original comedies on television. It’s rare that a TV show will take such a huge gamble at the end of its first season, but it looks as though this one paid off big time.
The Good Place continues next Thursday with ‘Dance Dance Resolution’ on NBC.
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