The thing I love the most about The Good Place is how it manages to constantly surprise me each and every week. Every time I think I know what the show is gonna do, it pulls the rug out from underneath me and goes in a completely different, narratively earned, direction. From executive producer Michael Schur comes a unique comedy about what makes a good person. The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife, and thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place (which is definitely where she belongs). While hiding in plain sight from Michael (Ted Danson), the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and earn her spot. The first season featured surprise after surprise and twist after twist, all leading to a world-upending finale that throws everything up in the air for season two. Helping Eleanor navigate her surroundings is Chidi (William Jackson Harper), her kind, open-hearted “soul mate” who seeks a philosophical solution to every problem; her seemingly perfect neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto); and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the go-to source for any and all information in the Good Place.
(This review will feature major spoilers for season one and most of season two – and minor spoilers for the end of season two)
If you had asked me after I finished season one of The Good Place what I thought of the show, I’d have told you that it was a solid, feel-good, comedy with a finale that was genuinely surprising and made the show more interesting than it already was. If you asked me now, right as the second season of the show finishes, what I think of it, I’d tell you it’s the best show on TV. Not just the best comedy, but the best show in general. Period. For much of the first season, the show is very good. It’s extremely original, funny, and unique. But it doesn’t really rise above that until the first season finale and into the second season. It’s cute and funny, but mostly fluffy. There’s an overarching story, but it mostly focuses on how Eleanor doesn’t really belong in the Good Place, which is an idea that plenty of other sitcoms have explored – the main character not belonging in the situation they’re in. It was a unique take on that concept, with really fun characters and really interesting world-building, but that was it. As somebody who doesn’t adore most comedies, it didn’t really have anything that totally hooked me in at that point in the show’s life. I’ve only ever watched three TV comedies all the way through: Community, People of Earth, and Parks and Recreation. With Community, it was the utter originality and ongoing storylines that lasted the entirety of the show; with Parks and Recreation it was primarily my love for the characters and the style of the humor in the show; and with People of Earth, it was a combination of both of those things. Prior to about the middle of the second season of The Good Place, People of Earth was my favorite comedy on TV. It was hilarious; had truly wonderful, relatable characters; and had captured my attention with its interesting and unique ongoing storyline. At that time, People of Earth was pretty much tied with Doctor Who as my favorite TV show currently airing. By the time the midseason finale of the second season of The Good Place had aired, my mind had been changed.
So, what exactly in The Good Place changed to elevate it from being just a really good sitcom to my favorite show on TV? A simple answer would be that, in the wake of the season one finale that revealed that Eleanor and friends were actually in the Bad Place, The Good Place was able to focus on that storyline and use its momentum to thrust the story of the show forward. But, really, it’s more complicated than that. Throughout season one, there was an ongoing story that was being advanced week after week. The show never stayed in one place. Every episode ended with a cliffhanger that threw a wrench into things and perfectly set up the conflict at the center of the next episode. This was a sitcom that was truly serialized; you really couldn’t afford to miss a single episode of the show or things might be so different that you’d be lost. That, itself, was extremely unique for a sitcom. And the story that was being told in season one was an interesting one, mostly due to the whole “this is Heaven” aspect of the story. But it was always as though there was an element missing that kept it from being anything other than just really good. But then, they revealed that all the characters were in Hell, and it was like everything clicked. Disparate elements that were scattered throughout the first season clicked into place and elevated what was a solid season of television into something better than solid and paved the way for the second season of the show to be truly amazing. Now that the audience knew what was going on, we were in on Michael’s game. We could appreciate the humor of what he was doing. So many little things just became funny. It went from being a fish-out-of-water story with a unique twist to something far better.
With that show-changing-revelation came the possibility that the show had “jumped the shark” and would just end up running in place, never letting the characters advance very far since Michael (and the writers) would just reset the scenario again anyway. Going into season two, this seemed like a very real possibility. After all, we’d just lost all of the character development from the first season as Michael wiped everyone’s memories and reset the scenario so Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason could be tortured from the beginning again. But then, almost as soon as the audience had started to form that fear, the show gave us the first three episodes of the second season: Everything is Great! (Parts 1 and 2) and Dance, Dance Resolution. In the two-part premiere, Everything is Great!, the audience is immediately shown that things are not just gonna start over again. Yes, the main characters had been (mostly) reset, but the show was not content to take its time in getting the characters up to speed again. By the end of the premiere, Eleanor has – once again- figured out that they were all in the Bad Place and Michael had to reset everything again. Then, in Dance, Dance, Resolution, Michael is forced to reset the scenario no less than 800 times as Eleanor and the gang keep figuring out that they’re all being tortured. In Dance, Dance, Resolution, the audience is treated to a 21 minute Groundhog Day-esque look at these 800 new resets as the episode ends with a twist that fully proves that the show will be going forward: Michael decides to team up with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in order to undermine a mutiny that one of his underlings, Vicki (Tiya Sircar), is spearheading.
It’s after that third episode that the show really grows into the amazing show it’s become. Real stakes were introduced back into the show as the audience now knew that every bit of progress the characters made couldn’t just be erased by a reset – as Michael would get into some serious trouble – and we now had some kind of goal in mind for all of the characters to work towards: in exchange for helping Michael with Vicki, Michael would try to get Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, now known as Team Cockroach, into the Good Place. Everyone involved knew it was a longshot, but it was a goal for them to all work towards and every episode that followed afterward continually worked towards reaching that goal. Just like the first season, having a goal the characters were striving towards gave the show a focus. I, personally, found the goal of the second season to be a far more interesting one than the first season. Some of that’s due to my endless fascination with depictions of the afterlife – and my soft spot for depicting Heaven and/or Hell as bureaucratic nightmares. Every glimpse we got of how the Bad Place operated made me fall more and more in love with the show. Seeing the demon underlings rebel against Michael was fascinating, Seeing the history of how Michael acquired Janet (in episode 7, Janet and Michael) was utterly captivating; it helped that the episode featured some fantastic writing from Kate Gersten and even better character work from Ted Danson and D’Arcy Carden.
What made season 2 truly amazing was how every episode kept building off of things that were done in previous episodes, but never did so in a predictable way. The midseason finale, Derek, ended with Michael’s boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) paying him a visit in what initially looks to be a scene where it’s revealed that Shawn knows Michael’s been lying about the number of reboots the project’s undergone. Then the midseason premiere, Leap to Faith, reveals that Shawn is actually there to declare the project a success and shut it down so they can further implement it, sending Team Cockroach to the normal Bad Place so they can continue to be tortured while Michael and team continue the experiment with new victims. It’s twists like these that defy what we as the audience expect and anticipate the show to do, but feel narratively earned, that make this show special. The twists continue as we find out that Michael has no intentions of letting the rest of Team Cockroach be sent to the Bad Place and has come up with a plan for them all to actually break into the Bad Place, steal some pins that they can use to operate a portal through which they can visit a cosmic judge who can offer a ruling on their case and decide, once and for all, where the four of them belong. There’s a moment in episode 12, The Burrito, where I genuinely thought the show was about to tell me that the cosmic judge was actually a burrito, only for the real judge to literally come onscreen out of left field – or the left side of the screen, in this case. (To be fair, I’d have totally been okay with, and bought, the judge being a burrito. Just seemed like something the show would have done. But what I love is that it’s like the writers of the show knew that the audience would think that would be something they’d do, so they set it up that way only for the joke to be that it was a real person all along).
Season two of The Good Place took everything good from season one and made it better. It took an interesting concept, turned it on its head, and then kept moving it forward so fast that it never had the chance to get old. It took these characters that we’d grown to love over the first season and expanded upon them, adding new layers to them and building upon what we knew in order to really allow them to evolve and grow in new, exciting ways. It took a world that was merely hinted at within the first season and expanded upon that, showing us more of the inner workings of Hell and the afterlife as a whole. It doubled down on the absurdist humor while always making sure that humor was grounded with realistic, believable, and lovable characters. It featured a plot that refused to stay in one place and tread water but thrust the characters – and the audience – into new and exciting directions that could be explored. It featured twists that were both unpredictable and totally satisfying; avoiding the trap of being twists for the sake of twists. The just-aired season two finale, Somewhere Else, doesn’t let down, either. It, thankfully, doesn’t feature a show-altering twist like the first season did, but it still twists the premise of the show, and the characters, into new and exciting directions that can – and will – be explored in the third season. While I don’t utterly adore this plot development, I have faith in these writers. This particular development is a more predictable one, but the way they explored it in the episode was interesting and unexpected, so I do not feel let down. And as an episode, and a finale, it does everything a finale should do: offer some sense of closure on the storylines we’ve been following over the course of the preceding season while opening the doors and paving the way for the storylines that are to follow in the succeeding season.
I can’t recommend The Good Place enough. It’s so much more than your typical network TV comedy. It’s got a plot that rivals the best you can find in prestige drama series; a cast so inherently likable that you smile anytime they come on screen; characters that are so realistic, fully formed, and genuine that you’ll root for them no matter what; insanely clever writing that respects the characters of the show and the intelligence of the audience watching it; magnificent acting that also rivals any prestige drama or comedy; worldbuilding so thought out that it seems more like something you’d find in a detailed science fiction novel than on a 22 minute network comedy; and directing that’s somehow able to tie all of these elements together into a coherent, enjoyable, and amazing whole. The Good Place is not just the best comedy on TV, but the best show in general. Watch it. You won’t be sorry.
Five out of Five wands.