Television

'The Good Place' Builds on Last Season’s Twist, Emphasizing the Need to Connect

Kristen Bell as Eleanor in The Good Place (Photo credit: NBC/Colleen Hayes).

The Good Place is as much a commentary on human relationships as it is a high concept comedy about the afterlife.


The Good Place

Airtime: Thursdays, 8:30 pm
Cast: Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, D'Arcy Carden
Subtitle: Season 2, Episodes 1 and 2 - "Everything is Great!: Parts 1 and 2"
Network: NBC
Air date: 2017-09-20
Amazon

There are few genuine surprises left to reveal anymore on television, but The Good Place pulled off a brilliant twist at the end of its first season. By upending the premise of the show to create a world in which almost everything we thought to be true was actually false, the series immediately created excitement for the new season, while never abandoning its commitment to finding the funny in the ridiculous. It's important to note that the major revelation from last season wasn't a cheap ploy or an unconvincing shift; rather, it was the kind of clever development that reminds viewers smart and skillful writing isn't just for prestige dramas. Michael Schur is an especially excellent example of a showrunner and writer who understands world building and character development in comedy.

As last season ended on the twist that what Eleanor (Kristin Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) all thought was the Good Place was actually the Bad Place, the series added layers to all the episodes that had come before. That is, they're all in an elaborate experiment masterminded by Michael (Ted Danson), in which the torture exists in the slowly building and lingering understanding they'll never truly be happy. There are just enough annoying, wrong elements allowed in to make true contentment -- the reward for living a good life -- unattainable. Because Eleanor figured things out at the end of season one, Michael quickly resets, although Eleanor's quick thinking results in a cryptic note left to herself ("Find Chidi"), without Michael knowing.

What happens over the next hour of "Everything is Great!: Parts 1 and 2" is a shift between the four human points of view that regardless of their current situation, still manage to come together in the end; they’re clearly drawn to one another in some fundamental way. While Eleanor's note does speed things up -- and by the end of the hour, they've figured out Michael's plan again -- it's not difficult to imagine that they'll continue to find ways to poke holes in Michael's vision.

One of the more ingenious revelations of this season is that the rest of the "residents" of the supposed Good Place are all just employees of the Bad Place. Apart from setting up an ongoing source of constant misunderstandings, these employees/actors' inability to connect to the four makes more sense when it's obvious that they're only doing approximations of good humans. Underneath, they still maintain their inherent disdain of humans and, more often than not, long for their more traditional roles ("Hey, man! I was perfectly happy in my old job in the twisting department. People came in, and I twist them until they snapped in half, and I move on to the next one. But this job is weird! It's all talk, no twisting").

Eleanor's search for Chidi ("Okay, Chidi, where are you? Or what are you? A type of soup, maybe?") quickly upsets everyone's specific roles, and the ways they attempt to right the failing experiment isn't only funny, but also offers real stakes. What only Michael knows is that his boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), is giving him just one more chance to make his idea work. When Michael's plan is foiled for the second time, he hides that failure, and his now third attempt, from Shawn. This not only increases the pressure on Michael, but also drives home the point that this fake Good Place is an outlier that no one really understands or believes in.

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The soulmate premise behind Michael's Good Place includes noticeably incompatible pairings, like Eleanor and Chidi and Tahani and Jason, but what he hadn't anticipated was their ability to adapt and still find commonality and mutual respect. As a result, his Good Place 2.0 pairings are even more ridiculous, as Eleanor is paired with a perpetually gym-going partner, Chidi's soulmate is still to be determined, Tahani shacks up with a humble and generous man whom she towers over, and Jason is given a best friend soulmate who's a true Buddhist monk. Again, none of these soulmates are real because they're all part of Michael's intricate plan, yet the ways they frequently misinterpret their roles are some of the funniest moments in the hour.

Part of what made Michael's first attempt backfire so spectacularly is that he paired the four humans together, underestimating their drive to find connection and happiness, even in a place where they were guaranteed to fail. So while the success of Michael's third try remains to be seen, the humans he’s tasked with torturing for eternity have already bested him. The Good Place is as much a commentary on human relationships as it is a high-concept comedy about the afterlife. Schur's strength has proven time and again to be in the many ways people relate to and connect with one another; The Good Place continues that tradition beautifully. Plus, the return of Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the all-knowing robot, is as welcome and hilarious as Eleanor’s inability to curse.

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