There was no greater or more fun surprise on TV last year than The Good Place, NBC’s bizarre sitcom about a sour woman (Kristen Bell) who died and found herself having to fake her way through heaven without getting caught for the rampant sinner she truly was. The 13-episode first season blazed through plot points like wildfire — though its seemingly random story trajectory eventually proved to be anything but.
Under the guidance of creator Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), The Good Place boasted sharp jokes and performances from Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, the sinful interloper; Ted Danson as her earnest guide and heavenly city planner; William Jackson Harper as her stressed “soul mate” Chidi; and more. The show delighted in its own chaos and frequently turned itself inside out. By the time the first season was over, it had blown up the show’s original premise entirely. So before the first two episodes of season two aired back to back on September 20, the inevitable question about The Good Place was: Where the hell does — or can — the series go from here?
First things first: The Good Place’s double-header season two premiere proves within minutes that the show is still great.
At the end of season one, Eleanor figured out that as the creator of her neighborhood in the titular heaven analog the Good Place, Michael (Danson) wasn’t trying to make everyone comfortable in eternal paradise. Instead, he was trying to make them miserable in a specific type of hell, where they would all psychologically torture each other and not even realize they were doing it. And as season two begins, Michael has reset his test subjects’ memories to try his experiment all over again, sending Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) into new loops that he’s confident will torture them without giving away his nefarious plans.
There’s just one problem with Michael’s scheme. As you may recall from the season one finale, before Michael snapped his fingers to reset the scenario, Eleanor managed to hide a clue in Janet (D’Arcy Carden) — The Good Place’s chipper personification of a help desk — to lead her back to Chidi and get to the bottom of things all over again. So even though the first two episodes of season two purposely mimic the show’s very first episode (in which Eleanor wakes up in the Good Place and has to fake her way through being a decent person), watching the show while knowing the truth behind Michael’s facade changes everything.
As Eleanor nervously maneuvers her way through the Good Place for a second time (not that she knows it), we get to see Michael for who he truly is. Frustrated and humiliated by his failure, he begs his stone-faced boss (the perfectly cast Marc Evan Jackson) to let him keep innovating more psychological torture. We start to get to know Michael’s minions, who are still trying to act out the parts of saintly people as extras in the Good Place but are getting more restless and bored with the lack of their usual fire and brimstone.
Moreover, Michael separates Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason from one another to try to prevent them from once again discovering the truth, but he overplays his hand, pushing each of them too far, too fast. Tahani quickly spirals once her (short) soul mate insists on living in a tiny house and attending formal occasions in — shudder — cargo pants. Chidi, forced to choose between two potential soul mates, buckles under the pressure. Jason, tethered to a silent monk who’s been instructed never to stray from his side, loses his patience and gives up his real identity as a dirtbag Florida DJ with an exasperated shrug.
The result is that everything falls apart almost immediately and Eleanor figures out that they’re actually in the Bad Place even faster than she did the first time. By the time the credits roll on episode two, Michael has already snapped his fingers to reset the action for a third time.
That’s all well and awesome, but seriously: Where does The Good Place go from here?
Aside from being one of the most purely ridiculous hours of TV you’ll see this fall (and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible), this third reset of The Good Place represents an extraordinarily gutsy move for the show. Sending Michael back to the drawing board yet again both establishes a new status quo and upends it completely. The first two episodes of season two — as well as next week’s episode three, which I have seen and won’t spoil, but let me just say, Oh, my God — feel a lot like the best of Community’s more ambitious and smartest experiments, tearing apart The Good Place’s established format while keeping its main players safely ensconced in character-based jokes I’ll be laughing about for weeks.
Looking ahead from these first couple episodes, it feels like the show could go one of two ways.
On the one hand, it seems likely that we’re in for a season of watching an increasingly frustrated Michael try to perfect his experiment (which, to be clear, would be amazing, if only because Danson is clearly having the time of his life getting to rip into Michael’s more openly sadistic instincts).
On the other, it seems even more likely that The Good Place will swerve in a totally different direction and ditch everything we’ve come to know about it to throw something completely new in our dumbfounded faces.
But in The Good Place’s hands, either option is just as appealing as the other. The show has proved over and over again that it is laying its bricks with purpose. It’s all too easy to imagine the show’s writers brainstorming much like Michael, i.e., surveying a white board covered in notes on how best to torture their audience and cackling with diabolical joy. The only (crucial) difference is, while I wouldn’t trust Michael to accomplish much of anything, I trust The Good Place to keep us entertained to the end of the show and back again (and again, and again...).
The first season of The Good Place is currently available to stream on Hulu and Netflix. New episodes will air Thursdays at in the show’s regular time slot of 8:30 pm Eastern.