This article will contain spoilers for the entire run of The Good Place. I wish I could write this article without spoilers but without them it’s practically impossible to explain why season 2 of the show was so incredible. I would highly recommend binging the show. It’s light, extremely funny, and only 26 episodes so far.
After finishing the fabulous season 2 finale of The Good Place I was on Reddit when a comment struck me. It was akin to “Can you believe this season started with Eleanor writing a note to Chidi?”. I was struck because, well, I couldn’t believe it either. So much had happened since then, how could it still be the same season? A thirteen-episode season to boot?
Season 2 of The Good Place was one of the most astounding seasons in sitcom history. It threw out every single rule and trope and safety net that sitcoms use to coast for hundreds of episodes. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, is no stranger to such guidelines. As showrunner/creator of The Office (US), Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn 99, Schur has become a master of the single camera sitcom with infinite watchability. Usually his shows are career-based, focusing on a small tight-knit community of working friends, with immense heart at the core of every character. Upon first impression, The Good Place felt exactly like a Schur guaranteed hit, the story of Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who was wrongly placed in the titular “good place” (heaven, Nirvana, Zion, take your pick) who hopes to one day be worthy of her mistaken placement by learning ethics from her nervous, commitment-phobic “soul mate” Chidi, (William Jackson Harper) a moral philosophy professor in life. It was a perfect Schur vehicle, but by the end of season 1 Schur decided to light his world on fire; watching him reconstruct the vision from the ashes has been incredible.
This isn’t to say season 1 is bad, quite the opposite. It is a wonderfully smart show, one that actually deals with a real moral dilemma and lesson each episode. What other show name-drops Immanuel Kant on such a regular basis? The show isn’t just revolutionary in its open intellectual debates but also in Eleanor, a wonderfully sleazy person who is still capable of change. Not to mention, what other show has its white female protagonist romance a dark-skinned man or open flirt with an Indian woman? Additionally, the show has a perfect set of characters like Chidi, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), with whom we discover how odd this supposed paradise really is, and how supposedly inept Michael (Ted Danson), the sweet-hearted designer of their "good place", really is. By the end of season 1 the show succeeds largely as a big parody of bureaucracy, how it continues to fail us even after we’re dead and should be rid of it. But then the hammer drops.
In the last episode of season 1 entitled “Michael’s Gambit” the truth is revealed. Why would there be so much fighting and sadness in "the good place" if it was paradise? Eleanor correctly realizes they are in fact in "the bad place" (hell, Hades, underworld, take your pick) where the main 4 are meant to torture each other through their bickering and failure forever in an experimental new form of eternal damnation. Michael answers her accusation with one of the most devious evil laughs in television history and plans to erase their minds and start again. Eleanor slips a note to the hilarious, omniscient, computational creature Janet (D'Arcy Carden) to “find Chidi” and then it’s over. Erased, negated, reset. Audiences lose their minds.
It’s a brilliant ending to a season, one that forces you to immediately reconsider the very fabric of the show you’re now invested in. But if the season 1 finale was Mookie throwing the garbage can into Sal’s, then season 2 was the riot that burned the entire store down. As you might expect Eleanor does find the note and discovers Michael’s real intentions despite changes he made to separate the four doomed souls. But most shocking is that she discovers this in the first two episodes of the season, which feel like the trajectory of an entire year. Almost as though it’s already over and the good guys have lost again, another erase and reset.
Episode 3 entitled “Dance Dance Resolution” takes the speed of episodes 1 and 2 and ramps it into overdrive. In one of the most spellbinding episodes in any sitcom, Michael goes through 800 more resets. The result is an insane mix of Edge of Tomorrow (2014) meets No Exit, as time and time again Michael fails because someone (once even Jason) eventually figures it out. The episode is one of the most tightly packed and deeply funny episodes of any show I’ve ever seen, moving at a breakneck pace through literal hundreds of years of attempts and failures. This entire episode feels like the show’s 7 year traditional run packed down into a single 22 minute chunk, dealing with everything from teasing a much loved ship (Tahani x Eleanor) to jokes about cowboy worlds, an amazing myriad of food pun restaurants, and even a butt reset. The episode then ends with a crazy reveal that Eleanor and Chidi, who have been slowly evolving into a flirtation, have not only slept together in multiple resets but actually pronounced their love for each other in one. Imagine if in one episode of the The Office, season 2 Jim and Pam jumped to season 4 Jim and Pam and you get the madness. We now know Chidi and Eleanor have the capacity to love each other, the question is will they ever find it again? Schur is a master of the long-drawn-out, deeply sweet, romantic coupling; here in a single episode he upends his best game while basically throwing every idea card on his writer’s room white board in your face.
After Michael’s successive failures, his crew of demon helpers turns on him and he is forced to side with the humans. That’s when Schur reveals his real intentions for season 2, that it isn’t about the humans rehabilitating themselves but them rehabilitating Michael and Janet. Can people so flawed they failed to enter paradise help an eternal demon and a godlike being with seemingly infinite knowledge and power? It’s a bold choice and one that pays off immensely. Like a magic trick, Michael begins to change throughout the season to the point that when he seems to sacrifice himself for the greater good it doesn’t feel hackneyed, but a lifetime of improvement condensed into a handful of episodes.
Once again Schur sets fire to his world, this time literally, destroying the very "good place" town I expected the entire show to subside in for years. The fact a sitcom got rid of a permanent main set in less than two seasons is itself insane, but to lose that sense of place is a big deal. In a way, The Good Place can never go home again. The gang eventually meet The Judge, an all-powerful entity who weighs in on complicated moral dilemmas.
All the gang but Eleanor fail The Judge’s tests (Eleanor lies), but Michael and Janet arrive and present the clever solution of reincarnating everyone. Eleanor now avoids her death by shopping cart/truck displaying an erectile dysfunction ad (god I love this show) and has a new lease on life. At first, she improves, but after receiving no reward she relapses. Thankfully Michael breaks the rules and intervenes by nudging her towards Chidi and season 2 ends with her meeting the reincarnated Chidi in his university office and asking to talk.
Think about that for a moment. Season 2 began with hopes that Eleanor would discover the truth of her eternal damnation and ends with her former torturer helping her lead a better life. Thus a show supposedly about the afterlife ends with the main character alive again! I don’t know where The Good Place will go from here. Maybe it will be a full season on Earth or just one episode. Maybe we’ll go back to spend some extended time in one of the hundreds of resets or maybe we’ll be done with Earth in the first ten minutes of episode 1 of season 3. Maybe this whole thing was a type of purgatory and Michael is God. Maybe it’s all a secret Black Mirror episode. I have no idea but I’m so happy to be on the ride.
The success of The Good Place surely lies in one of two places. Firstly it’s so deeply inventive. Schur could have easily made the show less complicated and more auto-piloted. Just pick a moral philosophy concept, explore that in a funny sitcom premise, and ever so slightly move Chidi and Eleanor (and maybe Tahani too) closer together. But instead the show is always striving for a better version of itself. Schur seems to issue a challenge to the television medium: "If a premise can be condensed into one episode instead of 3 Seasons, do it."
Secondly, this isn’t a show about mocking moral certainties, applying irreverence to bureaucracy or the afterlife, or the relative value of our past deeds versus that of our resolutions for the future...okay it is totally about those things, but at its core the basic theme of The Good Place is this: other people make us better. Eleanor is at her best when Chidi’s around, as are Tahani & Jason, Eleanor & Michael, and Janet & Jason. Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre thought if you put three people who hated each other in a room with no escape (No Exit) they’d create the worst version of hell, Schur believes the opposite. The Good Place effectively argues humans are always striving to better themselves and have immense capacity for change, or more still, that our capacity for change is among our greatest qualities. The personalities of the condemned mortal characters not only influence each other for the better, but corrupt the pristine immortal characters with the virtue of their human mutability. By illuminating and embracing their flaws, this cast of characters makes Michael's experiment an arguable success, if not Schur's experiment as well.
I don’t want to end this article with you thinking I think shows like Parks and Recreation are lazy or inherently inferior because they apply a more traditional sitcom pace. Far from it. Creating a show with incredibly likeable characters is hard and it’s even harder to keep those characters interesting and enjoyable for years. Nor do I think Schur deserves all the credit for the shows he’s worked on, including The Good Place (though I am an auterist, sorry). But I think he deserves a ton of credit for pushing for a show that is extremely inventive. Season 2 of The Good Place is a testament to television's ability to be radical without losing its soul. It’s inventive and charming and still whip-smart at every turn. I hope more shows try what The Good Place seems to have effortlessly done. If this show has taught me anything it’s that it’s okay to admit you are flawed, as long as you accept the capacity for change. I hope modern television takes the same lesson.