Let’s be honest: By all accounts, The Good Place shouldn’t work.
It’s a primetime network comedy – NBC, former home of Outsourced and Sean Saves the World – that breaks every primetime network comedy commandment, having spent its sophomore season blowing up its own premise every Thursday night. Other than Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, the show features an ensemble of mostly unknowns. It refuses to shy away from thorny ethical questions, regularly quoting the sort of moral philosophers that usually get namechecked in university lectures and symposiums. (You should actually have the option of getting college credit just for watching it.) Oh, and sometimes there’s a unicorn. Like, literally a unicorn.
But Jesus, Mary and Kierkegaard, does this show work magnificently – less like a well-oiled machine than like a marvelous Rube Goldberg device, astonishing and delighting dedicated viewers with a “How the hell do they keep pulling this off?” spirit of inventiveness. Created by Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office), The Good Place – whose second season finale aired last night – has established itself as one of the single best shows on TV today: slyly intelligent, relentlessly creative, existentially profound and consistently laugh-out-loud funny.
The sitcom began its first season with a cozy (if more metaphysical than most) set-up: Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) finds herself in a cheery waiting room only to discover that A) she’s dead, B) she’s in “the Good Place,” which is basically Heaven sans the religious associations, and C) they’ve got the wrong gal. In life, Eleanor wasn’t what you’d call the charitable, love-your-neighbor type, especially not the kind that her immortal overseer, Michael (Ted Danson), seems to think she is. She was actually, well, kind of a dick. It seems that, thanks to a bureaucratic mix-up, she’s taken the place of another, far more generous person named Eleanor Shellstrop. Having found herself in a pastel-colored, preppily cheerful afterlife where everyone around her is unbelievably upstanding and no one can ever swear (“Ashhole!”), this afterlifer must find a way to con the world into believing that she’s the saint they imagine her to be. Otherwise, it’s off to the Bad Place and your run-of-the-mill eternity of torment.
A less daring showrunner might have spent years teasing out this premise, with Eleanor’s heavenly assigned soulmate, moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), schooling her in basic ethical principles. Then she tries to put them into imperfect practice, there are lots of shenanigans and screw-ups, yadda yadda yadda. But by the end of the first season, Schur and company instead served up the most delicious twist since Ned Stark lost his head on the steps of Baelor: The Good Place was the Bad Place all along! Our heroine comes to the realization that Michael is actually a demon who has set up the show’s central quartet – Eleanor, hand-wringing Chidi, jealous socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and dim-witted would-be DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) – to torture each other by being thrown into situations that ping their deepest anxieties. To quote Eleanor, “Holy motherforking shirtballs!”
And with that grenade hurled into the very heart of its premise, The Good Place went from sweet and intriguing sitcom to one of the most clever and brilliant experiments in modern television. Season Two has been a high-wire walk into a sea of fog, with each episode’s conclusion prompting the question: Where the hell do we go from here? It’s a joy to watch the series pull off the trick every week, outdoing itself with each subsequent foray into the possibilities of its ever-expanding world. In “Dance Dance Resolution,” the season’s third episode, Michael reboots his tormentee’s memories hundreds of times in a dizzying montage in which Eleanor realizes over and over again where they actually are. (And surely there’s no tidier visual metaphor for life in modern America than Bell holding a bunch of balloons while standing in a field of cacti, shouting, “This is the Bad Place!”)
In the course of the season, Michael eventually abandons his repeatedly failed gambit and joins forces with the humans to con the rest of the disguised demons in the neighborhood into believing that he’s actually pulling it off. Halfway through the season, The Good Place has quite literally dismantled its own setting: The lovingly realized neighborhood where the show has taken place up until now folds in on itself and winks out of existence as our antiheroes head off to parts unknown. Think Nancy Botwin burning down Agrestic in Season Three of Weeds, but on a far, far bigger existential scale.
While the circumstances of the show change from week to week, our anchor is the ways in which Schur and his team track not only the characters’ individual growth, but also the ways in which they grow together. The Good Place is blessed with one of the most comedically talented ensembles in television, from seasoned pros Danson and Bell to Jamil, who made her acting debut in this show. But Schur’s true secret weapon is arguably Upright Citizens Brigade alum D’Arcy Carden in the role of an all-knowing celestial A.I. named Janet. This “Busty Alexa,” as one person dubs her, gets some of the best one-liners in a show packed with them, and perfectly encompasses the comedy’s delicate blend of bright, jokey innocence and deep, brainy pathos.
And what viewers might hardly even clock as they take in the clever setups, abundance of background puns (a partial list of the afterlife’s restaurant choices: Sushi and the Banshees, From Schmear to Eternity, Panna Cotta da Vida, I Tought I Saw a Puddin’ Vat) and sitcom hijinks is that the show is also taking on the most profound questions of human existence: Is morality fixed or relative? What does it mean to be good – and is true goodness even sustainable in a world that often rewards selfishness and avarice? And, as Michael asks Eleanor rhetorically in the Season Two finale, “What do we owe each other?” Going into its third season, the series has once again reshuffled all its cards: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani are back on earth, having sidestepped their deaths in an effort (overseen by Michael) to see if they can live up to the potential they discovered in the afterlife.
The show has such a light touch that it’s easy to forget how heavy it is. It’s proof positive that, despite TV’s tendency to neatly separate thoughtful dramas and airy comedies, slapstick and banter can coexist alongside tragedy and hardship – that a show doesn’t need to be self-serious to be serious-minded. Demons can learn humanity and death isn’t the end of growing. No other series on the air right now that can drop such highbrow references then go from zero-to-Zucker-brothers with its visual gags so gracefully, or consistently crack you up while raising your I.Q. several points. It’s both perversely, hilariously fantastic and deft at keeping the pathos of its interpersonal drama grounded, often at the same time. (See: The status-obsessed Tahani running past a gauntlet of rooms in which celebrities are discussing her … then stopping to confront her perpetually disapproving parents.) It’s only two seasons in, but fork it: The Good Place already feels close to being a masterpiece. We hope it runs for eternity.