‘The Good Place’ Season 2 Review: If Philosophically-Charged Theorizing Mixed with Hearty Laughter is Your Thing, Then This is the Most Must-See TV Ever
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Showrunner: Mike Schur
Main Cast: Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden
Notable Guest Stars: Marc Evan Jackson, Tiya Sircar, Maribeth Monroe, Jason Mantzoukas, Dax Shepard, Maya Rudolph, Seth Morris, Angela Trimbur
Episode Running Time: 22 Minutes
It is difficult to talk about The Good Place in detail without spoiling anything, so SPOILER ALERT. But also go watch the entire series if you haven’t already. It’s really good.
Stylistically and tonally, The Good Place follows in the footsteps of the NBC Must See TV sitcoms that have preceded it, but since it is at its heart a mystery box puzzle show, its closest forerunner is Lost. Based on what I have gathered from interviews, creator Mike Schur conceptualized it as the NBC sitcom version of that stranded-on-a-desert-island juggernaut. Accordingly, it has been applying the lessons of what worked and what didn’t work on the island. So what we have in The Good Place Season 2 is a show that is constantly reinventing itself that amazingly is yet to show any wear and tear.
Lost dithered around occasionally in its first three seasons, but momentum locked into place for its final three years once an end date was set and the season episode orders were shortened. Thus, I have been heartened, and not worried at all, that NBC has given The Good Place 13-episode seasons right from the get-go instead of forcing it to stretch out to a more typical 20-plus run. It really feels like a series-long vision is in place. The first season finale, which revealed that Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and company were really in the Bad Place and were just being mentally tortured to think otherwise, seemed like a logical endpoint for the whole story, but in fact it has proven to be the perfect button on the first chapter that has been matched with just-as-satisfying shocks in Season 2.
After a two-part season opener in which our demon architect Michael tries and fails to reset everything with a bit of memory erasure, “Dance Dance Resolution” comes along to offer an entire series’ worth of plot twists in one episode. Not a season’s worth, a whole series’ worth. The Good Place has solved the problem that plagues shows that burn through plots too quickly by … burning through plots faster than anyone has ever seen. A glorious montage resets the status quo thousands of times. Subsequent episodes slow down that pace, but there is still about one reboot per half hour.
One of the reasons that The Good Place is one of the best shows currently airing is because it works for the smartest people in the room and the dumbest people in the room. If you want to figure out the twists ahead of time, the clues are there for you to puzzle them out, but if you prefer to be passive, the twists will eventually be explained, in a manner that avoids patronizing or reiterating the obvious. This is a show that rewards freeze-framing and re-watching (and there is still not enough room to contain all the flourishes from the writing staff). But it is also bright and boisterous enough for one helping to be filling. You don’t need to brush up on your Kant and Hume to understand the philosophical and ethical debates, but the supplementary reading is out there should you wish to seek it out.
While The Good Place has clearly done its homework regarding history’s most influential thinkers, I do wonder what the show’s own philosophy on existence and morality is. In aggregate, it is hard to pin down, which can be freeing, but also frustrating. Part of that is just the nature of fiction that tackles the afterlife. What happens after death is too ineffable to really be captured in any fully comprehensible fashion. The Good Place does not have to come up with some grand unified theory to be successful, but it is trying to say something weighty. Under close examination it can appear contradictory, though its message has thus far worked and can fairly be called “complicated.”
Should we really believe that a callous demon like Michael (the sublimely natural Ted Danson) can so quickly be humanized? Your mileage may vary on that conundrum, but Danson’s performance buys into the transformation, and perhaps these demons are fallen angels, or some similar beings that really do have capacity for goodness. It is easier to buy into the nature of A.I. program Janet (Carden), whose existence has been more or less created out of whole cloth. But the bugs she demonstrates suggest a haphazardness unexpected for infinity.
Along those same lines, the fate of our four principal lost souls can often seem petty, even without considering the self-improvement they began in Season 1 and have more or less been wholly committed to in Season 2. Sure, Eleanor is chronically thoughtless, Chidi (Harper) is dangerously indecisive, Tahani (Jamil) is profoundly self-absorbed, and Jason (Jacinto) is unselfconsciously vulgar. But they all have charms that elevate them beyond their worst selves. That is surely partly to due with the charming nature of each actor’s performance and how we as viewers tend to identify with lead characters, but at a certain part it feels like they are just being toyed with beyond what is fair or makes sense.
However, I suspect that that pettiness might be a feature of the show, and not a bug. The last couple episodes certainly seem to suggest that. The finale makes a case for making it up as you go along, with a gambit allowing the dead folks to (unwittingly) prove themselves in a simulation of how their lives could have played out if they were still alive. The haphazardness is unavoidable, but playing fast and loose with the rules (which might not be as intractable as we’ve been led to believe) could be the right thing to do if it makes the right connections. The parameters have been set up by a writers’ room, but they are justifying themselves thus far.
And finally, here’s to BORTLES! and accidental timeliness.
Best Episodes: “Dance Dance Resolution,” “The Trolley Problem,” “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent”
How Does It Compare to Season One? With its first and therefore biggest twist out of the way, The Good Place has necessarily become less surprising but the tradeoff is that it has become more daunting. It is a tricky high-wire act, but it has been sustained for at least one full season so far.
The Good Place Season 2 is Recommended If You Like: Lost, Pushing Daisies, Community
Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Shirt Balls
For more of our full season TV reviews, click here!