The first season of The Good Place ended with one of the best twists in modern TV history. After spending a season telling us that the self-obsessed Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was accidentally placed in a version of Heaven — aka "The Good Place" — it turned out she, and three other characters, were actually in The Bad Place (aka, Hell) as part of a social experiment to reinvent torture. With his ruse revealed, the architect of the scheme, Michael (Ted Danson), decided to wipe everyone's memories and start over in order to get it right (well, wrong) the second time around.
So how do you work your way out of this brilliantly executed narrative hole? Turns out, you don't. At least, initially.
Based on the first four episodes of Season 2, showrunner Michael Schur and company know they're in a tough spot — and using the memory wipe as a device, flip the perspective of the show from Eleanor to Michael. Where Eleanor spent most of Season 1 trying to hide her unworthiness from everyone else in The Good Place, now it's Michael's turn. See, his uptight boss has given him one last chance to make his radical psychological torture scheme work, or Michael gets thrown into the sun. Literally. Except, and I don't think this is spoiling too much, he doesn't make it work. At all.
One of the best moments in The Good Place's first season was watching Ted Danson turn from naive good to calculating evil on a dime. So even though Danson was in on the joke behind the scenes, and played Season 1 Michael so his lines would work for both sides of his character; for the viewer, in Season 2 he's essentially playing a brand new Michael. It's a neat conceit, but given how wonderfully engaging it was to see Danson and Bell play off each other before, separating them — as well as the other characters, including the ethically conflicted Chidi (William Jackson Harper), narcissistic philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), who may possibly be the dumbest character in the history of television — means it takes a while for the show to rediscover its footing.
Instead, Schur's crew mostly ditches the surprisingly deep exploration of ethics that dominated the show's freshman outing in favor of an exploration of TV structure. Each of the first four episodes has a vastly different structure and perspective, which I'm loathe to spoil as that's one of the main joys inherent: watching how the writers play with, and against the idea of a reboot makes for delightfully fun viewing.
But (and again, this is at least initially) The Good Place is also missing some of the invention of Season 1. Hand in hand with the ethical exploration was Eleanor's exploration of The Good Place, and its many weird quirks — from meeting representatives of The Bad Place, to the surprising introduction of The Medium Place, to everything involving the intelligent personal assistant Janet (D'Arcy Carden, who continues to steal every scene she's in). Since the characters are revisiting their old actions due to the memory wipe, that means there's much less offered in terms of new details. Those details are there, and the writers have a lot of fun finding new ways to torture our main characters (a running joke involving clam chowder is particularly memorable). But like the new character dynamics themselves, it takes a while to really get to something completely fresh.
When it does, though, which takes most of the first four episodes, The Good Place reclaims its spot as one of best, most inventive, just plain forkin' great shows on TV. And what was once a plainly stated exploration of ethics gives way to an even deeper point about how it may not be our memories and experiences that make us who we are, but our connections to other people.
Not many (or any) shows take the risks The Good Place does on a weekly basis — and particularly in that Season 1 finale. Sometimes risks pay off, sometimes they don't. It's a slow burn (hell joke!), but rest assured eventually they do get there — at least until the writers inevitably pull the rug out from under their characters again by the end of Season 2
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The Good Place returns to NBC Wednesday, September 20 at 10/9c, before moving to Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c.