The Good Place Season 2 Episodes 1-4
Starring: Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, & Ted Danson
Directed by: Beth McCarthy-Miller
Written by: Michael Schur, Jen Statsky, Megan Amram, Daniel Schofield, & Andrew Law
Created by: Michael Schur
A Review by Michael Hein
For the most part, season two of The Good Place has been as shocking as its first season finale at every turn. It defied all predictions as to what the showrunners might do next. Will each season encompass one version of Eleanor and her friends’ torture? Are we to wait dramatically for six episodes in order for Eleanor to recover the note she left for herself? Will Jason and Janet’s love endure?
Instead, the show steered into the skid of futility they were heading for. Within a couple of episodes, the heroes underwent years of torment. They formed a number of different dynamics among the four of them and then had those relationships shattered time and time again as their memories are wiped over eight-hundred times.
This dramatic shift in pacing has really changed the way this show tells a story. In just over one season, these characters have become archetypes of themselves, rather than flesh and blood people. Because they exist outside of time and space, no particular thing that they do affects what their circumstances will be like for the rest of the show. Especially since they could have their minds wiped again at any moment. Likewise, it creates room for conversations and events that might be catastrophic to a typical sitcom format without threatening the longevity of the show. For example, Eleanor learns that she and Chidi have slept together in past versions of their neighborhood. They once even confessed to loving each other.
However, the beauty of this show is that this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a relationship going forward, or that they’ll have had one looking back. It doesn’t add or subtract from any future statements of love between them. It also doesn’t preclude a romance between — for example, Eleanor and Tahani, as was hinted in the last season finale.
The Good Place has expertly assumed a meta quality. The characters are more symbols for their own essential nature than they are pieces on a chessboard. We’ve seen a montage of so many lifetimes and configurations of these characters. It’s hard to take any one of them seriously as the new reality. This has become especially true in the last two episodes, where the “rebooting” has come to a halt.
The writers have set up a web of paradoxical conflicts to unravel. Now that Michael needs the help of his prisoners, he’s their only hope of escaping their cycle of torture. They’ve also used this passage of time to great effect in some areas. Eleanor has learned to identify the consistencies in their reboots as evidence of truth or fact. As when she decides to stay and help because it’s what Chidi has done for her over eight-hundred times now. It was a stroke of genius in and of itself to turn the tables and put Michael in a vulnerable state this time, raising the stakes to new heights altogether.
Of course, there are obvious downsides to this type of story as well. Beyond the broad thematic strokes of the series, this existential montage paradigm has made it hard to invest in smaller developments. That’s how much of the audience felt at the end of this week’s episode. Jason and Tahani awaken in bed together. Hundreds of incarnations — in many of which the two of them were told they were soulmates — it’s hard to find this as scandalous or groundbreaking as it might be in any other sitcom. Not only because they might have their memories wiped at any moment, but because the characters are so firmly established as who they already are.
The audience feels a sense of ownership over that. It’s hard to imagine that having slept together will force change or growth for either Tahani or Jason. Add to that the fact that whatever development we saw the characters experience in season one was made null by the finale.
The audience has been trained in a way to expect stagnation and return to the status quo. It’s also worth mentioning that, as the characters have become boiled down to their essences, the jokes at each of their expenses have become weaker and more predictable. We see this in Tahani’s continued humble-bragging in the face of eternity spent in “a volcano full of scorpions,” or in the feeble sight gag where Jason is distracted from a conversation by a lit sparkler.
These are the kinds of things that become common in season eight of a normal sitcom. Monica’s reduced to a shrill neat-freak, Chandler is a punchline machine, relates everything to women and sandwiches, and so on. It’s disappointing, especially coming from the show that’s being advertised as “the smartest show on television.” The fast-paced, eternal nature of The Good Place means that these cracks in the foundation can occur much sooner.
Still, my overall verdict is: Watch it! This show is treading new territory in so many ways and it’s a thrill to watch. They keep so many plates spinning at once. I can’t help but point out when they falter, I’m no less captivated. The marriage of philosophy and comedy is so strong here. It’s a joy to see a piece of American pop culture tackles questions of mortality and morality that we as a country have a general fear of acknowledging.
The Good Place airs on Thursdays at 8:30 PM EST on NBC.