This review contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Good Place.”
“The Good Place” on NBC is a show that constantly reinvents itself. In fact, when I wrote a review after watching the second season premiere last year, by the next episode the premise for the entire season was completely different and almost everything I wrote was entirely irrelevant. I’m writing based off of the two-part premiere (aired on Sept. 27) and the third episode of Season 3, but—be warned—everything written here could be utterly immaterial by the next episode.
To recap, “The Good Place” follows four dead humans—Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto)—who realize that their neighborhood in the afterlife, the titular “Good Place,” was in fact in the “Bad Place” hell equivalent, designed by the demon Michael (Ted Danson) to psychologically torture them. Once Eleanor figured out the ruse in the Season 1 finale, Michael reset the experiment. Unbeknownst to his boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), Michael rebooted the four humans’ memories over 800 times before teaming up with the self-named Team Cockroach. Over the course of Season 2, the humans and Michael, along with the evolving android receptacle of all knowledge in the universe Janet (D’Arcy Carden), learn that people can change to be better. Moved by his new friendships and exposed as a traitor to Shawn, Michael petitions omniscient binge-watching judge of all things in the universe Gen (Maya Rudolph, named for hydrogen, the only thing in existence when she was born) to bring Eleanor and company back to life and give them a chance to be better people on Earth to avoid eternal torment in the afterlife. Season 3 follows their exploits on Earth, pulled together as a result of Chidi’s study on near-death experiences changing people’s ethical evaluations.
The main conflict of the season arises from Gen’s declaration that Michael and Janet cannot return to Earth to help the humans in any way. Michael, realizing that they only got better when they were together, breaks her rules to nudge them towards each other, using a variety of accents and disguises including a man named Zach Pizazz and a librarian with a dodgy Australian accent. Michael has the right idea; “The Good Place” excels as an ensemble comedy, with the six brilliantly defined and acted characters bouncing off of each other. Every single actor fully inhabits their role, from Eleanor’s snarky wit to Jason’s affable idiocy. Watching the characters interact is a true delight, especially within such a high concept sitcom. “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” (other works from “Good Place” creator Michael Schur) were also mainly driven by their characters, but had less plot-driven narratives. Schur, taking his cues from “Lost,” still packs a lot of plot into the 20 minute episodes, but the show rarely feels rushed. The twists and fast-moving plot aren’t the only things that beckons for a re-watch; every frame seems stuffed with visual gags that someone couldn’t possibly notice with only one viewing.
While the fast-moving plot and visual puns have been consistent throughout the series, this season also features some new elements, first among them the new character Simone (played by “Killing Eve’s” Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a neuroscience professor and love interest for Chidi. Howell-Baptiste fits in wonderfully in the world of “The Good Place” and an expanded role for her would be a boon for the series. The new setting of Earth (specifically Australia) for the season also feels slightly off-balance; some of the wacky humor mined from the fantastical afterlife is missing. But that doesn’t mean the show is slacking on the laughs; in fact, a trip to an America-themed restaurant offered up so many jokes it was hard to keep up, so the new setting offers new terrain for the writers.
The show is still a way to grapple with ethical dilemmas, although the Chidi-teaches-the-group-ethics dynamic hasn’t been present in the new season yet. Still, the fundamental goodness of “The Good Place” (integral to Schur’s vision) remains. The show is about learning that people can be better, can grow, and can learn. Watching six hilarious actors and characters bounce off each other is fun, but part of the joy of watching “The Good Place” is the idea that not every piece of media (especially in the current moment) has to be intense and dark to deal with heavy ideas. Instead, it can be a sitcom that sometimes conjures up a novelty pencil that says “Lordy, Lordy, I’m over 40.”
Season 3 is markedly different from its predecessors, mostly due to its new setting and the challenges that entails. With this new setup, it limits the amount of time all six players (seven with the worthwhile addition of Howell-Baptiste’s Simone) can interact together, mostly segmenting the cast into the five humans and the otherworldly beings. Carden in particular suffers a significant lack of screen time, which is unfortunate since her portrayal of Janet, the not-quite-android not-quite-human, has always been a high point of the series. Another point I hope to see developed is the idea that the entire system of the afterlife is flawed; if people can continue to grow and change, is it really morally justified to sentence the majority of the population to an eternity of torture?
Much like at the outset of last season, conflicts that seemed like they could sustain the entire show are resolved within episodes, only for the show to blow itself up again. I can’t tell you where this season of “The Good Place” is going, but I trust Michael Schur and his talented team of writers and actors that wherever it goes will be great.
Meg Cummings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.