When “The Good Place” premiered last fall, viewers were invited into the weird world that is creator Michael Schur’s (“Parks and Recreation”) unconventional take on the afterlife. The first season follows Eleanor Shellstrop, brilliantly played by Kristen Bell, (“Frozen”) as she maneuvers the ups and downs of a “good place” in which she did not rightfully belong. Why? Eleanor was a bad person in real life, and she knew it. Nothing she did on Earth warranted a place in this fro-yo heavy, hangover-less, soulmate inclusive utopia.
It was too good to be true.
In the final moments of season one, viewers were left with a jarring twist: The Good Place is, in fact, The Bad Place. It is not a town of good people enjoying eternity, but rather, it is a town comprised of mid-level Bad Place employees who have taken the human form to torture four unknowing deceased humans. Those humans are Eleanor, her pedantic soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, “Paterson”), materialistic frenemy Tahani (Jameela Jamil, “The Official Chart”) and the simple-minded D.J. Jason (Manny Jacinto, “The Romeo Selection”).
This twist completely rocked the boat. It flipped the entire premise of “The Good Place” on its head. Schur and his team spent the first season building an entire world just to break it down. And, finally, the time has come to see what “The Good Place” really is.
The first episode of season two began by immediately pivoting the show from its expected protagonist-centric plot to a multi-faceted story for an ensemble cast. The revelation that “The Good Place” was not just created to be the torture pool for Eleanor, but in fact also Chidi, Tahani and Jason, opens up the possibilities for storytelling. This device has been used before, notably in “Orange is the New Black,” where the show moved from the singular story of Piper Chapman to the diverse stories of her fellow inmates. “The Good Place” hooked viewers with the unique story of Eleanor Shellstrop, but it will keep viewers with the colorful array of characters present in her world.
To quote Taylor Swift (which, by Schur’s point-system analysis, might be egregious enough to have me sent to the Bad Place), “The Good Place” is a nightmare dressed as a daydream. Now that the daydream is naked and the nightmare is revealed, the fun begins. The formerly hapless and uninteresting neighbors in The Good Place are now characters with wants, needs and quirks. A particular standout is Josh Siegel’s Glenn, a Bad Place worker intent on biting the humans. As Michael (Ted Danson, “Cheers”) revels in his role as the Architect of this hellscape, his subordinates struggle to come to terms with their unconventional role.
The bad version of “The Good Place” feels like a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of this world. With the veil lifted on Michael’s true nature, viewers follow his journey as he plots and engineers the best way to torture these souls. It’s interesting to see the amount of work which goes into creating the torture for our heroes. Michael reminds his subordinates of the fun they had creating chaos after Eleanor’s drunk shenanigans at Tahani’s welcome party (in season one). He encourages them to get her drunk again tonight, so they can have the same fun in the morning.
Only this time, Eleanor is wiser. She isn’t as easily swayed by her human vices. Although her memory has been re-set, the character of Eleanor grew too much over the course of season one to lose all that progress. It would have been foolish of the show’s writers to set the characters back exactly where they started. Similar to Michael’s decision to find new ways to torture these established characters, Schur and his writers have chosen to find new ways to advance a repetitive plot.
What made the first season of “The Good Place” so exciting and fun to watch was the fresh and clever storytelling. It didn’t feel like anything else on television, and kept the light-hearted tone of Schur’s previous successes “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” As season two moves forward, it will be interesting to see how the tone and storytelling is maintained. What it’s shaping up to be is an ensemble comedy with dynamically flawed characters who are lovable in their own right.
The Good Place may be The Bad Place now, but the TV show is still heavenly.