Is there room for optimism and positivity in TV? It seems like both the real and fictional worlds displayed on our screens are increasingly dark and depressing, with good but flawed characters being replaced by anti-heroes bordering on the unrealistic. Refreshingly, Michael Schur’s “The Good Place” starts off its third season with a dose of optimism and an examination of the fractured reality of human existence, pondering whether human beings can truly, fundamentally change.

“The Good Place” is light-hearted, yet its biggest draw is the fact that it is so full of heart. Its first two seasons have already established that the show simply does not bow to convention, and there’s no suggestion that it will any time soon. Season two concluded with a cosmic bet of sorts between Michael (Ted Danson, “Fargo”) and the Judge of the Universe (Maya Rudolph, “Forever”). Michael resets the lives of the subjects of his experiment to the moment right before their deaths and wagers that the near-death experience will compel the four to improve as people.

Some of the basic premises of the material have been seen before, with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, “Bad Moms”) traveling to meet Chidi (William Jackson Harper, “Paterson”) at his teaching job in Australia in order to learn how to become a more ethical person. After his own close encounter with death, Chidi decides to become more decisive, at least for a while. Meanwhile, Tahani (Jameela Jamil, “DuckTales”) aims to rid herself of her own insecurity and even the ever goofy Jason (Manny Jacinto, “The Good Doctor”) decides to better himself and avoid a life of crime.

Viewers would be forgiven in thinking that these new chances at life would automatically and easily allow the four to transition into better humans. Realistically, however, human nature is shown to be fickle, and the journey to self-improvement is more stop-start than Michael had thought. What is probably true is that the journey never actually stops. Perhaps the journey is rather Sisyphian, with progress inevitably set back, albeit not all the way to the bottom of the hill. Tahani, for example, falls into her usual habits of commercialization and self-promotion when she attempts to rid herself of her materialism and narcissism by living in a Buddhist monastery. Realizing that he may need to intervene once more, Michael appears on Earth again as an unscrupulous antiques dealer who makes Tahani realize the error of her ways. On and offscreen, Michael stubbornly clings to the belief that yes, humans can change, despite the fact that the show’s version of the afterlife is managed like a rigid, meticulously bureaucratic insurance company.  

“The Good Place” continues to explore these philosophical questions with some of the most clever writing and acting on TV. Danson in particular continues to be effortlessly charming, especially when he acts amazed by the intricacies of the human world. In a recurring gag, he experiences trouble coming up with fictional human names, resulting in creations such as “Dr. Brainman” and “Gordon Indigo.” New characters provide laughs as well: Mike O’Malley (“Sully”) plays a perpetually bored gatekeeper to Earth with a key made from the first atoms ever made (and most importantly, one which has “do not duplicate” ominously etched onto it). Chidi’s romantic interest in a neuroscientist named Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, “It’s a Party”) may disappoint those interested in Eleanor and Chidi as a pair, but she acts as another sympathetic character frustrated with Chidi’s decision-making struggles. While Janet (D’arcy Carden, “Barry”) does not appear much in the premiere, she seems to be growing more human-like every day.

It remains to be seen whether Michael’s wager in favor of human capacity to change is a smart one, and most likely, we may never know. But as “The Good Place” has repeatedly proved, the season’s remaining episodes will provide insights into the answers while being one of the most charismatic shows on TV today. 

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