The Good Place started off looking like a solid, respectable, even slightly forgettable sitcom. Creator Mike Schur, whose previous projects — particularly The Office and Parks and Recreation — mined bland bureaucracies for comedy, seemed at first to be doubling down on his favorite premise. If the point of workplace comedies is to dive into the stultifying sameness of spending day after day with the same frustrating people, then Kristen Bell's Eleanor is the ultimate everywoman in the ultimate workplace. The Good Place starts off as a clean, sterile, suburb where the residents (save the principals) are so anodyne that even their names are spectacularly generic. In a world of Vickys and Janets and Michaels, it seemed like a safe bet that the show was returning to the sitcom's TV roots, resetting to a comfy baseline at the end of each episode.
Instead, The Good Place did the opposite. Rather than accept the genre's conventions, the show went meta, commenting on the karmic hell (Chidi's words) that the sitcom reset actually represents. What would it really be like to be a typical sitcom character who gets "rebooted" at the end of each episode? Who learns nothing in the course of several seasons? Whose memory is wiped clean? By taking the rules of the sitcom to this logical extreme, The Good Place is following in the footsteps of one of the greatest, funniest pieces of TV meta-criticism ever: Arrested Development.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. To appreciate how The Good Place puts new spin on old structures, let's start with its apparent premise: What would happen if a "bad" person ended up at the "good" place? The shortcuts the show takes here are instructive: It doesn't bother to name heaven and hell because it doesn't have to; the basic framework is well-worn. We know Michael is some kind of "angel," and we intuit (thanks to a million images of dead people playing harps on clouds) that the conceptual problem with heaven is that it seems boring and repetitive.
It's no secret that The Good Place (spoiler alert) ends with a massive twist. By the end of the first season, the show explicitly calls out the sitcom's repetitive tyranny as a form of torture. What's more, the very formula that makes the show work dramatically — fish-out-of-water tries to fit in — is a recipe for misery for almost everyone concerned. Michael is more than a demon; he's a TV writer.
Fans were curious to see where the show, having blown up its premise, would go in its second season. Since we knew Eleanor could foil Michael's plan, it seemed perfectly plausible that the sitcom would resume its cyclical structure using this as its reset: Each episode would end with her working out the solution in a different way. The sitcom would basically borrow a little from the murder mystery genre. It's not that promising a structure — the characters are delightful, but both they and the setting are too thin to sustain that many rearrangements.
As if it understood that, the show once again fast-forwarded past expectations. Within three episodes, it established that the characters have been rebooted 802 times, sparing us almost all those iterations of the same threadbare plot.
That's two whole formulas, two perfectly acceptable narrative structures, the show has teased, analyzed, deconstructed, and thrown out.
Instead, The Good Place seems to be thinking — with at least as much philosophical sophistication as a spate of dramas like The OA and Westworld — about what "rebooting" a person does in the long-term. In these other shows, it's suggested that improvement occurs in spite of all those memory wipes: Maeve gains something from her resurrections in Westworld. So does the OA. That doesn't seem to be happening in The Good Place. Chidi laments that they're trapped in some karmic cycle or Nietzschean eternal recurrence that stalls out because they can't remember what's come before. It's true that some characters see the possibility of progress: "Every time a Janet is rebooted, she increases her social awareness and abilities. I might be the most advanced Janet in the universe," Janet — the neighborhood's anthropomorphic "mainframe" — says. But the humans seem to be out of luck.
This is a show known for its twists, and I suspect — given Eleanor's resistance to Michael's proposition that they team up — that we're in for several more. Eleanor's instincts have been solid in the past, and her total immunity to Michael's hard sell turned out to be one of the most interesting scenes in the latest episode. Her skepticism forces viewers to think quite a bit harder about the spectrum of possibilities, and how Michael's framing leaves a few important things out.
This is a show about heaven that can make up as many rules as it wants, after all; that it spent that long deconstructing Michael's reasoning (correctly) suggests that the show (despite appearances, and giant shrimp, and clowns) is taking its philosophy almost as seriously as Chidi. I'm starting to think that Chidi's line in "What We Owe to Each Other" — "Imagine a group of reasonable people are coming up with the rules for a new society" — wasn't just a throwaway. And that this fascinating little exchange between Eleanor and Michael in the arcade last season has something real to tell us about the way shows set up incentives and dupe us into buying in.
(Screenshot/NBC/The Good Place)
(Screenshot/NBC/The Good Place)
The Good Place has been a light and sunny treat from the beginning: It boasts an excellent cast, a delightfully silly premise, and so many throwaway jokes that it's starting to rival Arrested Development. It's startling to realize how smoothly the show pulled off some extremely effective twists it didn't even necessarily "need." As it becomes clear that more are coming, I'm starting to think The Good Place might rival Arrested Development in other ways too.