Thank God for The Good Place. Given the current state of world affairs and the omnipresence of “gritty” and “grounded” storytelling being done on the small screen, The Good Place is a joyous, optimistic oasis. It’s a show that doesn’t ignore the realities of the world we live in, but chooses to focus on a hopeful humanity rather than a morally bankrupt antihero or a mean-spirited ensemble. The show’s first season delightfully played out the initial setup: Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop, a pretty garbage human being by most standards, dies and is accidentally sent to “The Good Place” where she attempts to hide the fact that she probably belongs in Hell. Creator and showrunner Michael Schur ended each episode with a twist, which kept the storytelling running at a surprisingly compelling pace for a sitcom, and it all built to a huge twist in the season finale that recontextualized the entire series.
It’s here that I’ll say if you haven’t watched Season 1 of The Good Place, TURN BACK NOW. This review is about to get into spoilers relating to the Season 1 finale, which is best experienced fresh. If you want the “TL;DR” on Season 2, I’ll just say it brilliantly doubles down on the sci-fi-infused storytelling and continues to deliver delightful surprises. Now go to Netflix and binge Season 1 as quickly as possible.
Okay, if you’re still reading I assume you’ve seen the Season 1 finale, in which it’s revealed that “The Good Place” is actually The Bad Place. Ted Danson’s Michael is not an employee of Heaven running his own Good Place colony—he’s upper management in The Bad Place who is running an experiment on a new kind of torture: bringing four bad people together in a simulation where they think they’re in The Good Place, but where they’re actually tortured by far more devious means than butthole bees or penis flatteners (which, according to Season 2, are standard torture devices in The Bad Place).
Season 2 picks up right where we left off, with Michael erasing the memories of Eleanor, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tehani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) and starting the simulation over anew. However, as we saw in the Season 1 finale, Eleanor left herself a clue so her rebooted self can hopefully figure out what’s going on.
I’m not going to get too deep into the plot of the first few episodes of Season 2 because as with Season 1, it’s full of twists and turns that keep changing the game. I will say that when the season begins, Michael is under pressure because his boss thinks this new experiment is a waste of time, and gives him only one more chance before he pulls the plug on the operation. This is a smart piece of plotting that raises the stakes for Michael and ensures that this “Attempt #2” isn’t just a rehash of the story we saw play out in Season 1. There’s now a ticking clock aspect that keeps the audience invested.
Moreover, now that we know the setup and the players, The Good Place’s second season dives far deeper into the points of view of characters other than Eleanor, which gives this ensemble a great chance to shine. This is especially showcased in the first two episodes, which are premiering back-to-back in one long Rashomon-like tale. This is part of what makes The Good Place special: It’s a sitcom on network television, but the storytelling is beyond bold. It’s essentially a sci-fi series with extremely well thought-out plot points and a dynamic visual palette, but it’s also hilarious and heartwarming, like any great sitcom.
Indeed, the show has not lost its heart even as the premise has essentially been exploded and reconceived. It’s still a story about what defines a good person and if goodness is something that can be taught or achieved—it’s a redemption arc for an NBC sitcom version of Tony Soprano. Bell continues to knock this deceptively complex role out of the park, nailing zingers left and right but maintaining Eleanor’s humanity. This is a three dimensional character, not a vessel for jokes, and luckily Schur and his writers room have found ways to keep these characters growing even as their memories get erased.
Visually the show is a stunner as well. Drew Goddard, who recently signed on to direct an X-Force movie for Fox, helmed the pilot for The Good Place and returns to direct the second season’s third episode, which is also probably its most ambitious yet. There’s a lot going on, but the viewer never gets lost in the weeds, and the show does a terrific job of staying on target even as its playing with lofty sci-fi conventions.
If you think you know how Season 2 is going to play out now that the memories have been erased and the audience is aware that we’re in The Bad Place, you’re in for a surprise. That’s one of the delights of The Good Place, that in a world where network television is still holding on to its conventions and clichés for dear life, this show is continually switching gears, keeping things interesting. It’s a balancing act that no doubt plenty of other series would fail, but Schur ran such a tight ship on Parks and Recreation—one of the greatest sitcoms of all time—that he and his writing staff more than have the benefit of the doubt here.