'The Good Place' becomes an even better place in Season 2

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
“The Good Place” (Photo: NBC)

The Good Place was one of last season’s interesting curiosities — a funny little sitcom starring Kristen Bell, whose Eleanor was supposed to be in the Bad Place (i.e., Hell), but instead wound up in the Good Place (i.e., Heaven), overseen by what seemed like a sort of guardian angel, Michael, played by Ted Danson. The show, created by Michael Schur (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation), seemed like a primary-color-bright novelty amid NBC’s other wacky sitcoms (welcome back, Good News!). But the show had a twist at the end of the first season, and thus rescued itself from becoming repetitive in the second. (SPOILER ALERT, I guess, from here on in.) Turned out, this Good Place was just a scam devised by Michael to slowly, steadily torture Eleanor and three others: brainiac Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the vain Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and dumb-dumb Jason (Manny Jacinto). They are the only four humans living in a Michael-designed environment, populated by dissembling bad people pretending good people. Eleanor was the one who figured it out; what would she do now?

In Wednesday night’s special one-hour season premiere (it moves to its regular Thursday time period on Sept. 28), we see the result of Eleanor’s discovery: She’s making Michael’s life hell. He’s still obliged to keep wiping the quartet’s memories and rebooting his Good Place to try to devise a plan in which the foursome is tortured unto eternity, but, dang it, Eleanor keeps catching on to what he’s doing. The premiere is huge fun, because it’s a clever variation on Groundhog Day — we get to see a slew of First Day in The Good Place scenarios, each with a different premise, each packed with solid jokes. What Schur and his writers have created is a self-contained universe in which we think we know the parameters; we get to know not just Michael and the quartet but also numerous supporting players — and everyone keeps changing, evolving or devolving at any given moment. When Michael comes up with yet another new scenario, he’s echoing what Schur and his staff must have done in the writers room while making the show: spit-balling endless alternatives.

Have I made Good Place sound complicated? It’s not really, and the premiere has an excellent summary of last season to catch you up if you haven’t watched previously. The Good Place is very well written, full of good jokes about bees and clowns and clam chowder. But it’s got another layer: it’s also about power dynamics and morality systems — how they shift and mutate depending on how people interact. Like Schur’s Parks and Recreation, The Good Place is, fundamentally, a sweet-tempered, optimistic show that says everyone is trying to be a better person — doing his or her best (or trying to) all the time. Bell and Danson are giving two of the best performances in primetime, and the rest of the cast isn’t far behind them. After you watch ventriloquist Darci Lynne Farmer win America’s Got Talent tonight (fingers crossed!), check out The Good Place — it needs your good wishes.

The Good Place airs Wednesday at 10 p.m., then moves to Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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