When The Good Place fires on all cylinders, it’s like watching a magic trick. It manages to be bracingly intelligent, painfully funny and perpetually restless all at the same time. It functions as a sitcom with a good-to-great gag hit rate, a Lost-style mystery-box story that is always one step ahead of its viewers and a thorough yet accessible lecture about the importance of ethics.
Season one of The Good Place was fantastic. Season two of The Good Place was nothing short of awe-inspiring. How on earth could season three top it? Short answer: it hasn’t. Whisper it – just like plenty of other people are whispering it on Twitter – but The Good Place may have gone off the boil.
We’re four episodes in to the new season, but, even if you put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything meaningful that has happened. Team Cockroach are back in the real world, inertly bimbling around in Sydney, surrounded by not a single person with a convincing Australian accent. Michael and Janet are sort of exiled on Earth with them, but also not because they have a key that lets them in and out of the afterlife as they please. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because, on either plane, they’re essentially limited to watching the action on a screen. The storytelling feels stuck. Worse, it’s starting to feel like a traditional sitcom.
Contrast these four episodes with the four that opened season two, one of the giddiest bursts of pure storytelling I can remember. Those episodes told the story of the devil caught in a lie, backpedalling and outsmarted by the humans he is supposed to torture, until he relents and agrees to learn basic ethics. Those episodes – Dance Dance Resolution in particular – tore through enough story to feed several years of a lesser show. They were a demonstration of strength that seem to be absent this year.
Until now, The Good Place has operated from a place of propulsion; not just in terms of narrative, but with character growth. Nothing stays still for long on The Good Place, which is why this new run – with everyone stuck in the same place, repeating the same beats – feels frustrating. One possible explanation for this is that, on Earth, Janet lacks her infinite powers. In the afterlife she was a terrific device, conjuring up anything at all in an instant to keep things moving along. On Earth she is just a regular person, and when she is needed to pull some magic out of the bag – such as in the scene last week where she picked a winning Lotto scratchcard on the basis that she memorised its placement before she visited Australia – it feels like too much of a stretch. You can hear the gears working in ways you previously couldn’t.
So The Good Place is, for the time being, no longer great. The question is whether it will ever be great again. Here’s where I’m undecided. Michael Schur is undoubtedly one of the finest minds to ever work in comedy. But we have seen his shows take a nosedive before. There was a time when Parks and Recreation was the best programme on TV. Seasons two, three and four were as funny, silly and warm as anyone could have hoped. It took a wobble in season five before the final two years fell off a cliff. They were almost unrecognisably bad; cartoonish in a way they had never been and treacly in a way it had always avoided. Those last two years of Parks and Rec make me wonder if The Good Place has already peaked.
If it has, then so be it. I loved the first two seasons with the intensity of an exploding planet, and I’ll always have those even if the rest of the show slides into irrelevance. However, I still have hope. The end of the last episode saw Team Cockroach stumble across the portal to the afterlife, which might just cure everything. It could open the story up, give everyone the purpose they have lacked and offer much more potential for jokes. In theory, it will roar loudly enough to make The Good Place the best thing on TV again. The best-case scenario is that I’ll read this article back next week and wonder what the hell I was thinking. I desperately, desperately want this to happen.