Note: There’s absolutely no way to talk about season 2 of The Good Place without discussing the end of the first season. So, if you haven’t seen the first season of the show, go do so, and then come back. Trust me – you’re going to love it. And season two is worth the wait. When I finished the first season of The Good Place last year, I ended up not writing about it, for a variety of reasons. More than anything else, it was a show I really enjoyed, but wasn’t quite sure I loved yet. The concept was fantastic: a woman awakens in the afterlife and finds that she’s been sent to “The Good Place” for all of her great actions – except that she was a truly selfish, narcissistic, awful human being. By the time we got to the end of season 1 – a journey that involved flying shrimp, naked cocaine addicts, douchebag demons (played by Adam Scott), and a surprisingly large number of moral philosophy lessons, the final reveal – that all of our character were, in fact, trapped in “The Bad Place” and set there to torment each other…well, it all made sense. But how did you do a show after that without just spinning your wheels?
But, my God, did season two of The Good Place manage and then some, delivering a flawless second season that kept everything I loved about the first season and justified some of that season’s slow pacing, delivering rapid-fire gags, rich characterization, and just plain the best show on television.
How would the show deal with the possibility of going through another variation of the same loop we’d already seen? By taking the concept and running with it, giving us hundreds of loops in a manic montage that felt like the show cribbing from Groundhog Day in the most perfect way possible.
How would the show deal with the loss of a season’s worth of character development? With heavy use of dramatic irony, letting our knowledge of the characters play out against their ignorance of their own pasts, and making the characters’ efforts to figure out their previous experiences into part of the show.
And how would the show handle a new status quo? By blowing it up again again, often and with gusto. Over the course of the second season, we went through dozens of versions of “The Bad Place,” shifting alliances between the characters and even the demon Michael (Ted Danson, whose evil laugh is Emmy-worthy all on its own, before everything else he’s doing), and ultimately…well, I wouldn’t give all of that away. Suffice to say, The Good Place remains wonderfully plot-driven where it counts, playing out like a story with a set endpoint in mind, and letting its characters develop and move as the story itself dictates.
None of that, though, is why The Good Place is so incredible. No, what makes the show so wonderful – apart from its glorious sense of humor, which mixes the surreal and the anarchic, the cerebral and the lowbrow, all effortlessly – is the way it legitimately, seriously engages with the questions it’s playing with. It would be easy for The Good Place to make feints towards moral philosophy, using platitudes and cliches to get the job done. Instead, the show truly and deeply engages with those questions, expecting its audience to handle discussions about various philosophers, the importance of motivation in our moral choices, the possibility of redemption, and more. These aren’t exactly light topics, but the show takes them on with gusto and richness, making the conversations truly matter – they’re as much a part of the show as the comedy, and maybe more so.
Yes, there’s more to love about The Good Place. There’s the outstanding ensemble, which doesn’t have a single weak link in it. Manny Jacinto’s cheerful idiot Jason gets all the best lines, sure, but D’arcy Carden’s holographic assistant Janet is the scene stealer for me, with her blithe cheerfulness and wonderfully “off” sensibility. Of course, there’s Danson as Michael, who gets so much to do this season and makes it all work; and, yes, there’s Jameela Jamil as the beautiful, name-dropping, shallow Tahani…but really, in so many ways, the show always comes back to Kristen Bell’s narcissistic party girl and William Jackson Harper’s indecisive morality teacher. But whichever member you need – and whichever pairing you get – the results are always great.
And there’s the inventive direction, and the fun plotting…and so much more, sure. But really, for me, The Good Place is just smart, and funny, and rich, and thoughtful…and genuinely makes me think about what it means to be a good person. That any show can do both that and have running jokes about the despicable nature of clam chowder…well, how can you not love it?