The Good Place is television’s happy place


The Good Place returned with an hour-long season 2 premiere, bringing back all its escapist charms (and delightful puns) as TV’s happy place.

Light spoilers for the first season and second season premiere of The Good Place.

My love forThe Good Place, which returned this week with an hour-long season 2 premiere, snuck up on me, but there’s something about the show — its spirit, if you will — that is instantly enjoyable.

The premise, for the unfamiliar, is this: Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies and goes to Heaven — well, The (non-denominational) Good Place — where angel and neighborhood “architect” Michael (Ted Danson) introduces her to her soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and neighbors, name-dropping philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Buddhist monk Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto), who is later revealed to actually be a delightfully dumb drug-dealing DJ from Florida named Jason Mendoza. By the end of the pilot, it’s clear that Eleanor is in The Good Place by mistake and said mistake is having a detrimental effect on the neighborhood — shrimp cocktail falling from the sky, everyone’s dressed in maize and blue chevron, etc. She ropes Chidi, an ethics professor in life, into helping her and the first season largely revolves around keeping her secret.

It’s fun and funny, with corny sight-gag puns and spot-on jokes about good vs. evil. (For example, microwaving fish in an office kitchen can qualify you for The Bad Place.) The show has an undeniable charm anchored in no small part by how easy it is to root for Eleanor, despite how awful she was on Earth. The casting is perfect. The writing is impeccable — sharp, clever and silly, as you might expect from a writer’s room assembled by Mike Schur, he of Parks and Recreation and The Office cred.

Still, it was the first season finale that elevated the show. Schur pulled off one of the best twists in recent TV memory, which is to say one of the most surprising. I feel bad for anyone catching up on the first season now because, more likely than not, you at least know that there is a twist and so perhaps the clues are more obvious, perhaps it’s less of a surprise. Perhaps you’ve seen the gif, so when Michael’s smile curls into evil on the heels of Eleanor’s holy-forking-shirtballs theory, you don’t scream and wonder why none of your friends watch this show because now you have no one to text about what just happened.

But more than achieving the rare genuine surprise, the twist is impressive because, in one moment, it underscores the show’s most subtle skills. The twist works, the show works, because you have a — explicit spoilers now — genuine emotional reaction to finding out Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason are being tortured. That they’re really in The Bad Place.

I re-watched The Good Place this summer, primarily to see the show with new twist-given knowledge. And while it was a delight to watch Danson and the neighborhood with Demon Michael in mind and to catch all the jokes I missed the first time, I was more struck by how deeply enjoyable it was to revisit these characters. Everything about The Good Place makes me happy in a very simple and pure way — and that’s not really a feeling many shows cultivate these days. TV critic Pilot Viruet tweeted that The Good Placemakes me remember how much of a wonderful escape TV can be” and that speaks to the essential truth of the show.

The first season finale aired on January 19 — Inauguration Day. The Trump presidency was on everyone’s minds and mentioned in recaps, but eight months later, it’s our daily reality. The answer to our current climate isn’t escapism or sticking our heads in the metaphorical sands of TV, but there is something comforting about going to a place that’s supposed to be heaven, but is actually hell, but is also just a place with three bakeries with puns for names (“Knish From a Rose,” “Biscotti Pippen,” “Beignet and the Jets”).

The second season brings back the fun — earthly things catching fire in the premiere: elbows, Hawaiian pizza, “coffee in those stupid pods” — but how Michael’s Version 2 plays out only underscores what the first season accomplished, character-wise. Bell previously stated that the characters may revert to their previous mindsets, i.e., lose some of the moral growth, and yet even with a few differences, the writing is still true to who we’ve learned these people to be and why it was so easy for them to connect to each other.

In the premiere, Eleanor is more self-aware — not getting drunk at the reception and realizing giving a speech at a christening for a niece she didn’t have was bad — but she retains her delightful snark. (To Chidi: “Are you going to talk? Or just walk around like a nerd trying to get a personal best on his Fitbit?”) Chidi actually makes a decision. Then, there’s Tahani, who is in Eleanor-esque form during the first night reception, hammered, knocking over tables and shrimp cocktail. (Quick sidebar of appreciation for cargo-pants-and-crocs Tahani’s lines: “You all look so beautiful tonight with your regular-sized pockets, your regular-sized soulmates”; “Is this your first time wearing a sash?”; “What’s happened to me? I’m praising off-the-rack separates!”) Jason quickly immediately confesses to neighborhood concierge/robot Janet (the amazing D’Arcey Carden) that he doesn’t belong. The changes Michael has made to make the four a little more separate and a little more tortured still lead them to last season’s realizations, only much faster. (Again, Chidi thinks he was sent to the Bad Place for drinking almond milk, despite knowing the environmental cost.)

Before the premiere even ends, Eleanor again calls out what’s happening, mostly, but Michael also learns about the note, destroying it when he wipes their memories to try a third time.

The Good Place isn’t fluff. It tackles some pretty real philosophical questions, commits to character development and is plot-driven to an almost unprecedented degree for a comedy. You can’t, and shouldn’t, jump right in with a random season 2 episode. And yet, it doesn’t ask the same demands as prestige TV. The characters aren’t one-dimensional, but they’re not defined by being “morally complex” or “anti-heroes.” The Good Place doesn’t ask you to “grapple” and it’s also not going to manipulate you into crying every week.

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The Good Place asks nothing of you except that age-old show business request: Suspend your disbelief and let us entertain you. There are puns and butt jokes, human connection and light dramatic tension, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Even as The Bad Place, it’s a good place. A generous place. A happy place.