I wrote about The Good Place season one over the course of various posts, but the gist was pretty simple: I was totally enamored with the show. Its colorful, entertaining characters, utterly charming sense of humor, and wildly inventive premise with deep thematic material would have been enough to cement it as a high-ranking all-time favorite, but on top of that the show added a constantly-surprising serialized story that I think is one of the best stories I’ve seen in television, period. That the show accomplished that feat while being an otherwise well-crafted half-hour sitcom makes it all the more incredible.
Enter season two, which had the heavy task of following up on such a phenomenal first season in addition to a twist that blew up the entire premise of the show. And while I think the season stumbled a bit in the middle, and had some issues inherent to the setup season one gave it, on a whole it lived up to the show’s potential.
The Good Place season two starts strong, carrying on from the cliffhanger reveal that the protagonists are actually in the bad place and being used to torture each other, followed by a reset of their memories. The exploration of how the quartet continually realize they’re in the bad place makes for an exciting first few episodes, and the easing back into a new status quo of the group teaming up with Michael to get to the good place works really well.
There is an issue already, though, which is the whole memory reset thing. While the Jason, Tahani, Chidi, and Eleanor of season two are still technically the same characters from season one, none of the things that happened in the first season inform who they are anymore, which gives a weird sense of pointlessness to all those events. Additionally, it makes for some weirdness where the show rushes through the character development that occurred in season one, so for most of season two Eleanor acts like she did at the end of season one even though she’s had a completely different set of experiences.
Also, I think the memory wiping thing kind of mucks with the whole concept of the bad place. If a person, for the sake of their eternal afterlife, isn’t considered to be the set of their linear experiences and memories, then what really is the purpose of torturing them anyway? They’re more like a plaything at that point, someone who can be continuously reset to being functionally a different person as any changes they’ve had have been erased.
However, I’m not entirely certain that the pointlessness and weirdness of how the bad place is run is an accident. The way The Good Place presents its vision of the afterlife, and the way its central premise is about four “bad” people trying to prove that they can become good and deserving of the good place, seems to imply that a critique of the entire system is in the works. Nothing in the show so far as overtly gone in that direction, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where things go.
Anyway, with the plot stabilized a bit, the show entered a run of episodes that started out just as strong as the season’s beginning as they focused on the surprisingly meaty themes about ethics and morals the show tackles. Then, however there was a weird detour into Tahani and Jason getting together, resulting in Janet having issues because of her previous version’s love (or “love”) for Jason, resulting in her creating some sort of messed-up artificial consciousness in the form of Derek. Coming off of plotlines that dealt with the show’s overall story, this subplot felt really out of place and the stakes of it all felt totally pointless. I would have much rather seen a few more standalone episodes where the group pretend to be tortured by Vicky while teaching Michael various elements of ethics–which just goes to show that serialized plotting isn’t inherently better than episodic material.
Still, the whole Derek subplot doesn’t last very long and the show soon goes back to its story-driven approach after Shawn realizes that Michael is lying to him. This leads to possibly the best episodes in the season as the main characters have to accelerate their plan to get into the good place, leading them through a strangely 1940s-themed party in the bad place and finally to a cosmic judge played impeccably by Maya Rudolph.
Well, finally is the characters being put into what appears to be a simulation of the real world, testing their ability to become better people without knowing it’s the only thing preventing them from an eternity in the bad place. And while nothing the show could do could possibly top the incredible first season finale twist, this is nevertheless a really surprising direction for the show to take and it’s illustrative of how structurally daring The Good Place is.
I mean, like, I talked about it before, but it’s still kind of unbelievable how much The Good Place refused to rest on its already-strong, already-out-there premise. The show could have run for seasons without Eleanor ever revealing that she’s not supposed to be in the good place and instead it thew that away in just the seventh episode. Maybe even more unbelievable is that the show managed to avoid totally falling apart in its second season, with only a few missteps in a otherwise strong set of episodes. And given the strong setup for season three, it seems more likely than not that the show will really hold up as it takes us on this bizarre ride.