The Good Place just wrapped up an excellent first season with back-to-back episodes, the latter with some big reveals and bigger changes in store for what will hopefully be season 2. I have thoughts on all that went down coming up just as soon as I rule the fart inadmissible…
Well, that makes much more sense, doesn’t it?
For a lot of this season, something seemed off about what we thought was the Good Place. It wasn’t just the presence of Fake Eleanor(*) and Jason, but the fact that Tahani seemed so conceited and offhandedly mean, that Chidi was both a bad writer and someone who was miserable virtually all of the time while in what was supposed to be Heaven, and that other people in the neighborhood seemed to be having problems independent of the ones being caused by Eleanor and Jason. Two explanations seemed possible for this: sloppy writing that sacrificed thematic consistency for the sake of jokes, or the Good Place was meant to seem off. And since Mike Schur shows don’t tend to sell out their characters and worlds if a punchline calls for it, the idea that there was more here than meets the eye made much more sense.
(*) If there’s one disappointing aspect of the reveal, it’s that we lose the chance to call our main character Fake Eleanor. Even if the rebooted storyline still has Vicky pretending to be another woman named Eleanor Shellstrop, we know now that she’s the fake.
As a result, the revelation in “Michael’s Gambit” that it’s the neighborhood that’s fake, not Eleanor — that Michael is actually a Bad Place architect who came up with an elaborate new method of torturing humans, with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, and Janet as the only ones there who aren’t in on the prank — wasn’t a jaw-dropping surprise(*), but it was hugely satisfying. It fit most of what seemed wrong with the premise to date, and as Jason notes, he even said (back in episode 4) that he thought this was all part of a prank show.
(*) Though based on my Twitter mentions tonight, many of you did drop your jaws. But as someone who didn’t, this serves as a nice counterpoint to Westworld, a show I didn’t get a ton of value out of once the Internet had solved the mysteries ahead of schedule, because the mysteries superseded whatever else the creative team was trying to do. Here, I enjoy the characters, the tone, and the worldview, so even if I had been told what the twist was in advance (as opposed to it being a nagging suspicion in the back of my head), I’d have still gotten pleasure out of the show as a whole.
Comically and narratively, the show gains far more than it loses with this information. It’s damn hard to generate laughs out of minor imperfections in Heaven, as we saw throughout a season that trended more towards funny/clever than funny/ha-ha most of the time. The show’s best episodes from a joke standpoint were the ones featuring Trevor and the other Bad Place employees, and now it turns out that that virtually everyone we’ll see is one of Trevor’s co-workers, and hates Eleanor and her friends just as much as Trevor did. As entertaining as it was to see Ted Danson play a character as joyful and anxiety-prone as the good version of Michael we thought we were watching, he should be able to equal, if not pass, Adam Scott in the portrayal of smug, gleeful villainy, and now every other guest star can join him. Plus, because Michael is for now trying the experiment all over from scratch, he still has to spend some of the time playing that version of the character we already liked, and if Eleanor is successful in foiling his plans again, we may get to see panic and despair that’s even realer than the last time he put on the hoodie.
And where the idea of wiping the main characters’ memories of everything that happened in the first season so they can relive the events — as explicit a use of the reset button as you’ll see on a TV show — could in theory be incredibly annoying, the approach here instead feels very promising. It’s not just that Michael has already made changes, starting with giving Eleanor a different fake soulmate, but that the quest to remember the truth and break this cycle now becomes the point of the thing. It’s a reset button involving characters who don’t want to be reset if it means more psychological torture, not to mention forgetting about each other and the things they’ve learned. (And rebelling against her Bad Place overlords seems a better use of Kristen Bell’s skillset than when Eleanor is at her most abrasive.)
What seemed to be the original premise — bad woman admitted into Heaven via clerical error tries to learn how to be good enough to stay — never felt like enough to fuel years and years worth of stories. The introduction of Jason suggested the plan was to keep revealing new imperfections to the Good Place so that Chidi’s Pygmalion routine with Eleanor didn’t have to be stretched out past the point of usefulness. This, though, is more exciting. You can question some of the character logic involved — as Shawn notes, this is an awful lot of effort being put toward torturing four people, and their misery levels varied wildly over these months (really, Chidi is the only one who’s been unhappy for most of his time here) — but as much as I enjoyed this first season, this new/old status quo feels like a better use of all the resources available to The Good Place, and a chance for a very good show to (like some other Schur comedies) maybe become a great one.
Lots of other thoughts, since discussion of the twist could risk overwhelming talk of various silly and/or interesting things that happened in these two episodes:
* Schur has chosen to go radio silent for once after a finale, leaving us to puzzle through all the implications of what we just saw. The thing I’m most curious about: is the Medium Place where Mindy St. Claire lives a real location in the afterlife? Our Janet is one that Michael swiped from the Good Place, but she’s been reprogrammed at least enough to not realize where she’s working now, so it could be that the Medium Place and Mindy are also part of this elaborate con. But if it’s meant to be real, it’s problematic in the way the Good Place was when we were meant to be believe it was good. After all, Mindy is spared physical torture and all the other things that happen in the Bad Place, but an eternity of solitude, with nothing she really enjoys — even if there’s also nothing she entirely hates — feels incredibly cruel for all but the most hardcore loner. (If, say, Ron Swanson was sentenced to the Medium Place, it would probably have a lot of people in it to annoy him. You know, maybe working with Leslie Knope was Ron’s Medium Place?)
* That said, I’m pretty sure I once owned Cannonball Run 2 — but not The Making of Cannonball Run 2 — on VHS.
* As with Shawn, Schur probably could have tried stunt casting the role of Mindy. Instead, he went with a talented but lesser-known comic performer in Maribeth Monroe. Monroe appeared a few times on Parks and Rec as Elise Yarktin, the head of the Indiana Organization of Women, who once gave her award to Ron.
* Another Parks alum: Jama Williamson, who played Tom’s wife in the first few seasons, was the Bad Place co-worker who inadvertently inspired Michael’s gambit. And that was the voice of Parks writer (and occasional guest star) Joe Mande was Todd Hemple, the brimstone demon who got confused about conference room availability.
* The flashback that opens up “Mindy St. Claire” should also have been a clue that something isn’t right with what Eleanor’s been told, since Real Eleanor/Vicky is nowhere to be seen as the grocery carts come barreling towards our heroine.
* The “Mindy St. Claire” flashbacks also reveal another key piece of the emotional puzzle for Eleanor: she got emancipated as a teenager because her parents were so awful and selfish, she decided she would rather be on her own, forever. (Also, Eleanor’s supposed to be 14 in that flashback — faking her age to more quickly get away from her parents — since Bell is playing Eleanor by the time she’s in her late teens.)
* Among the things Eleanor did to lose points during her life: heckling of mall Santas (x9), salad bars sneezed on (x12), scalped Epipens (x4), started fire in mailbox to get mailman to take off shirt, showed a 9-year-old The Shining, brief Instagram flirtation with Kid Rock, lifetime ban from Build-a-Bear, movie endings ruined (x35), took selfie in bathroom at great aunt’s funeral, and cyber bullying of pregnant woman from spin class.
* Shawn, meanwhile, doesn’t need much evidence to convict Jason: “Oh, he’s from Florida. Bad Place.”
* Of course fedoras are required headgear when you go to the Bad Place. Of course they are.
* The twist also makes “Chidi’s Choice” work much better in hindsight, in that the whole point of it was showing what an annoying person he was in life, and explaining how he wound up in The Bad Place with the other three.
So that’s it for The Good Place — for now, at least. As I said last time, I feel pretty confident about renewal (more than for Parks at certain junctures), but we won’t know for sure until NBC announces something, which may not be until the upfronts in May.
What did everybody else think? Are you excited by this new direction, or would you have rather Schur stayed what seemed to be the course?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org