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Television’s smartest — and easily one of its best — comedies, NBC’s The Good Place, is set to return for its third twist-filled, morally complex season, and we’re all better for it. There’s probably a test to prove that.
If you haven’t already discovered the show, from the brilliant mind of Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office), you could easily binge the first two seasons and then quickly return — or even return at your own casual pace, since this is Peak TV and nobody really cares about ratings urgency anymore — and reconnect. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot about philosophy and ethics, because those are the core tenets of a sitcom (go figure) that takes a sly and hilarious look at existentialism and whether people can actually be truly good while mostly, in the first season, tricking you into thinking it has a simple premise. (And yes, I know that nothing that dabbles in the things mentioned in my prior sentence could be considered simple, but that’s the real charm of season one, so go binge those first two seasons on Netflix if you haven’t already).
Air date: Sep 27, 2018
For those caught up, it’s probably less of a revelation to note that The Good Place is changing (or evolving) yet again. Television’s most constantly fresh (and refreshed) premise probably will take an even bigger turn in future episodes, but the first four offered up for review (the first is a double episode) certainly furthers previous twists while uniting the gang on Earth.
After Michael (Ted Danson) spent most of season two becoming an honorary human and bettering himself (while running an elaborate ruse on his fellow demons), his belief in the emerging post-life goodness of his four humans — Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) — remains strong. And, sure, perhaps a little misplaced.
Eleanor’s efforts to be a good person back on Earth (her memory swiped clean so she’s starting from scratch, remember) prove to be less than successful and there are a couple of steps backward, reverting to form. What we learn is that left to their own devices, the four flawed humans will muck things up for themselves. I like to think Schur and his writers remind us of exactly how awful we can be by looking at the day’s headlines and getting discouraged and then writing episodes that prove we’re all trash people, only to find something positive (a human trait!) in the dreck and steer the fantastic foursome (well, okay, Jason isn’t super fantastic, but he tries) toward something good and redeeming. In season three, Michael decides what they really need is a little nudge toward coming together, so he heads to Earth to get them all to Australia for yet another do-over, which is only the latest Lost reference you can find on The Good Place if you care to delve into it (many have).
Once in Australia, Chidi and university colleague Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Killing Eve) set about seeing if Chidi’s new thesis — on whether you become a better person after a near-death experience — has legs. Simone’s access to the university’s expensive MRI machine can help highlight areas of the brain that might bear out some truths, but clearly the real test will be out in the field. Back in the Bad Place, however, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) is working feverishly to find out what Michael is up to. Once he gets a hint, Chidi’s experiment will get its first test as Shawn sends for — wait for it — Trevor (Adam Scott). It’s almost impossible to create a worse demon representing all that’s bad about humanity than Trevor, of course, and Scott’s hilarious turn in the role continues, undefeated.
But upsetting the cart isn’t all about Trevor — Michael has yet to learn from his over-tinkering mistakes and now that he’s doing that on Earth, there are repercussions and ripple effects to resetting the timeline (as a flabbergasted Judge Gen, played by Maya Rudolph, reiterates to him in frustration).
Again, season three will probably have numerous twists, but being down on Earth (which can’t be the Good Place, can it, with all this awfulness around us?) gives Schur and the writers so much to tap into. The show keeps up its rapid-fire pace of jokes and is so assured and effortless in this regard that it can tap into simple, silly things, like Michael’s astonishment at what he sees on Earth (“And I saw this place that was at once a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell! The mind reels … a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell”), while also cleverly savaging Vice by referencing a similar but fictitious hipster news series, Squalor (“Oh, we’re doing a new show. About poverty, drug lords, gun running, weird-ass restaurants, skateboarding … oh, and also genocide. It’s called ‘Society is F’d'”).
All of this is happening at breakneck speed, so if you zone out even for a second, you’ll miss creatively random one-liners like “leg-press whizzer” or call-backs like “Choose something deeply terrible,” or maybe the best Airbnb joke of the last several years. There’s an ongoing Blake Bortles joke that keeps the obscure Jacksonville Jaguars humor alive, and also this gem about a totally deserted area of Chidi’s university: “What do they use it for, storage?” “No, this is the journalism department.”
Rejoicing in the hilarity that The Good Place doles out so generously can sometimes obscure the fact that it has built such a strong collection of characters, from Danson’s delightful depiction of Michael to Bell’s virtuoso turns as Eleanor to Harper’s manically and intellectually complicated Chidi — the glue that holds the series together — all the way to one of my personal favorites, “not a robot” Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who is a delight in every scene. Jamil as Tahani, the “sexy statue,” is also underrated in her comic timing, and Jacinto’s ability to play the dumbest person imaginable without falling into other actors’ well-worn representation of that is also a real unappreciated gift.
The Good Place thrives in many ways because we want to spend time with these characters, even as they are tweaked and reinvented on the fly as part of the series’ code. I feel like one can never have enough Mindy St. Claire (the wonderful Maribeth Monroe), the cocaine-loving, excessively pro-masturbation resident of the Medium Place, with her ever-changing hideous 1980s house and clothes.
The Good Place is arguably the most underappreciated comedy on television, though Schur’s other gem, Brooklyn Nine-Nine would certainly be an equally good candidate (as would the animated Bob’s Burgers, but now I’m digressing). The point is these are all broadcast network comedies, and the further that modernity in the form of streaming takes us away from the relic of networks, the more likely we all are to shift our gaze elsewhere to generate buzz. But don’t forget The Good Place (and yes, as mentioned, you can use Netflix to stream the first two seasons), the only show on television of any kind where you can get intellectually stimulating and abstract lessons on philosophy and morality while also laughing hysterically at made-up swear words and pop culture.
Cast: Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Marc Evan Jackson, Maribeth Monroe
Created by: Michael Schur
Premieres: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)
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