The first two seasons of NBC’s very good The Good Place rose above its expectations with its near unbeatable ability to surprise it’s viewers, pulling the rug out from under us a number of times in just as many episodes. From learning that they were actually in the Bad Place and Ted Danson’s affably scattered Michael was a demon orchestrating it all to his progression to being a friend and loyal team player, to the season two finale where Eleanor, Chidi and co., were sent back to earth, reversing their deaths into order to see if they could make it to the Good Place on their own, the series had gleeful, palpable fun in subverting our expectations and hitting the reset button. They continued that breakneck pace of racing through plot in season three to varying results.
The start of season three was as enjoyable as the two prior but there was the sinking feeling that the writers were killing time having burnt through too much plot too quick to reasonably slow down to a more even keel. While there was charm in seeing our characters once again back to their most basic characteristics (a trash bag, impossible neurotic, narcissist and big ol’ dummy) the show lost some of that magical spark that came with the hours of character growth they’d already gone through. More importantly, it took away the dynamics between the leads as they begun, once again, as strangers needing to build up their relationships once again.
Janet and Eleanor (and, to an extent, Chidi) ended the latest season finale the most fully formed and fully developed although this is about to be reset too after Chidi announced he needed his memory wiped to accurately do the study now that his ex-girlfriend Simone’s entry into the Good Place compromised him. With Janet it’s all in the small details before they’re brought to our attention, seeing it in her ability to lie on command without being told to, only relying on her ability to read the room, her increasing frustration and of course, genuine love of Jason. Even her acknowledgement that while she isn’t a girl or a robot, but is a friend to Eleanor is an significant change to her prior aloofness when it came to the group she’d found herself in. She was always one of the funniest aspects of the series, in large part accredited to D’Arcy Carden’s committed performance but she’s now become a crucial part of the heart as well. It isn’t enough to see four flawed strangers come together or even a demon architect put aside millions of years of behaviors to come to love those four, we too need to see what essentially behaves as an universe wide interface grow a soul.
Eleanor has always been the lead of the series so our investment will primarily be focused on her development (and all of the relationships she develops – most notably with Chidi and Michael) but this is arguably Kristen Bell’s best season of work as the character. She’s damaged goods but we see her more actively than ever working on herself to improve which brings her in contact with her estranged- believed to be dead- mother on earth as well as her feelings about Chidi and how they’ve been consistent through every reset. The latter is the most frightening to Eleanor who, despite a well performed charade of acerbic nonchalance, has flown solo for so long due to deeply built fears of abandonment. Seeing her put herself fully out there and be vulnerable is a testament to how fully showrunner Michael Shur dedicates his series to seeing the good in humans. He believes in kindness and empathy and the ability to humans to change if given the chance, a backbone to most of his series but one that is fully on display in The Good Place.
It’s the point of the whole series: can humans change? Is it possible to be fully good when living in such a chaotic and undermining world where the trickle effect of one bad deed could have repercussions for decades to come? What are the root causes of evil and purity and, more intriguingly, what are the motives behind each? For a series that infuses itself with an innate silliness and actors such as Maya Rudolph and Manny Jacinto get to play larger than life joke machines (and please, more for Jason/Jacinto to do in season four because his comedic physicality is genius) it cuts to honesty and humanism more often than not. Perhaps it’s a mark of our time where we need to see people – even in death – strive for better understanding of one another, to fight the futility that is a broken world, and ensure the happiness of millions even if they’re doomed to an eternity in hell.
The Good Place, even in its lesser moments, is so uniformly optimistic that it always manages to soothe the spirit on a weekly basis. The actors across the board share tremendous chemistry with one another and it’s that along with the narrative playfulness, visual hijinks and deceptively complex notion that we can and should be better that allows it to remain one of comedies best fostered treasures. If Tahani can learn to be less narcissistic, if Jason can be sweet, Chidi courageous, Michael supportive, Janet empathetic and Eleanor self-reflective, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.