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‘The Good Place’ Keeps Raising Its Own Stakes. How High Can It Go?

TV’s most accomplished sitcom has made a habit of complicating its own premise, and then transcending those difficulties. So far, Season 3 is no different.

NBC/Ringer illustration

For its first two seasons, The Good Place regularly achieved the impossible. Like the similarly sunny Jane the Virgin, the NBC sitcom tells a dense, warp-speed story that’s both concealed by and a key part of its effervescent mood. From concept to pacing, Michael Schur’s Parks and Recreation follow-up operates at an almost absurd, and indeed slightly absurdist, degree of difficulty. The show began with a completely novel setting for a network half-hour: a candy-colored version of the afterlife dense with food puns and bottomless shrimp. Schur soon made clear his motivating concern was the philosophical theory and adaptable practice of goodness, not exactly a traditional source of humor. (Rare is the feel-good sitcom that gets more Awwws from Harvard academics than adorable children.) He added a dramatic twist that upended the entire series, concealing it for a season and then ripping off the Band-Aid with an endlessly GIFable moment. And finally, the resulting delicate creation unfolded at hyperspeed, ripping through dozens of scenarios at a time and repeatedly resetting the stakes even after the initial reveal.

The Good Place accomplished all of this without ever calling attention to its own achievements. Such is the paradox of comedy, where breeziness and entertainment value are taken as signs of inconsequence when they’re really just one more benchmark to meet. The Good Place is a show that can and does merit a multi-thousand-word magazine profile elaborating on its virtues, in addition to its already cemented critical adoration. But it’s also possible to enjoy the show, with its PG sensibility and gentle silliness, as an easy distraction. Holding people’s attention is hard enough in this entertainment economy, and contributing something genuinely new even harder. Doing it all without visible sweat stains for years on end borders on a magic trick.

Undaunted, The Good Place’s third volume has seen yet another reconfiguration, arguably its most ambitious yet. Up until the end of Season 2, The Good Place centered on the misadventures of four humans in what they initially believed to be heaven, but that turned out to be an inventive version of hell. But in an attempt to prove the humans deserve a shot at actual heaven, their now-repentant tormentor Michael (Ted Danson) convinced the omnipotent Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) to reverse their deaths. For the characters, this has meant a do-over—a chance to become better people who learn from their mistakes instead of being killed by them. For the show’s third season, it has meant relocating from the whimsical potential of an alternate dimension to the quotidian reality of Earth.

Stripping a supernatural show of its supernatural context is a daunting handicap for a show to place on itself. But The Good Place has performed similarly death-defying feats before, only to pass the self-imposed test on its creativity with flying colors. If a show about the Good Place could actually be about the Bad Place, and if a show about a demon torturing humans could become a show about immortals and mortals alike vying for self-improvement, why couldn’t a show about the afterlife become a show about, well, life? But with each additional contortion, The Good Place makes an already steep climb that much steeper. The mythology gets more intricate; the disparity between individual struggle and cosmic stakes gets wider; the need for growth in characters who remember almost none of what we’ve seen them go through gets harder to satisfy. And six episodes into the current season, the strain of that Herculean effort is starting to show. How long can The Good Place keep upping its own ante?

Season 3 began in Sydney, Australia, with the four protagonists unwittingly reunited—they have no memories of their time in the Good/Bad Place—under the auspices of a near-death experiences study. Philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and his girlfriend Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a season newcomer, are running the proceedings; Arizona dirtbag Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Florida dirtbag Jason (Manny Jacinto), and snobby heiress Tahani (Jameela Jamil) are the subjects; behind the scenes, Michael and his all-knowing deputy Janet (D’Arcy Carden), on the lam from the existential authorities and stripped of their powers, are working to influence their experiment’s outcome. But while Howell-Baptiste, lately of Barry and Killing Eve, is a welcome presence, her character never quite found a place in the ensemble before Chidi broke things off with her. (This being The Good Place, a return is not entirely out of the question.)

The main quartet’s ignorance of their group’s true purpose also contributed to a relative lack of momentum in the season’s earliest episodes. The absence of a central conflict drawing together every character—like Eleanor realizing she’s been mistakenly sorted into heaven, or the humans and Michael engaging in a battle of the wills—was a direct result of The Good Place daring itself to enter uncharted territory. By once again rewriting its ground rules and voluntarily sacrificing some of its paranormal zaniness, The Good Place was moving forward, but also having trouble settling on a direction. And the shared goal it settled on came with its own challenges.

With the mortals’ discovery of their true circumstances, the season has shifted into a second phase. Now that they know their actions could have a potential reward, Eleanor and Co. can’t get into the Good Place; instead, they resolve to help their loved ones redeem themselves. This mission has led to some of the show’s strongest character work to date, as in a recent episode in which Eleanor confronted the emotional fallout from her neglectful mother, as well as her inability to accept that her mother is capable of change. It’s also another escalation of the show’s themes, and a subversion of storytelling norms. What more sincere way to make a show about morality than to remove self-interest altogether? And what if, after convincing us to invest in characters’ fate, a show took their fates as a foregone conclusion and became about something else?

But, uncharacteristically for a show that positively revels in the nitty-gritty of its high-flying hypotheticals, there’s a plot hole in the middle of this scheme. According to the previously outlined rules of the universe, the actual Good Place is reserved for an infinitesimally small portion of the overall population, the best of the best. It’s an environment so rarefied even a professional ethicist and a billionaire philanthropist couldn’t get in, simply because one was indecisive and the other was a narcissist. Presumably, a serial scam artist like Eleanor’s mom wouldn’t have a shot at making the cut, even if she spent the rest of her life as a new woman. And presumably someone like Janet, who must know everyone’s karmic balance because she knows everything, would point this out.

Such a logic gap feels out of step with the same show that’s gone out of its way to explain exactly how much time elapsed while Eleanor and her friends were being tortured, or why Chidi, originally from Nigeria, speaks totally unaccented English. But it’s also the most telling example of The Good Place’s larger challenge to figure out what it is, and how it works, without the anything-can-happen blank slate of Michael’s infinitely adjustable torture chamber, or the simple can-these-people-get-into-heaven rubric of its first two parts. Much of Thursday night’s episode consists of flashbacks to Eleanor’s pre-resurrection period, and there’s a palpable nostalgia for a time when the show could introduce a new fantasy element or deus ex machina at any time. And while, in the long term, The Good Place seems headed toward our heroes upending the manifestly unjust system of eternal damnation for the many and reward for just a precious few, the smaller task it’s assigned its cast as a bridge has a makeshift feel.

The Good Place has proved time and time again that it’s usually a half-dozen steps ahead of its audience. No one saw the first season’s big reveal coming; no sooner did it occur to me that Michael and Janet would have to reveal themselves to the humans, possibly an episode or two down the line, than they did, 10 minutes later. The Good Place found itself at its current crossroads by pushing relentlessly forward, pinching and tugging at its status quo until almost nothing is a given except the charismatic people at its center. Sometimes, that’s a liability; more often than not, it’s a way out, and up.