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How ‘The Good Place’ Mastered the Art of the Twist

The show’s second season is a 180 from its first—and still totally delightful

NBC

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Thursday night’s episode of The Good Place.

As The Good Place prepared to spring its premise-flipping twist on an unsuspecting viewership, the show had the advantage of surprise. No one thought to associate the affable and, historically, undemanding network half-hour format with serialized storytelling, let alone such dramatic reversals of alignments and sympathies. But when the January finale revealed that the titular Good Place, where Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) believed she’d been mistakenly sent to spend her afterlife, was actually an experimental version of the ominously named Bad Place, creator Mike Schur leveraged those expectations to his advantage. No one thinks to look for clues when they don’t even know there’s a mystery.

The twist, however ingenuous, immediately saddled The Good Place’s second season with the burden of expectations. The problem with a blindside is it can be accomplished only once; viewers’ naïveté regarding the show’s true ambitions can never be restored. Just as The Good Place ended its freshman run like no broadcast comedy had before, it faced a similarly unique quandary going into last month’s hour-long premiere: Now that the wool had finally been pulled from the audience’s eyes, what was there for them to see?

Fortunately, The Good Place sidestepped the trap that other twist-happy shows have fallen into, attempting in vain to recapture the magic of that first unveiling with other, lesser stunts. (Schur himself acknowledged such an effort would be futile in a podcast interview with The Ringer’s Andy Greenwald.) Instead, the NBC comedy has carefully and creatively spent the first three weeks of its season constructing an entirely new set of alliances and conflicts — and, in Thursday’s “Team Cockroach,” finally arrived at something resembling a status quo. The comedy hasn’t merely risen to the challenge it set for itself; it’s also demonstrated the possibilities of upending an entire story, not just its constraints.

Unshackled from the staid-and-stable templates of office banter or family squabbles — or even, given that it takes place on a metaphysical plane, from the basic bylaws of time and space — The Good Place is free to follow its flights of fancy wherever it pleases, whether that destination involves giant flying cocktail shrimp, a lazy river of clam chowder, or a demon who earned a place in the Bad Place Hall of Fame for inventing bees with teeth. That sense of excitement is also what makes the show such a daunting feat of storytelling: The freedom to do anything is automatically paired with the terrifying prospect of having no foundation to fall back on for guidance or consistency. Yet even after its initial sunniness was shown to be a cover for a much grimmer reality, The Good Place has preserved this palpable sense of joy; just look at this monster food-pun list that writer Megan Amram submitted for Episode 3. This freewheeling sensibility has become its own kind of tonal stability: Even when The Good Place has done a 180, its humor is still in a similar mood.

Which isn’t to say the show hasn’t made dramatic changes to its MO to match its dramatic reorientation. The already brisk pace of the action has only increased: It took The Good Place’s central foursome of tormented souls — Eleanor, indecisive ethicist Chidi (William Jackson Harper), vain socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Florida personified Jason (Manny Jacinto) — all 13 episodes of the first season to realize they were actually in a fake Good Place custom-built to make them miserable. When architect Michael (Ted Danson) reset the entire project and wiped the humans’ memories in the finale’s closing minutes, it seemed entirely possible that it would take them a season more to work their way out this latest bind, or at least several episodes. It took them just one. By premiere’s end, Michael was forced to reboot his faux–Good Place once again.

Amram’s “Dance Dance Resolution” upped the ante further. The Good Place’s best stand-alone installment to date blazes through more than 800 iterations of Michael’s dream nightmare scenario turned just plain nightmare, toying with the logical extremes of a world that can take any form for any amount of time without its inhabitants aging or even noticing what’s going on. We see versions of the Good/Bad Place where the humans are cowboys, or monks, or forced to cohabitate with a golden retriever, or subject to three hours of spoken-word jazz opera. We see helpful assistant-spirit Janet (D’Arcy Carden) beg for her life, as she’s pre-programmed to, citing the Hamilton tickets she has yet to use. And we see Michael, over and over again, be outwitted by his subjects’ ingenuity — including, in a self-described “real low point,” by Jason, whom Eleanor later calls “literally the dumbest person I’ve ever met.”

This week’s “Team Cockroach” pumps the brakes, countering the overwhelming freneticism of “Dance Dance Resolution” with The Good Place’s version of a bottle episode. Where “Dance Dance Resolution” is all about the limitless world that surrounds these characters, “Team Cockroach” is all about the characters themselves. Michael has offered a truce to the humans: They pretend to be duped by his scheme, and in return, they’ll get to keep their memories — plus he’ll try to smuggle them to the real Good Place. For the next 20 minutes, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason proceed to debate Michael’s proposal among themselves, an argument driven by the flaws and personalities that landed them in this Heaven-passing Hell to begin with, and that the first season outlined so well. Eleanor, always looking out for number one, wants to bail and leave everyone else out to dry. Chidi, the most genuinely well-meaning, urges her to stay so the four can try to become better people together. Tahani, ever entitled, demands to speak to a manager and go to the Good Place, where she still thinks she belongs. And Jason has no idea what’s going on. Eventually, they agree to Michael’s terms, with one condition: Along with Tahani and Jason, he join in on the how-to-be-ethical lessons that Chidi administered to Eleanor throughout Season 1. He’s on Team Cockroach now.

By episode’s end, The Good Place has restored a sense of structure, sustainable plot, and overarching goals after spending just the right amount of time in pleasant anarchy. Michael is no longer manipulating the humans in his charge; he’s collaborating with them with the shared goal of fooling both Michael’s subordinate Vicky (Tiya Sarcar), who’s blackmailed control of the experiment away from him, and his Bad Place boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), lest everyone become “the main ingredient in a chowder of pain.” The Good Place has finally recalibrated, and in a way that doesn’t feel either forced or stalled.

There is a meta dimension to all this, though The Good Place plays it soft. As a figure tasked with crafting an airtight, self-contained universe its inhabitants can’t crack, Michael’s role bears an undeniable resemblance to that of a showrunner trying to create a reality its onlookers can’t outsmart. At one point in the episode, the humans start peppering Michael with questions about his scheme, an interrogation that begins to sound a lot like online commenters picking apart a reveal after the fact. (Why lie about some things, but not everything? How could they trust Michael now? Would the real Good Place even take them?) In the hands of a more mean-spirited show, the scene would read like a mockery of overeager fans. Here, it feels like a tribute to those same fans’ intelligence, which The Good Place never insults.

It’s a philosophy shared by many of TV’s best shows: If the audience sees something coming, fast-forward past it until you get to something they don’t. While The Good Place clearly sees the value in keeping viewers in the dark in the name of a good payoff, the show doesn’t bother keeping its characters ignorant while viewers impatiently wait for them to wise up. So The Good Place dispensed with what most anticipated as its season-long arc in a single hour, freeing up space for something much weirder, wilder, and more fun to watch.