The Good Place is a horrifically dark vision of an unjust cosmos where virtually the entire human race is condemned to eternal suffering in the afterlife, unbeknownst to the living. It is also a sunny, upbeat, congenitally kind sitcom from the creator of Parks and Recreation. Prior to its third season, which came to a conclusion on Thursday night, the NBC comedy was able to foreground the second version of itself while obscuring the first. In its latest volume, however, The Good Place no longer hid its contradictions—initially to its detriment, and then, eventually, to its advantage.
Even before the first season finale, when Michael Schur and his writers unveiled the bombshell revelation that its rainbow-hued heaven was in fact a devilishly intricate hell, there were signs that something was rotten in this frozen-yogurt-filled version of Denmark. As self-identified architect Michael (Ted Danson) shows the jaded, selfish Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) around her new home in the show’s very first episode, he blithely informs her this paradise of soulmates and the power of flight is open to only the tiniest fraction of the human race. The rest, from the truly abominable to the merely not good enough, are doomed to a realm of suffering we never actually see, though we do know it involves penis flatteners. It’s barely lingered on at first, but the injustice is there.
Once Eleanor and her compatriots learned their true fate, The Good Place inched closer to a systemic indictment of its fictional world, if just barely. But even though its protagonists had landed in the Bad Place, deservedly or not, they were still in a world that looked like the Good Place, putting larger questions about humanity’s plight at both a literal and figurative distance. Besides, this is television: Audiences attach themselves to the stories of individual characters, not abstract concepts. And while The Good Place does deal with concepts far more philosophical than those found in the typical network half-hour, its heroes were still concerned with the title quandary of T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. They weren’t yet asking what the universe owed to them, or to anyone. The Good Place core four were looking to succeed within the system, not topple it altogether.
This latest season of The Good Place has shifted its focus from what Eleanor and her friends can do for themselves to what they can do for everyone else. Such a development is both a logical progression for a show about ethics—one can be only so ethical when selfishly, if understandably, trying to save oneself from eternal damnation—and an awkward transition. Caught between the blank slate of its earliest episodes and the increasingly apparent destination of its later ones, The Good Place found itself mired in an awkward middle, first stalling out on Earth, then setting up a quixotic quest to help other deeply flawed humans redeem themselves despite everything viewers, and certain immortal characters, know of the rigged odds against them.
Not coincidentally, The Good Place recalibrated once it finally made this heavy tilt explicit. After fleeing as an interdimensional fugitive to the Accounting department—a sort of convoluted, Office Space–like version of Anubis’s scale—Michael made the horrifying discovery that no humans had qualified for the Good Place since the early Renaissance. Initially, he believed this was because Bad Place agents were deliberately sabotaging the math; later, he deduced the much more boring, and depressing, truth. The complicated, interconnected nature of life on Earth makes it so that living a completely moral life is effectively impossible. It’s the butterfly effect in action, but with an algorithm that doesn’t care whether the butterfly meant to cause the storm or not—and punishes it accordingly.
But while this pivot has come with increased momentum, it also comes with a challenge of its own: How can a show center the borderline dystopian truth of its premise while keeping the bright, whimsical sense of humor that sold, and distracted, fans in the first place? The Good Place has constant change built into its DNA, but it can’t change so much that it’s unrecognizable to those first drawn in by its sweetness and optimism. The challenge is a matter of tone as much as plot.
In a characteristically clever twist, The Good Place’s solution is to make its new normal look pretty much like its old one, with a few underlying truths irrevocably changed. Our characters now once again occupy a facsimile of the actual Good Place designed as an experiment. Except, instead of devising a novel way to torture humans, this new trial aims to prove humans really can improve themselves, even after death, and therefore don’t deserve to be judged on what they were able to accomplish in life. The quirky food puns and sincere concern with ethics are the same, but the stakes and context are very different. The Good Place is no longer skirting around the darkness, but it is easing the shock.
And also, at times, embracing it. “Pandemonium,” the finale, is named for the capital of Hell in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a reference Eleanor cites while resolving to lean into all the chaos and hurt. Her boyfriend, the perpetually agitated ethicist Chidi (William Jackson Harper), has just opted to erase his memory of their relationship in order to prioritize the success of the experiment, of which his ex-girlfriend Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is now a subject. It’s convoluted, but it involves Eleanor and Chidi sacrificing their own happiness for the greater good, their own exquisitely awful version of the many high-concept hypotheticals they’ve pondered as part of their studies.
The reality is that darkness isn’t antithetical to a sitcom, even one as earnest and fundamentally nice as The Good Place. When venting to the all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden), Eleanor demands some version of logic or fairness: “There has to be meaning to existence. Otherwise the universe is just made of pain, and I don’t like the thought of that.” Of course, the universe is made of pain, sort of—a fact The Good Place has now spelled out on a theoretical level and illustrated on a deeply personal one. Yet Janet still encourages her friend to keep trying, searching for the moments of humanity that make the universe more than “a big, dumb food processor.” By the season’s closing moments, Eleanor has opted to embrace pandemonium, and The Good Place has shown its intention to keep pressing on. A darker cloud only makes the silver lining more bright.