The Good Place reinvents itself — again
I have a confession to make: I usually hate sitcoms. There is something inherently tiring about the 20-minute format after the first or second season. What might have started out as a great concept tends to, by the 20th episode, rehash the same jokes and the same scenarios. And the characters, with their exaggerated eccentricities, quickly overstay their welcome.
But The Good Place is different.
Michael Schur's comedy about one of the most specific situations imaginable — people navigating the afterlife — has managed to satisfyingly reinvent itself multiple times, making it one of the boldest and best shows on television. The third season, which premieres tonight on NBC, leaves the titular concept behind entirely. The place now is neither good nor bad, but Earth. This feels like the show's optimal setting, where jokes have the room to become more topical, characters are given the space to grow in new ways, and the show's writers get to continue to explore just how embarrassing and difficult it is to be a good person.
I admit I didn't see this coming. In the middle of the first season, I became concerned that the show would age even more quickly than most sitcoms. I couldn't imagine how another season could keep up the momentum of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) trying to slip by as a misplaced bad person in the Good Place with the help of her ethics professor "soulmate," Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Then came season one's big twist and the way the second season quickly processed it. Most shows would have milked that reveal for all it was worth, endlessly resetting each character at the end of every episode. But the second season fast-forwarded through all that. Instead, by the fourth episode of season two, the show had reshuffled its entire concept into something like a great escape comedy.
The Good Place has now turned reinvention into its hallmark. The third season begins with yet another change, with the episode title, "Everything is Bonzer!," giving an Aussie nod to the structural similarity of the new beginnings depicted in season one's "Everything is Fine!" and season two's "Everything is Great!" Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) have been sent back to Earth, their memories of Bad Place shenanigans again wiped, only to be saved from their deaths by the intervention of Michael (Ted Danson), who then returns to the afterlife to watch what happens. Well, mostly to watch. It quickly becomes clear that the humans are failing to become good all on their own, so Michael and his sidekick, Janet (D'Arcy Carden), decide to illegally meddle.
While season three's 40-minute first episode helps get viewers back up to speed, it also boldly abandons the concept that earned it fans in the first place. Michael is, by all appearances, a good guy now; Janet is growing increasingly humanish; and Eleanor and company are on a self-improvement kick, completely unaware of the consequences that lie ahead if they fail their cosmic ethics exam. At least on the surface, the third season of The Good Place could practically be the first season of a different show, if it weren't for Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason's familiar foibles.
Additionally, by locating itself on Earth this season, The Good Place changes the pace of its humor. It diverges from hypotheticals and puts Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in circumstances where their decisions have real outcomes, heightening the stakes. The "trolley problem," for instance, has a much messier ending in real life. Also by virtue of being set on Earth, the show creeps into new, previously unexplored comedic grounds: Michael's observation about an abandoned university journalism wing being "bad for the world, but good for us" is a rare moment of political topicality in a show that has, to date, merely dealt with how mildly terrible the afterlife is — not yet having explored how mildly terrible being alive is, too.
It shouldn't be possible to rewrite characters every season, stick them in an entirely new setting, and have everything just keep rolling, as hilarious and strong and smart as ever. But the revamp is necessary to stave off any drag — even as a huge fan of the show, I admit the final third of season two was beginning to lose me at times. By relocating to Earth, the show's writers can (and do) introduce new characters, which change the chemistry of the central cast. And while the Good Place had served as a nearly single-stage for 26 episodes (I might have screamed if I had to look at Eleanor's clown collection one more time), now the characters roam the entire world.
The Good Place doesn't just stay great despite its radical season-to-season changes; they're the very reason it is one of the best shows on television, and one that is criminally under-appreciated. It refuses to go gentle into that good sitcom night, to smolder in that uninspired limbo where other shows go when they're too afraid to try something new. All that being said, I admit to being a little nervous: After faux heaven and real hell, and now Earth, where could the show possibly go in season four? The real Good Place?
I'm not going to worry about it too much, though. It is always so much more bonzer than I could ever imagine.