Trae Patton/Yahoo/Sony Pictures Television; Colleen Hayes/NBC
David Canfield
October 20, 2017 AT 11:30 AM EDT

The Good Place is not like any other show on network television. The comedy series created by Michael Schur started out deceptively simple — a story about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) wrongly sent to heaven after death — before ending its first season with a stunner of a twist: Eleanor and similarly displaced friends Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) were actually living out eternity in “The Bad Place.” The immortal being Michael (Ted Danson), an afterlife “architect,” had constructed a shimmery fake heaven to deliberately fool the quartet and torture them simply by forcing them into existence with one another — to run into conflict, to build resentments, to act out on feelings of jealousy. The whole thing was an elaborate trolling, with Eleanor and co. rendered powerless puppets at the whim of sadistic demons. Their memories could be reset at any time. And all for a little dramatic flair.

The Good Place, increasingly, has become a meta-meditation on the nature of episodic storytelling in a fashion not unlike a past NBC comedy: Community. The Dan Harmon series also began with the deceptively simple premise of a disbarred lawyer, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who ends up hanging with a group of misfits at his local community college. Yet the show took on a sitcom-about-a-sitcom identity, questioning storytelling clichés in a way that made it feel both fresh and timeless — meta-lightning in a TV bottle. This is why both it and The Good Place hold the rare distinction of being unpredictable broadcast comedies. They transcend their sameness by interrogating it.

In The Good Place, this has become especially clear in season 2, which premiered in September. Michael erases his subjects’ minds in the premiere, refining the experiment’s contours so they can’t figure out that they’re actually in the “bad place.” (He fails, thousands of times.) Michael is a storyteller trying to stay one step ahead of his audience — bearing a resemblance to Robert Ford of Westworld, a show consistently in dialogue with viewers on such matters — only his passion is sadistically instead of creatively motivated. His evil spirit underlings are like actors, irritated by the erratic nature of his plotting and his constantly forcing them to shift character. One such player, Vicky (Tiya Sircar), was “cast” as “Good Eleanor” in season 1; she expresses frustration with Michael giving her less meaty material as “Denise” in season 2. Michael tries assuring her, “Denise is a good part with a great backstory.” It’s no coincidence that our “Good Place” creator shares a name with his own Good Place creator, Michael Schur.

Like Community, The Good Place’s meta structure has a very specific target beyond the mechanics of TV production: the network sitcom. The show is consumed by the stasis that defines broadcast comedy, the equilibrium that keeps ensembles of beloved characters together. Michael’s vision in The Good Place is limited by his bosses, grumps in suits — think network executives — who don’t understand why he can’t just stick to the formula and throw the hell-bound into the inferno. The Good Place’s airing in the era of revivals of Will & Grace and Roseanne, which have both had to dismiss their series finales to bring characters back to square one, is especially rich in that regard. All the talk of reboots and the exhaustion it generates allows The Good Place not only to comment on the typical cyclicality of its form, but also on the very current phenomenon of trying to do the same thing over and over.

Colleen Hayes/NBC

The Good Place stands out in the same way that Community did before it. The brilliantly self-aware latter series premiered in 2009, at the height of The Office’s popularity and with the wave of late ‘90s friend-coms like Friends and Will & Grace over. Gradually, it became an unwieldy satire-dissection of the network sitcom: The main romantic tension between Jeff and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) or Annie (Alison Brie) was more a commentary on the will-they-or-won’t-they trope than the real thing; pop-culture-loving Abed would regularly describe the cast’s activities as if they were sitcom characters; and episodes would increasingly hew closer to surreality, whether in profound send-ups of My Dinner with André and Goodfellas or in the infamous episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which challenged characters to consider how their respective roles in the group would change depending on who was there. The symmetry of that particular episode and The Good Place is undeniable. Where we once had “the darkest timeline,” we now have “the bad place.”

Community was simultaneously darker, weirder, and more pointed than anything else airing on its network, let alone in its timeslot. It was primarily interested in the way relationships have historically played out in the sitcom form, sometimes for hundreds of episodes, but the show would also posit challenges so poignant they extended to our conceptions of real life. Part of Community‘s greatness was the way it fused its pop culture parody with an existential rumination on relationships and human nature. The “darkest timeline” meme was born and has survived. “My Dinner with Abed” and other bottle episodes still resonate. Finally, real life’s vast complexity fit into a tight, 22-minute sitcom. It just had to be about TV.

The Good Place is now occupying a similar space. It’s a successor to the meta brilliance of Community because its self-reflection has evolved, keeping with the times — both culturally and, perhaps inadvertently, politically. It stands in dramatic contrast to the rebooted Will & Grace, which airs a half-hour later on NBC. That classic has returned strong, but is more or less exactly the same save a few very obvious tweaks. (Karen: Now a Trump voter!) The Good Place, on the other hand, mercilessly skewers revival culture, realizing it as cyclical in its own way. It’s predictable in its wild unpredictability. And it’s uniquely prescient too. The theme of a creator toying with his subjects, throwing them into terrorizing situations just for the sake of it and preying on their vulnerabilities to cruelly expose them, works perfectly well as a meta narrative about story creation and consumption. But it also fits pretty well into the pessimistic climate — see #LOLNothingMatters, #2017, and more — of the past year.

The network sitcom is so definitive to American culture that it seems only fitting that a sitcom providing this kind of funhouse refraction could achieve such unusual depth. The world has sharpened considerably since Community premiered, of course, which makes The Good Place feel like a naturally devious successor. After all, Community reveled in uncertainty, forcing its characters to acknowledge their different planes of existence in different timelines and throwing them into pop culture-tinged fantasies. But The Good Place, through Michael’s maniacal motivations, has never ceased to tell its audience exactly where they are. As Eleanor realizes again and again: This is the bad place.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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