The Good Place goes bad in the standout episode of a standout season
Warning: This article contains spoilers about The Good Place. Read at your own risk!
The Good Place has already been renewed for a third season, so we can have nice things. No other show so deftly blends joke-a-second wit and brain-bursting cleverness, lighthearted human comedy, and black-hole-bleak frustration. “Everyone dies, then things get worse”: That’s the elevator pitch for the NBC comedy, hidden behind season 1‘s finale twist that our characters were in what the Good Place isn’t. I propose to you that no character on television has it worse. Like, some people do survive on The Walking Dead, and the miserables on Leftovers got to sing karaoke and jump on a trampoline. So actually, The Good Place can feel like comfort viewing, if you’re a normal person with the regular-for-2018 fear that human civilization is seconds away from self-immolation. For these people, the world is already lost. If you can laugh at that, you can laugh at anything.
The second season of Michael Schur’s afterlife sitcom hasn’t just flipped the show’s concept. It exploded it, refracted the narrative purpose, made the farce mythic. The two-part premiere brainwashed the lead characters and then watched them replay the first season in fast-forward. The second episode imitated that structure a hundredfold, watching Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her fellow prisoners foil Michael (Ted Danson) again and again. Can’t beat ’em, join ’em: Michael allied himself with Eleanor’s crew, dangling the promise of redemption for sinners and demons alike. Last week’s episode saw the apparent destruction of the main setting, the glittering fauxtopia fading into formless void.
And then, on Thursday: A trip to the underworld. “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent” has a plot setup from the Sitcom Bible: The Gang Goes Undercover. In order to go through a mystical portal to a mysterious Judge, Michael took everyone to the Bad Place, dressing them in demonic cosplay under assumed identities. The Bad Place has a midcentury-urban fashion sense but a modern-middlebrow culture sense: Citizens wear gray flannel suits as they stroll past subway posters for Pirates of the Caribbean 6: The Haunted Crow’s Nest Or Something, Who Gives a Crap.
RELATED: The Good Place stars Kristen Bell, Ted Danson on their version of paradise
I’m a sucker for characters playing dress-up. (Star Trek: Discovery‘s doing it, too!) And The Good Place cast was well-suited to the daffy espionage. Tahani (Jameela Jamil) adopted a broad American accent, “Hey, pass the Nascar ketchup!” Jason (Manny Jacinto) tried to play a real Adultman who works at business, “Take my credit card to the hedge fund, I’ll meet you at the martini store!” Chidi (William Jackson Harper) refused to lie about his identity: Meet the last honest man in Hell. Helperbot deity Janet (D’Arcy Carden) tried to be a Bad Janet, but it’s so hard not to give people a glass of water.
The plot fun of this episode was the ticking clock. Michael stashed his pals in a torture museum, not realizing a party was coming in. I got dizzy watching this episode, had to watch it again just to catch all the jokes. The hot new deodorant in the Bad Place makes you smell the way Transformers movies make you feel. And there’s an exciting new department reserved for punishing Toxic Masculinity. The show’s fizzy mood makes every interaction a laugh riot. At one point, Michael brought his boss a folder with a detailed plan. His boss threw the folder in the trash. “Is that where we’re putting top priority files nowadays?” asked Michael, Danson giving the line that peculiar Zucker Brothers twang of sincere absurdity.
And then Chidi started talking about Immanuel Kant, and Eleanor counterargued with some Jonathan Dancy. Moral particularism chatter at a cocktail party in literal Hell! The Good Place has a sincere fascination with morality, philosophy, and the possibility that every answer is just another question. Poor Chidi is the battered brain of the show, balancing a hundred counterarguments about right and wrong in his head. He seeks order, but life is confusing. Eleanor’s a mess, but that means she can understand chaos. “You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation,” she advised. It’s a tricky piece of advice, beyond zealotry and cheap cynicism. There is a moral choice, but the choice is never obvious, because maybe morality shouldn’t be.
And then Jason threw a molotov cocktail! That was after the party’s Big Reveal: Robotic doppelgängers of our runaway damned, their torture memorialized forever. Jokes about Elon Musk’s underwater mansion, a deadpan assertion that the protagonist of our story is dead inside, Jacinto’s line reading of “I’m Jason Mendoza: Duhhhhhhhhhhh.” The Good Place is operating on so many registers now, and I was ready to praise “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent” as merely a whipsmart heist episode, full of laughs and big ideas.
Then came the last scene. On the run from his bosses, Michael sent his friends through the portal to meet the Judge. But he was short one portal-pass-jewelry-thing. So, with the Baddies closing in, Michael told Eleanor that he finally solved an intractable moral quandary. “The Trolley Problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting other people die,” Michael explained. “The actual solution is very simple. Sacrifice yourself.”
Danson’s a wonder on The Good Place. He was doing his own personal “Gang Goes Undercover” performance last season, back when Michael seemed like an angelic civil servant, before he stood revealed as some kind of Devil Himself. And now here was another surprise: His alliance with the humans has led to some kind of redemption. He pushed Eleanor through the portal, and turned around to meet his fate.
This could’ve been the season finale. It almost could have been a series finale, if the ratings or the buzz were lower, if The Good Place had to last-minute an ending with some plot threads dangling. As it is, we’ve got two episodes left, and then the promise of a new season that can only further explode the show’s original concept. We’ve seen Hell and something like purgatory. Is paradise next? With comedy this divine, anything is possible. Pass the Nascar ketchup.