“The Good Place” is a story-driven show with plenty to spoil for those who haven’t caught up. If you haven’t watched the first season, it is highly recommended you do so before reading the review below.
Michael Schur is running the best show on television.
Sure, that’s a gauntlet-throw. But is it really unexpected? Schur’s as prolific as they come; he wrote for “The Office” and helped create “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks & Recreation.” The latter was one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past decade. It was only a matter of time until Schur — master of the network sitcom — created his magnum opus.
He appears to have done so with “The Good Place,” a half-hour comedy on NBC that manages to squeeze morality and a meta-discussion of censorship into a format usually reserved for laugh tracks. The story follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a thirty-something who dies and wakes up in the afterlife: the “Good Place.” It turns out heaven looks a lot like a quaint neighborhood in a Los Angeles suburb, but that’s besides the point. As the audience discovers almost immediately, Eleanor has been misplaced. Through an otherworldly clerical error, she swapped places in the afterlife with a different, “better” Eleanor Shellstrop who died at the exact same moment.
The show’s first season detailed her struggle to become “good” and earn her place in paradise with the help of her soulmate, Chidi, a professor of ethics. It’s a perfect setup for a serialized program, especially since there were underlying mysteries scattered throughout the first 13 episodes regarding the “goodness” of heaven’s other residents. In between laughs — many generated by Ted Danson as Michael, the angelic architect behind Eleanor’s neighborhood — were unanswered questions.
And then Schur hoodwinked us all. The Good Place is, in fact, the Bad Place. The revelation that Michael is actually a demon who designed the neighborhood to verbally torture the four main characters for 1000 years was one of modern television’s great twists, made better by Danson’s shift from loveable idiot to scheming villain. His laugh is nothing short of genius. And it proved that Schur, who reportedly sought “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof’s advice while writing the show, could orchestrate a longer story.
The looming question heading into the second season: “What now?”
If the premiere is any indication, the answer is to double down on being meta. Now that the curtain’s pulled back, Michael takes center stage. He’s in hot water with his boss Shawn (played with beautiful dryness by Marc Evan Jackson), who threatens to tell upper management about his failure if Michael slips up again. Meanwhile the other demons just want to rip limbs like normal. Michael has one last chance to make his vision work.
“Take Two,” as Michael calls it, has some small modifications. The welcoming inscription at the neighborhood’s entrance (“Everything is fine.”) now has a small twinge of desperation (“Everything is great!”). Michael’s separated his victims at the start so they can ease into their torture. Eleanor and her cohorts are in the dark.
But in another surprise, they figure it out by the end of the very first episode and send Michael back to square one. We’re on to “Take Three”, and where the show goes from here is impossible to guess. Not even HBO’s “Westworld” could keep audiences this unbalanced.
Somehow, Michael has to make this work while hiding his failures from his boss. Schur has brilliantly managed to make him a bad guy and keep viewers invested in his character. Somehow it’s easy to want him to succeed at creating Eleanor and Chidi’s worst nightmare.
Credit the writers, and the contradictions at the show’s core. “The Good Place” is about bad people trying to be good, and how impossible that may be. And even when Everything ISN’T Great, it’s sure to keep audiences laughing along the way.
Follow Dana Alston on Twitter @alstondalston.