Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 2 of The Good Place. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1.
Back at the beginning, it was feasible to sum up the premise of The Good Place in a single sentence: a woman dies and goes to heaven, but quickly realises that she has been sent there by mistake and is supposed to have gone to hell instead. However, after following the efforts of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) to avoid being rumbled as an imposter, while also striving to truly become a better person, The Good Place ended its first season by pulling the rug from under our feet.
With the big reveal that Eleanor was actually in The Bad Place from the start, along with indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper), self-obsessed Tahini (Jameela Jamil) and painfully dumb Jason (Manny Jacinto), being subtly tortured by Michael (Ted Danson), the show essentially blew up its own premise and turned everything we thought we knew on its head. What’s more, the final few seconds, which saw Michael wipe the gang’s memories in order to start his radical experiment all over again, left us wondering where things could possibly go next.
As Michael briefs his reluctant demon team to begin version 2.0 of his experiment, he tells them that going back to the old-fashioned methods of torture, such as “the ol’ penis flattener”, sounds like a nice option “…but it also sounds easy”. It would probably have been ‘easy’ for The Good Place to focus its second season on our four humans finding and befriending each other again, with newly established villain Michael trying to improve on his experiment and prevent them from figuring out the truth like last time – essentially rehashing Season 1 with the extra dimension of us knowing Michael’s real intentions and seeing the neighbourhood’s behind-the-scenes goings on. And this probably would have been enjoyable enough. But The Good Place doesn’t do ‘easy’ and certainly never shows any intention of playing it safe.
In fact, the premise that could have potentially lasted for the entirety of Season 2 is all done and dusted within the opening episode. The experiment has gone awry, the four friends have reunited and Eleanor has rediscovered “THIS is The Bad Place”, forcing Michael to press the reset button once again. From this point on, the show operates at full-throttle, frequently refreshing its premise and never allowing itself to stagnate.
Since Michael’s experiment keeps failing, it goes through hundreds of reboots and he becomes increasingly exasperated. He keeps all of this a secret from his boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), who thinks version two is still ongoing, and his underlings start to get disgruntled. When Vicky (Tiya Sircar) blackmails Michael into putting her in charge of the next reboot, he teams up with his four torturees to fool Vicky into thinking that he has wiped their memories again and that she is now pulling the strings.
The group only agree to cooperate with Michael if he agrees to find a way to get them into The Good Place for real and also take part in Chidi’s ethics lessons, which leads us to believe that the show will now be about Michael learning how to leave his demonic ways behind and become a good person. It isn’t long, though, before Shawn shows up to congratulate Michael on his success with ‘version two’ and inform him that the experiment has run its course and needs to be fully shut down.
Constantly shaking up its formula, The Good Place isn’t afraid to kill its darlings, and this is never more apparent than when the neighbourhood where we have spent so much time is literally dismantled in front of our eyes. Likewise, we finally get a glimpse of The Bad Place, providing a whole new source of ideas and jokes, such as “The Museum of Human Misery”, which pays tribute to, among others, “the first person to floss in an open-plan office”. But rather than risk letting this new setting overstay its welcome, just one episode is spent there, before our protagonists are discovered and forced to leave.
It may reinvent itself almost as much as Michael reinvents his elaborate torture neighbourhood, but a constant at the heart of The Good Place is its characters and the chemistry between them. Their dynamics have undoubtedly changed since Season 1; for instance, Tahani is less smug now that she knows she isn’t really in The Good Place and Chidi has more awareness of how his flakiness affects others. Meanwhile, Eleanor is acing ethics classes, boasting “I’m going to be the velociraptor” (she means valedictorian), and, in the end, turns out to be the only one who actually passes a test to get into The Good Place.
Janet (D’Arcy Carden, still on scene-stealing form) has also evolved, having been rebooted more times than any other Janet in existence, and seems to be becoming more human by the minute. As the least intelligent member of the group, Jason has naturally made the least progression, calling his time in the afterlife “one of the craziest years of my life” (Chidi retorts: “One of?”) and at one point suggesting they should call the police for help (Eleanor: “Where do you think we are??”). The Jason-Tahani relationship feels like the closest thing Season 2 has to a misstep, although their fling does ultimately serve a good purpose, causing Tahini to reassess her snobbery and Janet to start malfunctioning and realise her very human feelings for Jason.
Following the big twist of the Season 1 finale, it seemed possible that the old Michael was gone and would be replaced in Season 2 by a new, less lovable Michael. Fortunately this didn’t turn out to be the case, and he has remained just as charming and hilarious a character as before. Thanks to Ted Danson’s performance, and some great writing, the rather fast-paced arc of Michael betraying his own kind in favour of befriending and championing humans never feels unbelievable.
Michael’s lifelong belief that humans are dumb and never learn – a belief held by all of his kind – is shaken by the fact that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason fail to serve their intended purpose of tormenting each other and instead form a bond, while simultaneously becoming more generous, selfless people. In addition to making us all feel more optimistic about our potential for self-improvement, this causes Michael to conclude that the entire system by which human beings are judged is fundamentally flawed. The afterlife’s Eternal Judge (a fun guest appearance from Maya Rudolph) is intrigued by Michael’s suggestion and so agrees to essentially give the four humans a second chance at life, in an attempt to find out whether they can motivate themselves to become good, if they don’t know what is at stake.
The new experiment appears to be going well at first, because after avoiding her shopping cart-related death, Eleanor does resolve to be a better person. However, following a period of good behaviour with no reward to show for it, she begins to lose interest and revert to her old ways. Michael goes undercover as a bartender to give her some advice, in a moment that has thrilled Cheers fans, which then leads her to come across the work of moral philosophy professor Chidi and track him down. Season 2 leaves us here, with lots of questions to consider in the time before the show returns. We’ve seen Eleanor and Chidi back on Earth, but how about Tahani and Jason? Is this second chance at life actually happening, or is it just a simulation? And will the gang end up being on Earth for most of Season 3, or will the experiment be over much quicker than that?
In its second season, The Good Place still proves to have just as much Lost in its DNA as it does creator Michael Schur’s other comedies, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. With its perfect balance of smart and silly humour, plus a genuinely compelling and inventive story, there’s nothing else on TV like it. One moment, it’s encouraging you to ponder the meaning of life; the next, it has you giggling at a clam chowder restaurant being called ‘Little Bit Chowder Now’ or at Michael being disgusted by humans kissing. (“You just mash your food holes together – it’s not for that!”) It makes it possible to learn about the ins and outs of the trolley problem (would you steer a trolley into one person in order to save the lives of five?) all while laughing unashamedly at the sight of Chidi getting splattered with blood and gore in a realistic simulation of it.
Season 2 comes to a close with Michael saying “Ok, here we go” – even after it has already gone so far, we’re left with confidence that The Good Place still has plenty more up its sleeve.
The Good Place Season are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.