The Good Place is easily one of the best comedy shows of all time. That might sound hyperbolic—or at least premature, given that the show has only just finished out its second season—but those two seasons have been enough to blow most of the show’s peers out of the water. If you haven’t watched it yet, don’t read any further (in fact, don’t read anything else on the show at all, because the twists and turns are part of the pleasure) and get watching.
Spoilers for The Good Place follow.
The show’s central premise is that after you die, you either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how good or bad you were in life. We’re introduced to this concept via Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who is welcomed to the afterlife by Michael (Ted Danson), and quickly realizes that she’s been sent to the Good Place by mistake. As it turns out, though, she isn’t in the Good Place at all. The anxieties placed upon her by trying to correct her bad behavior and by surrounding her with presumably morally superior people have all been part of an elaborate torture concocted by Michael to make her afterlife in the Bad Place as miserable as possible. Along with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), she’s been in Hell this whole time.
It’s the kind of twist that wouldn’t have been out of place on a series like Lost, and even then, Lost in its prime rather than its more ponderous periods. It redefined everything that came before it, almost to the point of demanding that the entire season be watched again. Unbelievably, the second season has pulled that act off in every single episode. And now that the season has concluded, the show demands a similar comprehensive assessment—a look at the forest, if you will, despite the singular beauty of each tree.
Though the story spirals into cosmic dimensions dealing with Heaven and Hell and everything in between, the show’s heart is ultimately much simpler than that. The Good Place is a beacon of goodness. The point isn’t that people are good or bad; rather, we are all capable of good, not for the sake of some eternal reward, but for the sake of each other.
The number of philosophy lessons packed into creator Michael Schur’s brainchild is impressive—they’re even a literal part of the narrative—but that’s the lesson that remains above them all. When Michael takes up a case with the Eternal Judge (Maya Rudolph) and points out that the metric by which people get sorted into the Good Place and the Bad Place is inherently flawed, citing that his charges changed for the better during their torture, she points out that they had only changed because they had had an incentive to. (As an aside, I think this is one of the only times that a television show has argued that Heaven and Hell are bogus concepts for reasons unrelated to religion, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
And so, in a twist that rivals the season one closer, Eleanor and her compatriots are sent back to their lives to see how they’d fare with just a push in the right direction. After escaping her brush with death, Eleanor makes a genuine effort to be a better person. But it only lasts for so long—there doesn’t seem to be any reward for being good. When Michael intercedes to set her back on track, it’s with the question that’s been driving the entire show: What do we owe to each other? It prompts Eleanor to fly all the way to Australia to seek out Chidi, the soulmate that she has no memory of, after watching an ethics lecture of his online. (Notably, this is exactly the way that Chidi tells Eleanor that he wishes that they’d met, when they think they’re about to be separated and consigned to the Bad Place forever.) Michael smiles as he watches, muttering to himself, “Here we go.” In other words, we’re about to start all over again.
Over the course of 26 episodes, The Good Place has shed its premise time and time again, like some kind of demented Russian nesting doll. That’s impressive in and of itself, and even more so when one considers that this is a show without a villain. There are no characters to really root against; the point is that you hope for the central characters to succeed. Michael is obviously the prime example here. He’s a demon whose sole joy is coming up with new ways to torture people. Yet, by the end of the second season, he’s almost become human. “The trolley problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting other people die,” he tells Eleanor. “The actual solution is very simple: Sacrifice yourself.”
It’s the rare show that’s so kind and hopeful in its assessment of human behavior, and even rarer still for it to come along with an almost unthinkable level of ingenuity. I say “almost” only because the show’s writers seem to have attained that particular level of divinity, as the show is so dense that there’s no way to catch everything with just one viewing, despite each episode clocking in at just half an hour. The Good Place rewards care in attention much as it encourages it in everyday life, and its central moral conceit is so solid that the story remains coherent even after repeatedly shedding its skin. The show’s only flaw is that we have to wait so long to see the rest.