[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for Season 1 of “The Good Place.” If you have not yet seen said season, we highly recommend that you do so before reading any further. Thank you.]
In a year filled with on-screen clowns of all kinds, none are as satisfying as the ones in the foyer of “The Good Place” home of Eleanor Shelstrop. During the opening minutes of the pivotal Season 1 finale, Michael (Ted Danson) delivers an ultimatum to the small group gathered, and is immediately undercut by a pair of sliding doors that close to reveal a giant, painted Pagliacci. Everyone who saw the rest of that episode certainly had some big revelations to take away from it, but it’s tiny moments like that (and the accompanying carnival music, of course) that made “The Good Place” Season 1 one of the most satisfying TV experiences in recent memory.
Good news (or mixed, depending on your level of coulrophobia): those garish paintings are just a handful of the many Good Place details that make their return in Season 2. But despite those returning characters and scenic details, “The Good Place” has magically managed to reinvent itself. With an impressively accelerated speed and with a keen eye to some monumental character shifts, “The Good Place” has come out the other side of its game-changing finale even stronger than ever.
Armed with the one piece of knowledge that she gave to her future self at the end of Season 1, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a renewed battle of wits with a newly emboldened Michael. Effectively revisiting the chain of events that opened up the first season, this time with a distinct knowledge of Michael’s true aims, the show widens out its frame just enough to show the tiny beats that were carefully hidden before. Michael giving a thumbs up to a minion carrying out their task and his tiny moments of self-reflection before bringing new people into his office all play out like special deleted scenes the audience was robbed of the first time around.
The bevy of mishaps that the characters endured during Season 1 had a certain whimsical nature to them. Whenever something went wrong, there was always the underlying idea that, since this was Heaven, things couldn’t be all that bad. Now that that psychological safety net has been yanked away, it lends mistakes on both sides of this afterlife power struggle a slightly more sinister edge. Much like the audience doesn’t have the “Everything is great!” cushion to fall back on, “The Good Place” writers also don’t have a handy twist to retroactively explain away some of the Season 1 gaps in logic that make perfect sense in hindsight. Instead, the show derives its entertainment from a fresh set of consequences, a more definitive end goal, and a new barometer of success for everyone involved.
But these changes don’t cut into the very specific brand of comedic euphoria that the show cultivated over its opening round of episodes. The interactions that made Season 1 so special come back in a slightly altered, more evolved form. With the firm grasp that “The Good Place” has on its characters, it learns even more by shuffling the conditions of something like Eleanor meeting Chidi (William Jackson Harper) or the reintroduction of Janet (D’Arcy Carden).
Speaking of which, there aren’t enough words in this lifetime or the next to fully describe how much joy this show derives from the sextet of central performances at its core. Now given a chance to indulge in Michael’s less-generous side, Danson gets a handful of real moments of anger with which to lash out at his cronies. But it’s a testament to his enduring on-screen charisma that, even when devising long-term psychological torture, he still elicits a weird amount of sympathy.
As the show bounces around between various stages in Eleanor’s re-introduction to what she believes is the Good Place, Bell keeps those same wheel-turning impulses grounded in a very specific set of realizations. Blazing through skepticism, shock, confusion, and satisfaction — sometimes all the same sentence — watching Eleanor regain her sleuthing skills isn’t any less satisfying this time through.
Much of the consistency of “The Good Place” Season 2 also comes from Chidi and Tehani (Jameela Jamil), renewing their respective inner turmoil that led them to this situation in the first place. Harper zeroes back in on Chidi’s neverending fear of commitment and Jamil brings some new small-scale layers to Tehani’s misguided philanthropic efforts. The one character who hasn’t really learned a thing is Jason (Manny Jacinto), but we all kind of expected that. (He’s a Jaguars fan. That’s just what they do.)
And then there’s Janet. Arguably the best breakout “The Good Place” surprise, Carden continues to shape her mannered anthropomorphized Siri character in the most delightful ways possible. Without revealing any details, Season 2’s superb third episode revisits a standout Janet sequence with a single, noticeable change. It’s the best example of the show keeping everything great about Season 1, but filtering it through a new and improved lens.
The effortless Season 2 premiere finds each of the main “Good Place” victims skirting rules of time and perspective, neatly threaded into a unique narrative quilt (which actually sounds like something you’d find in Eleanor’s clown room). But despite the intricate clockwork construction of the double-episode season opener, there’s a specificity to how everything plays out that somehow keeps it from feeling overly controlled. It’s an organic puzzle, with each character’s individual journey flowing naturally from the setup, rather than existing only as a simple means to an end.
“The Good Place” has essentially become TV’s most interesting iteration of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. It asks (and slowly answers) whether Eleanor, this selfish monster of a human on Earth, was simply a product of her surroundings or whether she or any of these people around her are capable of redemption. It adds a very human layer to what could easily otherwise become a navel-gazing philosophical exercise. It’s not merely a vehicle for restaurant puns (Hawaii 5-Dough is just the start of this year’s batch), not simply an excuse to hear different items of clothing spoken in different accents. To borrow a phrase from one of Chidi’s books, it continues to be a thoughtful consideration of what we owe each other. And it’s also one of the funniest shows on this plane of existence.
“The Good Place” Season 2 premieres September 20 at 10:00 p.m. on NBC. New episodes air Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m.