Testing the Boundaries of Network Sitcoms | The Good Place Season 3 Review
Michael Schur’s comedies definitely have an imprint, and The Good Place, zany and fundamentally warm-hearted, is no exception. But in comparison to the producer’s other beloved shows, The Office and Parks and Recreation, the philosophical sitcom starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson is a huge jump forward. Whereas his previous work dealt with obnoxiously likeable small town people and their petty hijinks, The Good Place goes for the network comedy itself, broadening its scope in more ways than one.
This isn’t to say that the show, now in its third season on NBC, doesn’t also deal with trivial human foibles; it’s to say that it also deals with much more.
Our protagonist is Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), a sprightly but relentlessly difficult woman from Arizona who – in the first season – wakes up in heaven (the Good Place). The man who greets her is Michael (Ted Danson), an angelic being who in a turn of events ends up being a demon, but in another turn of events ends up being a demonstrably “good” demon. Michael’s assistant is Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an amiable AI with knowledge of everything in the universe, and rounding out our quartet of recently deceased are Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a nerdy Senegalese philosophy professor, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a British socialite, and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a kind doofus from Jacksonville. (Blake Bortles, the quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is more important to the series than you might first assume.)
At the end of season 1, though, Eleanor uncovers a horrible truth: the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, and Michael has been secretly torturing our core four with the measured deployment of their own distinct personalities in proximity. In other words, they are so dysfunctional together that their situation quickly becomes its own sinister version of Hell. Seasons 1 and 2 dove into the existential framework of the characters’ predicaments, asking complicated questions about goodness, badness and humanness. Season 3, having witnessed the expert world-building of the show’s first 26 episodes, takes a step back down to Earth.
As a testament to the show’s terrific pacing, the plot is much easier to watch unfold than explain, but the gist of the new season is that Michael and Janet, having sworn to help the humans get into the Good Place for real, have retconned history so that each of the characters narrowly avoids their own deaths. This means that they must take responsibility for the bulk of their own goodness themselves and, hopefully, earn their tickets to heaven the good old-fashioned way.
But what could be a muted season by comparison is anything but. With its plot and tone firmly established, The Good Place instead doubles down on the genius of its premise by throwing out most of its sci-fi quirks (even Janet is noticeably less robotic this season) and letting its quandaries play out on Earth. In Australia, to be exact — it’s where Chidi teaches, and where the remaining three end up, as if by fate (or divine interference), as part of an academic study about near-death experiences.
Helping along the study is the neuroscientist Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, a smart addition), who begins a relationship with Chidi and acts as the mature adult guiding our childish protagonists along (think Ann Perkins in Parks and Rec). The immature traits unique to each main character — the reasons they went to the Bad Place to begin with — are of course one of the series’ biggest draws. Leaning heavily into archetypes (Eleanor the selfish leader, Chidi the ineffectual dork, Tahani the narcissistic fame-chaser and Jason the harmless idiot) puts a big weight on the show’s actors, but every one of them succeeds greatly and deserve awards consideration for having done so. Like in previous Schur comedies, pinpoint characterization in The Good Place is invaluable to its overall cultural appeal. Audiences want to see themselves and their friends within the mix, and, as is demonstrated by its online fandom, they probably do.
Central to this universal relatability is the very humanness that drives the characters toward goodness in the first place. Eleanor is the perfect audience proxy for this endeavor. In a recent episode, she and Michael go to Nevada to track down her mother, who she thought was dead. Donna Shellstrop (Leslie Grossman), now living as Diana Tremaine with a rich, hapless architect (Andy Daly), apparently bounced on Eleanor after buying a date with Gene Simmons with money she didn’t have. Now, she lives a basic upper-class suburban life with her new boyfriend and a new daughter. Unsurprisingly, she’s a slightly older version of Eleanor, making poor life choices and getting what she wants by manipulating others. In fact, Eleanor is convinced that she’s using her new family just like she used her.
The episode, and the slight gulf between mother and daughter, illustrates Eleanor’s development as a well-rounded and (at-times) respectable person. The same journeys await Tahani and Jason; Tahani’s parents are posh and judgmental, pitting her and her perfect sister, Kamilah, against one another, and Jason’s dad is a man nicknamed Donkey Doug who acts more like one of Jason’s homies than his father. Like all of us, the quartet confront their futures by looking at their parents; by discerning what it is they dislike within their own gene pool, they can take steps toward actively moving their lives in a different direction.
Moving forward, the show has plenty of internal and external pressures to address. In addition to each character’s existential journey, there’s also the impending possibility of the Bad Place and its cast of demons (including Schur staples Adam Scott and Marc Evan Jackson) breaking loose and creating more urgent troubles. A climactic moment, be it a permanent judgment or a showdown of good vs. evil, is increasingly likely as the show moves into the end of season 3. The Good Place probably doesn’t have the longevity of The Office or Parks and Recreation, but what it has is its marvelous, one-of-a-kind specificity. Maybe the series will take a while to coast, enjoying itself before coming to an inevitable climax. But playing it too safe wouldn’t be in the best interest of a show that challenges the boundaries of the sitcom as we know it.