Before we get to the fiendishly clever season-two opener of The Good Place, can we have one last round of appreciation for the brilliance of season one? I wrote about this show every week for months, analyzing minute details and speculating on each new twist, and last year’s finale still sucker-punched me. I’d guessed that something was amiss in “the Good Place,” but the best explanation I ever came up with was that the universe itself was broken, and that every one of Eleanor Shellstrop’s new neighbors was equally unworthy of paradise. It never occurred to me that the neighborhood’s “architect” Michael — and nearly every one of its residents — could be an employee of “the Bad Place,” embarking on an ambitious experiment to make the worst of humanity torture each other for 1,000 years.
Season one left behind a handful of pressing questions, but none bigger than this: Now what? At the end of the first season finale, The Good Place showrunner Michael Schur had Michael restart his experiment, while tweaking it just a bit. But what about The Good Place itself? Would it still function as a smart, surprising sitcom after its audience already knew it big secret?
The answer is yes — and hilariously so. As with last season, Schur and his writing staff defy expectations by blowing everything up, yet again.
A lot of what works in the double-length “Everything Is Great!” comes down to a few smart storytelling choices. First off, the structure of the episode itself is delightfully tricky. The first scene picks up more or less where last year’s finale left off, with Michael rebooting his little corner of the hereafter and wiping all memories of his previous attempt at a new kind of damnation. The episode then keeps circling back to the restart, showing how Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason each settle into this re-remodeled version of Hell.
Although season two presses the reset button on The Good Place, it’s not exactly friendly to newcomers. Many of the jokes depend on viewers knowing a lot about Eleanor and her three recently deceased companions, who don’t really get much of a proper reintroduction. And much of the plot of “Everything Is Great!” has to do with how Michael tries to use what he knows about these people — or thinks he knows — to make their afterlives miserable.
Michael is certain that his big mistake was pairing up the four humans: putting the selfish, debauched, nerd-hating Eleanor with the fussy, indecisive ethics professor Chidi; and putting the insecure, high-living celebrity philanthropist Tahani with the impulsive Jacksonville DJ Jason (masquerading as a silent Tibetan monk named Jianyu). In this reboot, he intends to keep the four apart by casting Bad Place employees as their incompatible “soul mates,” whose job it is to keep them distracted and annoyed.
One by one, in short vignettes that occasionally overlap, we get to see each of these new situations. Eleanor is living with a buff hunk named Chris, who keeps whipping his shirt off every time she asks too many questions. Michael presents Chidi with an ideal soul mate who is funny and well-read, but then says he made a mistake and that Chidi’s actual partner is an unfriendly, taciturn woman with zero intellectual curiosity. The towering fashion-first Tahani is saddled with a short-statured environmentalist named Tomas, who shames her into living simply and wearing cargo pants. And Jason/Jianyu is matched with another mute monk, who follows him everywhere and mirrors everything he does.
It’s a credit to how well The Good Place established its four lead characters in season one that “Everything Is Great!” is able to get across almost instantly how uncomfortable this makes Eleanor and company. Michael torments the fiercely individualist loner Eleanor by making her into the center of attention, giving her a “Best Person” sash to wear around the neighborhood and asking her to deliver a few opening remarks at the welcome party. (In classic Eleanor fashion, she tries to fake her way through being an erudite, enlightened person, like when she pontificates that she doesn’t need a phone because “people are like nature’s apps.”)
Chidi, meanwhile, panics at the thought that he might have to choose between two soul mates, while insisting that he’d perfectly content if his soul mate were “books.” And Tahani can’t get over how Tomas has coerced into dressing like “a plumberess … or is it a toilet-sweep? Or a clog-wench?”
Michael intends for the first night in his new neighborhood to be a repeat of what happened the last time Eleanor arrived: her getting drunk and wrecking everything, initiating a “chaos sequence” that will exacerbate her guilt over being an impostor. And there are indeed signs that some aspects of these characters’ behavior won’t change, whether it’s Eleanor flirting with Chidi, or her gazing greedily at the shrimp (or “shrampies”) at the welcome party, or Jason instantly bonding with the neighborhood’s cybernetic helpmate Janet.
But everything starts to go awry with Michael’s scheme almost immediately. Because Eleanor left a message with Janet before the reboot, she knows she has to “find Chidi,” even though she doesn’t initially know what a “Chidi” is. (“A type of soup, maybe?”) The two eventually cross paths at the party, where a depressed Tahani becomes the one who gets drunk and accidentally starts a fire. Later, all four humans meet back at Eleanor’s house, where a frustrated Jason immediately drops any pretense that he’s Jianyu.
It seems Michael overshot the mark, making his guests so miserable that they stopped trusting him immediately. It took weeks for Eleanor to expose his gambit last time. This time, it takes less than a day. And so, one hour into the new season of The Good Place, we’re about to get our third version of the neighborhood. That’s a bold stroke from Schur and his team, who could’ve easily spent multiple episodes essentially repeating season one’s shtick.
Here’s something even bolder: Next to the looping structure, the niftiest new storytelling tactic in “Everything Is Great!” involves the expanded role for Michael’s “cast.” Last year’s “Real Eleanor,” who’s real name is Vicki, has to play a new part in the neighborhood as a pizzeria operator named Denise, and she’s not happy with how skimpy her character is. (Even though Michael insists that, “There’s a great arc coming for Denise the pizza lady in about 80 years.”) So Vicki starts improvising, which — along with the dunderheaded Chris and his “I’m going to the gym” excuse, which he uses nine times in one day — helps tip our heroes off that something’s gone bad in the Good Place.
The big plot-driver introduced in the very first episode of The Good Place found Eleanor (with Chidi’s help) scrambling to hide her true identity as a louse. This year, it looks like the larger narrative arc will hinge on Michael, who chooses at the end of “Everything Is Great!” to hide his utter failure from his boss, Shawn. Now it’s Michael who’s the big liar, having to hide not just the true purpose of the neighborhood from its victims, but the incompetence of his own staff from Shawn. If last season was any indication, there’s no way to predict how quickly everything will unravel.
In the Neighborhood
• The petty annoyances of life in “the neighborhood” have changed: Gone are the multiple frozen yogurt shops, and in their place are coffee-makers that only use K-Cups and pizza joints that only serve Hawaiian-style pies.
• This season, I suspect that we’ll learn more about the roots of Michael’s passion for a new, more subtle brand of eternal torture. In the meantime, Shawn reminds us of some of the old-fashioned torment the Bad Place has to offer, like “the old penis-flattener” and “butthole spiders.” (“They’re enormous,” he says.)
• Michael tells Chidi the the Bad Place punishes philosophers in an especially clever way, making them live through the classic nightmare scenario of going to school naked and having to take a test they haven’t studied for. And then get smashed with hammers, which is slightly less clever.
• NBC has already posted the next two Good Place episodes for critics, but because I prefer not to rush too far ahead, I haven’t checked them out yet. My friend Daniel Fienberg, TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter, said on Twitter yesterday that they’re better than this premiere, which he referred to as merely “good.” Dan’s excitement for what’s to come made me hesitant about giving this episode top marks, but ultimately I decided that the clever structure and the unexpected way it resolves last season’s cliff-hanger makes “Everything Is Great!” an all-timer.