After an already swiftly moving season one, the second season of The Good Place has become a runaway storytelling train (or maybe a trolley). The show is astonishingly adept at leaping from setup to setup and leaving the burning rubble of the previous premise behind with scarcely a thought. The rundown of all the times The Good Place has exploded its own premise looks something like this:
• Eleanor Shellstrop, deceased person who belongs in the Bad Place, needs to learn how to be a good person so she can stay in the Good Place and keep her secret. Assumption: The show will be about her lessons and shenanigans to protect herself.
• Eleanor learns silent monk Jianyu is another Good Place interloper named Jason. Now they both need to learn how to be good.
• “Real” Eleanor turns up and forces OG Eleanor to escape to the newly discovered Middle Place. For a moment we think maybe the show will be about how to live in the Middle Place …
• … but in order to save her friends, Eleanor returns to the Good Place and plans to sacrifice herself.
• Except then Eleanor realizes the Good Place is actually the Bad Place. Michael is a demon rather than an angel, none of the humans belong in the Good Place, and Michael snaps his fingers to start the torture experiment all over again. Our initial assumption, that the show is about learning how to be good, holds true! But nearly everything else about the show is flipped inside out.
• We assume the show will now be about whether Eleanor can figure out she’s in the Bad Place, but she discovers it almost immediately. New assumption: The show will be about Michael trying to find the best Bad Place scenario. New assumption immediately fails as we watch Michael try 801 different versions.
• On attempt 802, Michael decides to become an ally with the humans in order to stay out of trouble with his boss, on the condition that he learn how to be good. Next assumption: The Good Place will be about whether it’s possible to teach Michael to be good.
• Except the ruse of Michael, Eleanor, and the gang pretending to not know they’re in the Bad Place falls apart very quickly. Shawn arrives to send the humans to the real Bad Place. Michael seems to have broken bad again, and he sells out the humans …
• … and then it was actually a trick to help the humans escape from Shawn. We now assume the show will be about everyone trying to get to real Good Place!
• But now the humans can’t get on the magical Good Place balloon until they’re the best versions of themselves. Briefly, we assume we’ll now need to spend some time while all the characters become their best selves …
• … but then Michael admits the whole balloon idea is fake and he has no idea how to get to the Good Place! Except, they could try to appeal to the Eternal Judge, and in order to do that, they’ll need to go to the real Bad Place. We now assume the show will be mostly about them all trying to be undercover in the Bad Place so they can get to the Judge!
• They do go undercover in the Bad Place, but they’re found out right away and end up sprinting to the portal that leads to the Judge. Michael sacrifices himself so that Eleanor can make the jump. So now we assume that the show will mostly about the gang trying to make their case in front of the Judge. And next …?
What’s happening on The Good Place feels like a storytelling magic trick. You can’t really understand how they pull it off, and you certainly don’t think anyone else could repeat it. There just aren’t that many shows tackling metaphysics and the best way to be a decent human being in the world (it’s pretty much just this one and the various works of Damon Lindelof), and those themes are really the core of the series. Even while Jason’s setting off Molotov cocktails and Janet’s drunk on magnets, that deep sincerity and the absolute commitment to the seriousness of those ideas are the fundamental defining features of the show.
But all the other stuff — all the twisty, topsy-turvy, runaway trolley-ness of it — this is the thing about The Good Place that does feel connected to lots of other shows on TV right now. The closest analogues are other imaginary worlds like Westworld or the new season of Star Trek, which both spend enormous energy reinventing the premise and disorienting the audience whenever possible. But it’s also true for shows like This Is Us, which Jen Chaney described last fall as part of the new cohort of “mystery box” shows.
The premise-detonating daring of The Good Place has some important differences from other twisty shows, though. For one, most of the “twists” actually aren’t twists — there’s the big head-over-heels, midair reversal at the end of season one, but many of The Good Place’s surprises are more about pacing than they are surprise. In that list of new premises and discarded ideas, you can see that most audience assumptions are true, at least for a little while. The sensation isn’t anything like Westworld’s patronizing “everything you thought you knew is wrong, idiot,” nor is it in keeping with Star Trek’s recent “haHA I tricked you!” vibe. The Good Place treats its ideas and its characters with compassion — it loves Eleanor and her friends — and it gives the audience the same respect. For one, the entire first season is still enjoyable even if you rewatch it after knowing the twist; the episodes are designed to work entirely on their own, even apart from the ending reversal. On Westworld, conversely, a rewatch makes you feel like the writers are rubbing your nose in all the glibly opaque clues you couldn’t get the first time around. Like The Good Place, the whole season builds to that reveal at the end, but on Westworld, there’s almost zero regard for the audience’s experience (for characters to root for, for tonal variations, for smaller stories that pay off on their own) outside of dropping hints about the end. Westworld is the “Mister Police, I gave you all the clues” of twisty TV. The Good Place couldn’t care less whether you understood the clues, or even noticed them at all. They’re fun, but they’re beside the point.
The other remarkable thing about The Good Place is that the show is constantly killing its darlings. It throws away the fun of Michael’s many Bad Place attempts. It leaves behind Eleanor and Chidi’s adorable, creepy clown bungalow. In episode ten, we get a glorious trip to the real Bad Place, and it’s so funny and perfect that I could’ve happily stayed there for a long time (which is ironic for a place that’s supposed to be hell). But no — The Good Place catapulted its humans out of the Museum of Human Misery right away, giving us only a few short moments with Tahani’s fabulous Bad Place bob. Its season-two model of plotting looks more like the Star Trek: Discovery model, which also has at least one legitimate twist, but which operates on a more regular pattern of finding an idea and then immediately casting it aside for something else. But here’s the thing about the killing your darlings model for storytelling: For it to work, you have to make them darlings first. Without a sense that the show truly loves its characters, truly relishes the opportunity to tell a little story about a hot-air balloon or Mindy St. Clair’s masturbation proclivities, it doesn’t feel brave or surprising when the show then throws them away.
Unlike the surprise twists on Westworld or the continually shocking turns on Star Trek: Discovery, the world of The Good Place keeps melting away and forming all over again, but the center of the show — the four human characters and their reformed demon pal — stays the same. Their motivations, their personalities, their senses of humor, their weaknesses, and their favorite things all stay the same. Jason will always love Blake Bortles. Eleanor will always love shrimp. Tahani will always love name-dropping celebrities, and Chidi will always love his lucky bookmark. The Good Place characters are tethered to one another and to themselves, so the world around them can drift freely without losing the audience or the show’s fundamental identity. Ultimately, rather than using characters as chess pieces to move around a board in service of a big twist, The Good Place makes surprise and novelty subordinate to the characters. On The Good Place, in other words, the real twist is the friends you made along the way.