No other show on television has made a habit of wiping the slate clean quite like The Good Place. Most serial stories rely on establishing a premise and building on it — especially shows like The Good Place that are mostly about character growth and friendship — so it would seemingly make zero sense to chuck out all the relationships that you’ve slowly nurtured over several episodes, if not seasons. It makes even less sense to go through all the care of piecing together an elaborate and delightful afterlife fantasy world, only to throw it all away.
But The Good Place has done exactly that, not just once, but many times, and the third season’s premiere episode performed that magic trick yet again. Where season two played with rebooting itself every time Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason realized they were in the Bad Place, the new premise is different sort of reboot: Everyone’s been shipped back to Earth and given a second chance after near-death scares. Will they become better people all on their own? They got better as a self-preservation strategy, but do they improve enough to be considered Good when left to their own devices?
Though it feels like it’s going backwards, The Good Place is actually moving ahead in its own unique way. After all, Michael and Janet still carry the show’s history with them: They remember the foursome’s relationships with one another, their own fondness for each of them, Janet’s love for Jason, Eleanor’s special soul-mate bond with Chidi, and everything else. But the primary fabric of the show is Tahani, Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor’s friendships, and season three is a hard reboot for them. Once again, we watch Eleanor beg Chidi to help her be a better person; once again, we see Eleanor marvel at Tahani’s condescension; once again, we get the delight of everyone slowly realizing how little is rattling around inside Jason’s brain. And once again, we have to wait for them to become friends, for Eleanor to stubbornly battle through her internal resistance, for them to wrestle with what goodness means.
That’s a lot to ask of an audience. We’ve been through enough versions of The Good Place to understand that once our intrepid team of trash people do figure things out — once they manage to better themselves and choose to become more humane, thoughtful people — the show will probably snap its fingers and ship them back to where they started. Three seasons in, The Good Place seems determined to keep us stuck in a loop. Again: This is a very strange thing to keep doing within serial storytelling. But it’s happened enough now that we can also see it for what it is. The Good Place isn’t tap dancing to keep itself from exhausting its premise, and it’s not hiding a key to a mystery box that Eleanor and Michael will eventually need to solve. The reboots are not a side effect. They’re the whole point.
The Good Place’s philosophical undergirding means that it’s always revolving around big questions about human nature. In season two, “The Trolley Problem” was one of the more direct examples of this: To help Michael understand human nature, Chidi took him and Eleanor through one of philosophy’s classic thought experiments. You’re on a trolley, and the tracks split into two routes up ahead. There are people tied to the tracks, and if you do nothing, the trolley will kill five people. But if you choose to pull the lever and switch to the other track, the trolley will kill one person. What do you do? Both the episode and the conundrum are useful for understanding how Michael and Eleanor wrestle with that problem. What if you knew one of the people? What if you’re just a bystander? What if it’s a scenario where you’re a doctor instead of a trolley driver?
It’s also useful problem because of the way it’s built: To truly understand the meaning of the trolley problem, Michael conjures a literal trolley multiple times, each time with a slightly different scenario. They run through the trolley problem again and again, so he and Eleanor and Chidi can really experience the ramifications of each variation. “I made the trolley problem real so we could see how the ethics would actually play out!” Michael says, as they ride a trolley barreling toward several construction workers. Chidi, ever himself, cannot make a decision, kills five guys on the first run, and then howls in agony at what he’s done. “There have to be stakes or it’s just another thought experiment,” Michael explains, and then he snaps his fingers and they do it again. And again. This time, Chidi’s friend Henry is tied to the tracks. Next time, it’s a doctor/organ transplant scenario.
The whole thing implodes soon enough: Eleanor realizes Michael is using the trolley problem to keep torturing Chidi and she puts a stop to it. Still, even though it was intended as a form of torture, the thought experiment works. The show demonstrates a philosophical problem, and the repetition of slightly varying scenarios forces Chidi to get better at making decisions. No one mentions it at the time, but the same character who kills five people through indecision at the beginning is able to confidently, swiftly state his stance on humanity and sacrifice several iterations later.
This is how The Good Place works, too. We’ve been through several reboots of the original scenario, each with its own minor variations. First, Eleanor had to figure everything out herself and was motivated by fear. Next, Eleanor understands she’s in the Bad Place and has to learn to get better anyhow. Now, she’s no longer in the afterlife and has no external motivation to get better? How does each variation change the problem? How does each new scenario put slightly different pressures on its characters? The show has become its own philosophical thought experiment, with season three’s premiere just the latest version. And, as Michael explains in the trolley problem episode, you can’t just run through the idea to really get it. The Good Place concretizes it. Each time, it adds real stakes to abstract questions. It’s a thought experiment with characters you really care about, and in order for the experiment to work, you have to repeat it, again and again.
Sure, there’s something frustrating about that. It goes against everything serial storytelling is supposed to be about: progress and perpetual growth and stories that build from past events. It’s annoying to be caught in a loop. But, in true Good Place fashion, it’s also deeply reassuring. We’ve been through several loops, now. Each time, without fail, Eleanor and her friends become better people. The thought experiment proves that they can choose to change. It is frustrating, but it’s also fundamentally optimistic. That’s not nothing.