TV reviews

The Good Place: Season Two, Part One – Review

With a sigh of relief, The Good Place returned for a second season that immediately grips like a vice, makes one laugh like a hyena, and realise instantly that the series was going to more than deliver on that gasp inducing plot twist that concluded its first season.

Picking up where it left off, the first two episodes has a plethora of fun as Michael (Ted Danson) attempts to continue his experiment to torture our lead characters by making them think they’re in “the good place” when they’re really in the bad but by also playing on their deepest characters flaws and imperfections (Chidi’s inability to actually make a concrete decision comes in for the most fun here).

As it turns out, Michael’s experiment is in its second iteration, but due to it constantly failing, and everyone figuring out they’re in the bad place much faster than last time, the experiment ends up being rebooted eight hundred times, placing The Good Place into the realm of Groundhog Day of meaning that we’re witnessing our characters pretty much repeating the same thing over and over again more times than we’ve probably realised, or even bearing witness to.

Like the Bill Murray classic from 1993, The Good Place is a comedy that places philosophical themes and ideas front and centre, but not in a manner that eclipses the character development, high concept plotting or the comedy. If anything it enhances it and puts something around the edges that makes it worthy of debate in the manner of a great television drama like Lost.

The first half of season two is tightly paced and as much fun as the entire first season, and while so far it hasn’t thrown in as big a game changer as the first season did, it still manages to take the audience aback due to some unpredictable plotting and reliance of cliffhangers that makes one livid that you have to wait a week to see the next episode (the mid-season finale is particularly frustrating because it left us waiting for two months).

Being a Schur-creation, as great as the plotting is, what gives the series its abundance of fun and charm, and makes the comedy flow even better, is its characters and cast.

Kristen Bell can do no wrong, whether it be Veronica Mars or Frozen, and as Eleanor she excels with a character that is funny, charming, but wonderfully and believably flawed, and human. Like other Schur creations, the series also works because of a winning ensemble and the first half of the season throws in wonderful stories for its characters; Jason and Tahani sleeping together; Janet creating a boyfriend for herself in the Jason Mantzoukas shape of Derek, who, like many a Mantzoukas performance, walks in like he’s always been in the show and nearly steals it with his brand of aggressively funny comedy; Michael learning ethics and Eleanor finding out she slept with Chidi before they had their memories wiped and were beginning to fall in love.

Chidi, in fact, gets possibly the funniest moment of the entire show so far. When trying to teach Michael ethics through “the trolley problem” thought experiment, involving a runaway tram and two directions to choose from, one way going to kill one person, or the other direction potentially killing a larger number of people, Michael begins to have himself, Eleanor and Chidi in the experiment for real, with actual people and the results are incredibly violent and hysterically funny.

In fact, the episode (brilliantly entitled “The Trolley Problem”) sums up the show in a nutshell; funny, with a smidgeon of darkness, yet never despairingly so, with a philosophical streak that it uses to explore its comedic setting.

Like the first season, for a series that deals with death and psychological torture at the hands of demons pretending to be humans, the series is colourful and fun, and feels like it’s filled to the brim with imagination. The use of the Universal backlot gives the “good place” a lovely sense of artificiality, which fits with the show’s aesthetic wonderfully, and while the series isn’t afraid to push some darker elements on to the series (The Trolley Problem is very splatter filled in terms of violent comedy), Schur and his writers never allow it to overwhelm the series to the point where it becomes a drag.

It is the equal to Schur’s other works, and like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in that it’s not afraid to keep moving forward with its characters and their roles, all the while being careful not to destroy who they are or why the audience has grown to care for them. At this stage of the series, Jason is still every bit as stupid as he was when we first met him, and Tahani is still somewhat  conceited, but you can feel their development, all the while without sacrificing what it is we love about them and what they bring to show comedically.

Somewhat subversivally, for a Schur series at least, the series is not going in the expected direction when it comes to a central romantic relationship within the show. Parks and Recreation gave the world Leslie and Ben together, arguably one of the most romantic, believable and downright lovable pairings in television history, while Brooklyn Nine-Nine has Jake and Amy, which, although not as punch the air wonderful as Ben and Leslie, is still lovely and is never played for obvious drama. They are couples who are allowed to come together and basically have their romance play out in a long form piece of storytelling without falling into the pratfalls of obvious drama to get in the way of the romance.

With The Good Place, Schur has given us a couple who have found their way together, but because of eight hundred memory wipes, have forgotten they were ever together, with the only evidence being a VHS cassette with a brief, and clearly post-coital, moment recorded on it. Unlike his other shows, Schur is actually playing this one for more drama, but has added a more suspenseful air because neither character can recall it, but Eleanor clearly feels more strongly for Chidi than Chidi does for her with their current memories. It’s surprisingly effective drama. We know what they’ve lost, now the journey to cheer for is them remembering it.

Even more remarkably for a thirty minute NBC comedy series, is The Good Place’s deeper explorations of humanity. Michael may be a demon, but the ethic lessons and constantly hanging out with Eleanor and the gang is actually making him something of a better person. By the end of the first part of the season he has reached out to them for help, and, as Eleanor puts it, that’s actually a human thing to do.

Ted Danson, forever an American sitcom legend thanks to Cheers, is wonderful throughout, and even when indulging in darker comedy like with the trolley problem, is wonderful.

As part of another winning Schur ensemble, he is the icing on the cake. Once again, at least for the first half of season two, the series has scarcely put a foot wrong and it ends with a cliffhanger that will leave you itching for the next episode. The Good Place is still one of the best comedy series to emerge from the US, and is constantly striving for ambitions that one wouldn’t expect from it.

The series could so easily have just settled into an afterlife comedy and treaded along, albeit brilliantly, for five seasons, but instead it’s seemingly intent in pulling the rug out from under the audience’s feet in the most brilliant way every week. The first season was one of the best things to emerge on television last year. The second season is not only still carrying the ball, it’s practically sprinting with it.

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