The Good Place series review – the story so far, suitably philosophical thoughts, discussion, and predictions

by Sarah Louise Dean

The Good Place came to Netflix without fanfare and proceeded to reimagine comedy for the first time since The Big Bang Theory made geekiness cool. It feels like a standard thirty-minute sitcom, but The Good Place extracts the laughs from serious issues, like death, morality and philosophy. What could have been dangerously unfunny is a laugh-out-loud riot. Now mid-way through its second season, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson lead a fantastic cast in weekly bite-size chunks of giggling thoughtfulness.

The series begins with Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) sat in a waiting room before meeting Michael (Danson), who hits Eleanor with the news that she’s dead and in the afterlife’s waiting area. Luckily, Eleanor has made it to the “Good Place” (not the, you know, “other” place), and Michael’s here to settle her in.

As is customary in the Good Place, Eleanor cannot swear (which is a forking shirting riot). She’s paired with her ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and they move in to a multi-coloured cottage in a neon dream world that would make Willy Wonka blush, all apparently in accordance with what Eleanor most wanted while alive. The lucky people make it to the Good Place by earning points for their many good deeds on Earth. As Eleanor tries to settle in, things feel off. She doesn’t like, let alone fancy, bookish philosophy professor Chidi, nor can she get on with her irritating neighbours – whiny English philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Tahani’s soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a monk who has taken a vow of silence.

Eleanor is not the perfect Good Place resident that she should be, and her stay keeps going horribly awry. Beset by misunderstanding, nightmares and some raining shellfish, Eleanor accidentally learns that Jianyu is also faking it, he’s really a DJ called Jason, leading her to reason that they were both accidentally put in the Good Place.

The first season explores the backstories and quirks of each of the four characters, suggesting that none of them belong in the Good Place. Michael is also faking it, taking enjoyment from the awkward situations that arise, aided by an otherworldly being called Janet (D’Arcy Carden) whose sole function is to grant residents their heart’s desires.

Meanwhile, Chidi cannot fathom that a woman as immoral Eleanor is his soulmate, and sets out to educate her on philosophy, to help make her a better person. As the season progresses, episodes are cleverly framed around philosophical theory – much more fun than it sounds.

The season wraps with a huge twist: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani are part of an experiment hosted by Michael (who is, in fact, a spiritual architect of the underworld who likes constructing ambitious torture scenarios) to impress his boss Shawn. Michael has created what looks like the Good Place, ran by afterlife actors who create problems specifically designed to torture the four human participants without them realising.

Eleanor confronts Michael. At first impressed, he later reveals that he will simply wipe their memories and start the torturous charade again. Before he does so, Eleanor rips a page from Chidi’s philosophy notebook, writes ‘Find Chidi’, then stuffs it into Janet’s mouth, hoping that she’ll find the note after her reincarnation.

And so, we head to Season 2. Forking great! Watch the whole season, laugh your socks off and then join us back here.

Season 2 Episode 1: Everything is Great: Parts 1 & 2

All four characters (and thus the show itself) are rebooted, as promised. And as predicted, Janet gives Eleanor the note she wrote to “Find Chidi”, which makes no sense to the memory-wiped Eleanor, but she does recognise her own writing. Michael concludes that making the four humans each other’s soulmates was where he failed, so he creates new soulmates, including forcing Chidi to choose between two, a real task for Chidi, whose chronic indecision led to his death and giving us some brilliant sweating from Harper.

Michael is, as Eleanor would say, “just so basic” in creating her soulmate, whose sole function is to take his shirt off and announce that he’s taking those abs “to the gym”. Eleanor locates Chidi, but he is too distracted to help. Poor Jason is forced to play the monk again, his soulmate being Luang, a spiritual companion, who literally mirrors Jason’s every move. This drives Jason to seek out Janet, who makes his heart sing simply by being friendly.

Chidi eventually realises that Eleanor’s note is written on paper from his book and wonders if they have met before. Eleanor admits that she doesn’t belong in the Good Place, with Tahani and Jason then openly complaining about their experiences. In record time, Eleanor figures out that this is not the Good Place. A dumbfounded Michael must erase their memories and reboot the Good Place again, without alerting Shawn.

Having established the foibles in season 1, the episode mines jokes at the character’s expense, i.e. Tahani lives with a short, unrefined soulmate in a tiny house, unaware of her former palatial set-up. Her subsequent despair means it is Tahani and not Eleanor who makes a drunken scene at the welcome party, but at least they’re not in the ‘real’ bad place with its ‘butthole spiders’.

Philosophy alert: No philosophy lessons so far, however, Chidi’s soulmate choice reminds me of Jane Elliot’s blue eyes, brown eyes experiment

MVP: Tahani in cargo pants is a sight to behold!

Rating: ★★★★ – A clever back and forth getting us all up to speed.

Season 2 Episode 2: Dance Dance Resolution

A visual treat and a kind of recap of the whole of Season One. We’re seeing the third version of the Good Place. Eleanor thinks Tahani is a “mean giraffe” and Michael’s game is up a mere 128 days later, when Eleanor can’t bear to watch a three-hour-spoken-word-jazz opera. There’s a fantastic montage of Janet’s best fail-safe mechanisms (“It’s your baby,” she tells Michael, sonogram in hand) and of Eleanor’s soulmates (my fave being the golden retriever). Even Jason works out the scam during one of the eight hundred reboots.

The episode slows down at the 802nd version, with Eleanor and Chidi catching a fire demon complaining about the boring torture (who doesn’t love impaling?), and Janet takes Eleanor and Chidi to the Medium Place. They learn from resident Mindy (see Season 1 Episode 12 Mindy St. Claire) that this is their sixteenth visit, and they always return to try to defeat Michael. Mindy also reveals (by a cunning peephole video scam) that Eleanor and Chidi have a lot of sex and once said they loved one another.

Vicky and the actors strike and threaten to reveal all to Shawn. And Jason wisely counsels Michael, saying that he should agree to meet with the actors then double-cross them. The humans again confront Michael and, surprisingly he asks for an alliance.

Philosophy alert: There’s a quick reference to the Bundle theory of the self.

MVP: Michael is at his wittiest when faced with problems: “I am stress eating” “Jason figured it out? That’s a real low point, this one hurts.”

Rating: ★★★★

Season 2 Episode 3: Team Cockroach

Recap: With Michael desperate to keep in Shawn’s good graces (who still hasn’t noticed more than eight hundred reboots, they’re a bit thick in the Bad Place) he asks the humans (or as he sees them ‘cockroaches’) to join his plan to reboot the neighbourhood but secretly leave their memories intact. The gang are still reeling from (again) finding out this this is not the good place, partly due to no good place ever including a lazy river of clam chowder. Chidi is on board, and Tahani is convinced of her lack of credentials for the real Good Place when we finally find out how she died, fittingly crushed by a golden statue of her sister Kamillah.

Jason spends the episode blissfully aware of the issues, but it is Eleanor who can smell Michael’s desperation, forcing Michael to up his game by claiming that he can get all of them into the real Good Place. Eleanor doesn’t believe this for a second and is headed back to the Medium Place until a conversation with Michael reveals that Chidi never refuses to help her in any of the previous versions. She twists the knife by agreeing to the plan only if Michael also attends Chidi’s ethics classes.

The reboot with Vicky in charge (with a murderous rendition of “I Will Survive”). Team Cockroach is formed (with Janet, whose is now eight hundred times more socially aware and only the imperative to help humans) meets to secretly plan what to do next.

Philosophy alert: None yet, but with Michael taking ethics classes, fun is afoot.

MVP: Eleanor remains Queen of the put-down, calling Chidi “a human turtleneck” Michael, a “son of a bench” and Jason “Slow down ding dong”. But the best one-liner goes to Michael with his earnest: “That chapped my nips”!

Rating: ★★★★

Season 2 Episode 4: Existential Crisis

Much is learned about the Good Place in this episode, by viewers and characters alike. Chidi begins his new term teaching ethics, confirming that Michael has no human ethics at all. His afterlife existence however, can be terminated in a horrible essence-scooping, sun-burning fashion. Chidi and Eleanor ease Michael in with the basics: that part of life is to fear mortality, a lesson which quickly brings on Michael’s first ever existential crisis. In comparison, Eleanor seems fine with death, and flashbacks to her mother both killing the family dog and hitting on Eleanor’s boyfriend at her dad’s funeral show why. Eleanor’s pep talk takes Michael out of one crisis and slap bang into another: the classic midlife crisis, with white suit and sports car motifs, and a starring turn for Janet as his dizzy ‘secretary’ Janette. While trying to control Michael’s development, Chidi brings on another flashback for Eleanor, when she cried at the sight of a family toothbrush holder.

Meanwhile, Tahani learns how superficial her genuine sadness at not throwing the best party in town is (it’s hard to compete with a unicorn). The pervasive moral lesson is for the humans to work together to help their fellow man. Chidi and Eleanor talk Michael through his crises, and Jason (whose only skill to date involved plastic bottles and Pizza Hut) encourages Tahani to be nicer to herself, which leads to a hot and heavy development in their relationship. Perhaps Michael and Tahani are changing for the better?

Philosophy alert: Chidi tries his best to pimp Socrates, musing on how life is absurd and absurdity needs to be confronted, but no one is listening. He also recommends this book.

MVP: Michael in crisis is Danson at his best, with digs like his hatred of “Millennials” – those who’ve only been torturing people for a thousand years. Quite.

Rating: ★★★★

Season 2 Episode 5: The Trolley Problem

The Good Place isn’t a show that requires viewers to cover their eyes, but The Trolley Problem breaks new ground by bringing hypothetical discussion into gut-twisting reality. Chidi is back at his blackboard, and he explains the Trolley Problem: where one must decide who to save if they have control of a trolley car that’s hurtling towards multiple victims. Michael ensures that the threat is a clear and present danger by putting his humans in a trolley car, against Chidi’s theoretical approach, as another way for to torture the cockroaches. When faced with Chidi’s wrath, Michael tries bribery, but only a semi-sincere apology does the trick.

Tahani and Jason are keeping their relationship secret at Tahani’s request, and she’s hire Janet as their therapist. Surprisingly, Janet is very good at giving relationship advice, so good that she begins to glitch. The problem with Janet’s glitches is that, as we saw in Season 1, they can cause the collapse of Michael’s world.

Philosophy alert: Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem has been a popular moral dilemma for years. A version of it was employed to the consternation of cast and audience alike in the final season of The Leftovers.

MVP: Michael wins again, simply by thinking that the real Trolley Problem is “How do you kill all six people?” and stating that all French people deserve the Bad Place.

Rating: ★★★★★

Season 2 Episode 6: Janet and Michael

Janet’s inclusion in The Good Place has always been one of its biggest mysteries, mostly she serves as a foil to Michael, with little skits to great comic effect. D’Arcy Carden is a real find. Part of the mystery is resolved in this episode, as it is revealed that Michael stole Janet from the real Good Place, which may explain the glitching. Michael needs to troubleshoot his Janet model 803, enabling Vicki to torture Chidi under the ruse of acupuncture. Janet’s manual reveals that her problems are caused by her having to lie, which Michael thinks is his fault. The truth is that Janet is deep down only pretending to be happy for Tahani and Jason (possibly because she activated her Ride or DieProtocol back in episode 12 of Season 1). Sweetly and inadvertently, Michael realises that Janet has become his friend, so he can’t reboot her. Needing to rely on others in times of need, he seeks out chief adviser Eleanor. And Eleanor, through her own faults and experiences with love, helps Janet to process emotion, by, of course, recommending that Janet go on the rebound. Janet does the one thing that anyone in this situation would kill to do, and creates her perfect partner: Derek (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jason Mantzoukas). If only Derek didn’t behave like a child on cocaine…like almost all rebounds, Janet’s won’t end well.

Philosophy alert: No philosophy, although there is insight into Michael’s cunning plans.

MVP: Janet vomiting coins was pretty cool, but I most liked it when she called Michael her friend, before immediately slating his clothes…

Rating: ★★★★

Season 2 Episode 7: Derek

The Good Place has teased the burgeoning love story between Eleanor and Chidi throughout this season, and it’s hinted that Eleanor has spent a lot of time watching a certain tape (that isn’t Cannonball Run 2). She has other pressing matters, like wanting to murder Derek, agreeing with Michael that the rebound guy isn’t good at keeping secrets.

Janet is going through the latter stage of a bad relationship and Chidi is always there to remind Michael and Eleanor of their immoral tendencies, when really, they should be looking out for Jason and Tahani, who coincidentally, decide to get married.

Derek and Jason face up at the beach wedding, before Janet puts Derek in a coffin to dispel of him “in her void”

Eleanor’s guilt persuades her to show Chidi their lovemaking tape, but Chidi tells her he does not love her in this version of their story. Michael seems to want to be more moral and Eleanor believes that he is becoming more human. The mid-season finale reveals what has been on the cards for the entire season, Shawn appearing in Michael’s office.

Philosophy alert: Nothing in particular, but Chidi does talk of the general principle that moral strength is defined by how we behave in times of stress.

MVP: It has to be Derek: the banter between him and Janet calls back to anyone who has fought with their partner in public. “To you I’ll always be that guy you made.”

Rating: ★★★★1/2

Season 2 – What could happen next?

It has been fun to see where The Good Place has decided to take the story in season 2. I was initially trepidatious; would the show be a victim of its own success? Creator Michael Schur was faced with the task of keeping audience interest after a first season that ended with one of the biggest twists in television in years. Luckily, Schur and his writing team kept their cool and instead of making episodes full of unsustainable twists, they have let the first season’s set up do the hard work, and mined what we already know for further jokes.

Without the need to establish character biographies, recent episodes have focused on how these four unconnected strangers could work together in the afterlife. The Good Place has the luxury of creating comedy from multiple sources: the humans navigating the Good Place, what this afterlife itself is really like and how four separate lives were lived on Earth. The show always mixes flashback with pushing the present story forward and more than ever in Season 2 philosophy has been brought to the fore. It is possible for comedy to also be a teacher.

So, what could happen in the remaining episodes of Season 2? Schur has confirmed that there will be no big twist this season, but that he is already planning Season 3, so a cliff-hanger ending is likely. The rest of this season will probably feed us just enough information to keep us guessing. And in this show, anything could happen, especially as the show attempts to widen the scope by bringing in more peripheral characters like Vicky, Mindy and Shawn (more fire demons please). I can imagine a heaving writers room (which is known for being well-represented by both sexes) full of debate as to how to next misdirect viewers.

The Good Place will no doubt keep working on these characters. We identify with their struggles, celebrate their flaws, and root for them nonetheless. And never has a show more encapsulated our fears over what happens after death, so I expect more about the afterlife to be revealed. Here are a few more personal theories:

1) Janet: Janet has had the most interesting arc of Season 2. We have discovered that she gets smarter and more self-aware in each iteration. Theoretically, all of her rebooted struggles are creating a Janet with a soul. She will undoubtedly continue her humanising journey by adjusting to her love for Jason and what overriding her Ride or Die Protocol could mean. On a related note, I’ve always found it odd that God is rarely mentioned, instead the afterlife is constructed of layers of bureaucracy. There are only two characters with god-like abilities: Janet and Michael. Michael is the more obvious choice, given what he gets away with, but Janet is as astute and benevolent as any deity written in earth scripture. And she’d be such a fun God!

2) Chidi: If Janet retains knowledge after every reboot, then the humans may do too. Chidi and Eleanor’s love story has been hinted at throughout the entire series. Were those heady early days, when both believed that they were soulmates a foreshadowing? In this season, Mindy tells Eleanor that she and Chidi have known each other for a long time, a strange thing to say about people whose memories have been wiped eight hundred times. Chidi is the moral compass of the show, and the writers are enjoying using his panic and conflict to illustrate that there are no binary choices in human relationships. He has shown sparks of ego and need. However, he and Eleanor seek out each other’s advice and are genuinely respectful of one another even though their thinking is worlds apart. The show may still double bluff us to reveal that they are soulmates after all.

3) Eleanor: Eleanor is on a steep learning curve. The girl who brought drink to her driving exam barely touches the stuff this season, and I get the nagging feeling that all that Eleanor was told in the very first episode of the show could still be true. Maybe she does deserve to stay in the Good Place, given the insight into her painful, unloved human life. Eleanor is genuinely growing away from flashes of cruelty to deciding to stay with Chidi just because he has never let her down. Even asking Michael that question showed an insight into her growing empathy.

4) Michael: Michael is the most fascinating part of The Good Place. We have no idea of his principles, he lies constantly, he has infinite power and likes to torture for fun. I’m inclined to believe that Michael is actually the Devil taking a holiday. Somewhere, if God isn’t Janet, then God is tied up in a cupboard screaming through a gag. Michael looks set on the road to redemption, but he is a very clever entity. Who’s to say the Devil doesn’t come to your door as a friend bringing froyo?

5) Tahani: The writers use Tahani to make digs at the modern world. Her clueless, self-obsessed take makes her the personification of Instagram. If The Good Place is a teaching aid as well as a comedy, then incrementally, it is asking all of us to stop being like Tahani before it’s too late. I was personally touched by Jason telling Tahani to be nicer to herself, and she is most different to Chidi, thinking that she is suffering when he is actually willing to suffer for others. Pairing those two in more scenes would be fun. She will continue to be the butt of the jokes but her relationship with Jason may be the redemption arc we all need.

6) Jason: Here is a character who, in real life, I might despise, being stupid and ineffectual. But obviously he is the sweetest, most enlightened person in the show, and is completely without vanity. Will he improve his intellect at all? He is more likely to improve the other characters. A love triangle with Janet and Tahani is on the horizon. I’ll leave you with one of his best lines: “You’re sitting in a room, that’s pretty cool.”

The names of the eighth and ninth episodes of season 2 have been revealed as “Leap of Faith” and “Best Self” – intriguing names that give nothing away! See you in January for more discussion!

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