The first season had shades of “Groundhog Day,” another comedy that was a Trojan horse for philosophical inquiry. What does it mean to be good? Is it innate? Is it about intention or action? Is it a learned behavior, something that you can achieve, like physical fitness, by repeating a set of exercises?
The new season parallels “Groundhog Day” more directly, by having Michael reboot his experimental hell from scratch. As he refines his torments, the show further unpeels the characters.
For the overintellectualizing Chidi, hell is being forced to make tough decisions. For the conspicuous do-gooder Tahani (Jameela Jamil), it’s having her righteous self-perception challenged. For slacker-bro Jason (Manny Jacinto), it’s having to spend eternity as Jianyu, the pious, silent monk whose identity he’s been given in a switch-up Michael engineered.
Michael Schur, the creator of “The Good Place,” is otherwise known for “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” sitcoms grounded with a specific sense of place. The afterlife in “The Good Place,” on the other hand, is deliberately artificial. To make it feel lived-in (or died-in) takes not just imagination but a pile of acting talent.
That Mr. Danson can hit any pitch a writer can throw at him is no surprise. Still, what he did in the climactic Season 1 finale scene was stunning. After Eleanor guessed Michael’s ruse, he smiled a broad smile that began warm and turned diabolical. He reverse-polarized his character, and thus the entire series, in one facial expression.
The new episodes show that this bespoke afterlife has endless possibilities for growth. The show is now also a dysfunctional-workplace comedy, for instance, as Michael begs for one more chance from his harsh bosses, who prefer the old-fashioned fire-and-hammers version of torment.
There’s also a meta-theatrical element to the season, since The Bad Place in “The Good Place” is, itself, a show being rebooted. This story line spotlights Tiya Sircar, as the evil spirit who in season one played Real Eleanor (the person whose place in heaven Eleanor was told she was accidentally given) and is now assigned to be Denise, the pizza-shop owner in Michael’s new scenario.
“Denise is a good part, with a great back story,” Michael assures her, in the placating tones of a showrunner managing the talent. “You have a cat, and that’s cool!”
This season’s switch-up means a lot of complication to ask a sitcom audience to follow, which may be why surreal romantic-workplace-showbiz-eschatological comedies do not have a long track record on network TV. Through its thrilling first season, “The Good Place” felt like it was always an episode or two from derailing, but it didn’t.
The second season, premised on Michael’s having painted himself into a narrative corner, risks painting itself in one too. But I’m still laughing. And if a sitcom’s reach can’t exceed its grasp, what’s a fake heaven for?
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