Spoilers for the first three episodes of The Good Place, Season 3 ahead.
At the end of the first season of The Good Place, our dingbat heroes have their memories wiped straight clean. They think they’re in the Good Place and then learn that they’re in the Bad Place and then, nope, sorry, they forget it. At the end of the show’s second season, same thing: Zillions of lessons learned and then boom, presto, it’s like none of it ever happened. This is a mechanism by which the writers can reset the stakes of NBC’s excellent half-hour comedy every 12 episodes or so, introducing more chaos, more hijinks, and more topsy-turvy laws that govern The Good Place’s universe. But it’s also a demonstration of what The Good Place does best, which is tell us something we probably already knew about ourselves. It presents deeply flawed characters who do what deeply flawed humans on planet Earth—this one, the real one—do best: Fudge things up, toil at undoing all the damage, only to mess things up all over again. (Other shows have done this, but the genius subtext of The Good Place is that: This is normal. And everything is fine.)
In Season 3, the show proves it can still pull off this tremendous balancing act—and maintains its status as one of the zaniest and big-hearted comedies to be on television in a minute.
The premiere kicks off with a few continuities from the season before: Michael (Ted Danson) has shed his dirtbag demon ways and his experiment to see if his favorite four humans—Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Jason (Manny Jacinto)—can also learn to be good people is still on. Oh, and poor Janet (D’Arcy Carden), having endured countless resets, is still in love with Jason. Now she is saddled with feelings, especially of the horny and jealous variety, making her my favorite character of them all.
With permission from High Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph, and thank GOD she is still on this season), Michael visits Earth and intervenes in the lives of Eleanor and company to save them from their very stupid deaths. (The causes of their would-be death are all deeply embarrassing and showcase each character’s greatest flaws.) Having survived their near-death experiences, now the four must change their way and become good people, in order to one day arrive at the Good Place. A second chance at life! How rare.
But of course, they don’t know that. Most of them try to be good for a while, succeeding to varying degrees
., and then relapse. Eleanor goes back to being a jerk; Tahani to being a self-obsessed socialite; Jason to doing crimes. Chidi can pick out what kind of muffin he wants for breakfast one day, and then can’t the next. The circumstances by which they learn the limits of their capacity for growth are hilarious and absurd. But they’re also intrisically relatable. This is a story about not being able to help ourselves. The nice thing is that it’s still a joy to watch. In a landscape of television shaped and populated by anti-heroes, reluctant large adult children who frequently self-sabotage, and aggressively shitty people, The Good Place telegraphs a relentless optimism about the human condition. Even dirtbags deserve that.
The hijinks come, this season, increasingly from Michael, who has become so attached to the subjects of his pet project that he desperately needs them to win—not just so he won’t go to the Bad Place and be “retired” (which is demon-speak for having your essence scooped out of your body with a flaming ladle), but because he cares about them. Ironically, this leads to Michael acting more and more like a human. He’s become more susceptible to folly. He has something to lose now, which he can’t stand. The question will be whether he can resist the (very human) urge to micromanage and control everything, like he did when he was an all-powerful architect demon, long enough to let his best friends flourish and fly on their own.
Yes, there are demons who can turn you into a cocoon and steely celestial doormen and an unbelievably trash dance troupe out of Florida in The Good Place. These are all characters and caricatures. But at its heart, The Good Place is a show about us, whether we can ever grow out of old habits, whether we can ever change, whether we’ll ever, all of us, be okay. I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m optimistic.