‘The Good Place’ Gets Down to Earth and Back Again

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my weekly “THE GOOD PLACE [Sad Reaction Image]” tweet formula that pops up on Thursday nights. I started the show during the summer of 2018 and devoured the first two seasons in less than three days, which is extremely uncharacteristic of my uncultured-with-television self. I knew from the first few episodes, however, that The Good Place was no ordinary network sitcom. It’s been dubbed by many of its creators as the “smartest, dumbest show on TV”, which perfectly describes the show’s juggling of complex interrogations of morality, deep character studies, humane themes of life and death, emotional trauma, and self-improvement, all while maintaining a Spongebob-Esque absurdist but genuine sense of humor. It’s such a personal show to me that seemed to come at the right time. The first two seasons are masterfully written, and it would not be inappropriate to study the story beats and structure in a screenwriting class as the perfect model of set-up, pay-off, character development and everything in-between.

The Good Place - Season 3

So of course, Season Three of The Good Place had a lot to live up to. Our starting point takes off where Season Two ended; an arrangement with the Judge (Maya Rudolph) had been made to give our rag-tag group a second chance to prove themselves as “better people” by preventing their deaths back on Earth. Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), fully understanding of the gang’s positive group dynamic, decide to meddle further and reunite the humans together via a study on near-death experiences led by Chidi in Australia. I emphasize that this is only the starting point of the season – as you already might know, The Good Place is no stranger to the tradition of gigantic plot twists.

As I tried to get my bearings, it seemed as though Season Three felt was fizzling out under its big changes. Life on Earth is the focus of most of the beats this season and after a few episodes, I really started to miss the laser-focused pacing of the show’s past. It’s polarizing to see how much the change of setting actively makes a difference to the feel of the show. Initially, I appreciated the focus on developing each character’s relationships, (Eleanor, in particular, gets so many important moments to reconnect with her thought-to-be-dead mother and Kristen Bell is just insanely good as always) but I missed the brilliant group dynamic that made me love them in the first place. The comedic absurdity, while still present, is used more sparingly due to the limitations of working within our realm of reality. Even Janet herself, the loveable not-a-robot assistant is missing her iconic powers.  While there were definitely memorable moments early on, such as the hilarious “Jeremy Bearemy” timeline explanation, I felt a lot of the show’s characteristic charm was dwindling out, and others have expressed their worries about the longevity of the show’s unique concept.

But a major shift is made halfway through the season. Instead of trying to save our protagonists’ souls, our protagonists shift their motivation into trying their best to redeem the people around them. From then on, Michael and Janet seek to question the afterlife accounting systems which total up and determine which people go to the Good or the Bad Place. While the lack of focus in the earlier episodes still shows, one particular twist, that no one has gotten into the Good Place in 521 years, sends the season into a deeply complex breakdown of modern ethics. The Good Place has always been exceptional at observing the grey area, especially within its themes of redemption in characters such as Michael and Eleanor, and this narrative shift recontextualizes the time we spent in the earlier episodes of the season, and the show as a whole. While it seemed the show was moving sluggishly on Earth, it was time spent to examine our characters’ relationships and personal demons before changing to a broader perspective. A personal struggle with morality, changing to a wider big picture in the span of twelve episodes.

Previously, The Good Place focused on analyzing the very basics of human ethics, exploring philosophical theories from Aristotelianism to Utilitarianism, but this idea of our modern world being isolated from an idealization of heaven gives the show the opportunity to analyze modern behaviors. Is doing good truly being good if one always has their sights set on entering the Good Place? Can people who have hurt you redeem themselves? Is it possible to live an ethical life in a capitalistic world? I think the bravest thing about this development of the show is how unafraid it is to not only tackle wider questions of our existence but how it is unafraid to give us realistic, humanistic answers. And I think as a whole, while this season might not be as ingeniously paced as it once was, the complete dismantling of the show’s own formula is very much in line with its attitudes towards the numbering systems the accountants use on humans in the first place. It’s a model that’s obsolete, and it needs to change in order to grow.

While The Good Place is becoming a much rockier show than we’re used to, it is still challenging its audience whilst keeping its characters at its emotional core. And above all, it stays true to its initial concept. Being a good person is hard, and most of the time you will absolutely screw it up. But if you’re actively trying to be better in the little ways you can every day, then it does mean something. But will it even matter? Maybe not in our grander universe of judgment, but definitely on a personal level, to the people around us.

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