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The Good Place Comes Down to Earth

The show's third season illuminates the hard work of living a better life.

Illustration by Peter Strain

The Good Place is a show set in a special new corner of hell. The person in charge, an insubordinate demon named Michael (Ted Danson), is undergoing a crisis: For thousands of years, he was a loyal employee of the inferno, known in the show as “The Bad Place.” He specialized in torturing sinners the old-fashioned way—stuffing hot dogs into their orifices, melting down their eyeballs, tearing off their fingernails. Then, somewhere along the way, he got bored.

He wanted to disrupt the damnation business, to innovate. He convinced his boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), to give him one crack at a bold experiment. What if he took four sinners headed for punishment, and dropped them instead into a squeaky clean, candy-colored small town, telling them it was heaven (aka The Good Place)? To make it more interesting, the four people would be marginal moral cases—not murderers, just narcissists and jerks whose specific flaws would grate on one another to the point that living in the same neighborhood for all time would feel like torture. Michael believes that if this pilot program goes well, he will have created an entirely new model for eternal, self-sustaining suffering.

For the first season, neither the four test subjects nor the audience knows about this scheme. When the show opens, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself sitting on a sofa in a waiting room, across from a wall sign that reads “Welcome! Everything Is Fine.” Michael calls her into his office, presents himself as a kind of friendly guardian angel, and tells her not to fear: She has reached the promised land, where nobody suffers and the supply of frozen yogurt is limitless. This news confuses her. She is not shocked to find that she is dead. But she is shocked to have landed in The Good Place.

In life, Eleanor was not only not a saint, but actively amoral, a self-professed “trash bag” who lied, manipulated, and once sold thousands of dollars’ worth of T-shirts that mocked her roommate. When Michael tells her that she tipped the karmic scales with her humanitarian work, she immediately realizes that there has been a clerical error. She’s an interloper in the afterlife. But it takes her and the three other humans living in a fake paradise an entire season to uncover the truth.

Her light bulb moment in the first season finale, when she guesses that they are in fact in The Bad Place—and that their other neighbors are demons in disguise—is still one of the most unexpected and satisfying twists I’ve ever seen outside of a true crime drama. The Good Place plays with time and structure like no other comedy on television; it is not afraid to tear apart its own premise and start over. Season 3, which airs on NBC this fall, may be its most ambitious reset yet, as it switches from the cosmic settings of heaven and hell to the real world, confronting the potential for bliss and pain in the here and now. For a show that started out with a fantastical idea, this is a risk. The road to spiritual redemption lies, this season insists, through the banal and the ordinary.

The creator of The Good Place, Michael Schur, is also the showrunner behind The Office and Parks and Recreation. With those two shows, Schur proved himself to be a master of the quotidian, adept at extracting the absurd and awkward from the everyday. Both were workplace comedies set in sleepy suburbs: a regional paper goods office in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a municipal government headquarters in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Both relied on the mockumentary formula, in which an impartial camera crew records even the most low-stakes situations and each character’s intimate reactions to them. At the core of each show was something gooey and warm: an enduring love of humans, with all their flaws, for all their ego trips, and all their strange little tics and odors and mistakes.

You root for Schur’s characters; you want them to win. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, a blonde hummingbird with an irrepressible drive to get things done, begins the show as an overeager annoyance, but she finishes as a heroine, a woman on her way to high office. Even Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the hapless and often willfully offensive boss from The Office, earned the viewer’s fervent blessing by the show’s seventh season; he found love and made amends. We want these characters to be happy, because we see ourselves in them, and we want to be happy too.

In The Good Place, Schur envisions humanity against a grander backdrop. Gone are the roving camcorder and the drab trappings of the nine to five. The action takes place not under corporate fluorescent lights but in a marshmallow dream world. As in most Schurian comedies, its cast is an instantly lovable band of total weirdos. When Eleanor first tours The Good Place (which is really The Bad Place), she meets her assigned “soul mate,” Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a bespectacled moral philosophy professor from Senegal, who finds simple decisions so difficult that choosing between a blueberry muffin and a bran muffin makes him cry. Then she meets Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), a tall, vain socialite in floral tea dresses who can’t stop name-dropping even in death.

At first, both Chidi and Tahani believe they belong in The Good Place, despite their clear shortcomings. It is only when Eleanor gets to know Tahani’s partner, Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), that she starts to sense that not all may be as it seems. When Jason arrived in heaven, Michael explained to him that he made it in because he was a Buddhist monk who had taken a vow of silence, but Jason can only pretend to live up to his robes for so long. Eventually, he confesses his true identity to Eleanor. He was an EDM DJ who died trying to rob a Mexican restaurant. Eleanor then enlists Chidi in a secret process of tutoring the group in ethics, with the hope that they will all become the virtuous people Michael thinks they are before they get caught.

This first season meditated sweetly on how even degenerates can learn to act righteously if they band together; how communities are always stronger than individuals and can lift them up. It felt like a pleasant romp through a truly idiosyncratic setting, where at any time a character could call for Janet (D’Arcy Carden)—an all-knowing computer program in the form of a woman in a purple skirt suit—and she would appear, daffy and affable, able to produce any item on demand. It was all about bad people in a good world, striving to improve.

But it’s after the twist in season 2 that the show gets really exciting, as Michael realizes that his plan is futile. No matter what he does, the humans keep trying to be good. So he decides to switch sides. He secretly befriends his guinea pigs, and promises to help them get to the actual Good Place, via a portal in Bad Place headquarters. He too starts to reform, sitting in on their ethics classes, and grappling in one of the best episodes, “The Trolley Problem,” with a classic thought experiment: Should you steer a runaway trolley away from hitting five people if it means directly causing the death of one bystander? Either they all get to The Good Place, or none of them does.

What began as a show about sinners trying to bluff their way through heaven becomes the story of a posse of essentially goodhearted people, struggling to save themselves from the jaws of hell. This is where the Schur formula really kicks in. You start to root for Eleanor, despite her selfishness; for Chidi, despite his dallying; for Tahani, despite her narcissism; and for Jason, despite his folly. You even root for Michael. Their salvation becomes our salvation.

The show’s third season takes place not in heaven or hell, but in an even more surreal location: Earth. Michael has introduced the foursome to a cosmic judge (Maya Rudolph), who comes up with a plan to determine their fates. She gives the humans a chance to live again, to find out whether or not they can become good people if granted an extension. She snaps her fingers, and poof, they each return to the moments right before they died. Eleanor doesn’t get hit by that grocery cart. Tahani isn’t smashed by a golden statue at a gala. Jason doesn’t suffocate inside a safe during the restaurant heist. Chidi isn’t crushed by an air-conditioning unit.

The plan, according to the judge, is to see whether they will become noble on their own, without interventions. But of course they do get some help—from Michael and Janet, who bring them together in Australia to take part in a neuroscience trial. There, they all become colleagues at a university. It’s another experiment—in a more mundane, academic setting, but with stakes just as high as before. These episodes retain the punning humor of earlier seasons but lack many of the magical-realism elements, and fewer jokes are based on demons popping up unannounced (though a lairy demon named Trevor, played by Adam Scott, does briefly escape from The Bad Place to join the brain experiment).

Schur has in essence taken his otherworldly show and shrunk it back down to a banal workplace comedy. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason show up at an office every day, where we get to see how they act when they are unaware of the celestial consequences. With their memories of The Bad Place erased, they meet one another afresh and have no idea they’ve each been brought back from the dead. Yet we in the audience know what is at stake. We know that they are all fighting for redemption, even as they engage in petty squabbles and form unrequited crushes on one another. The Good Place was once a show about how to live better in the afterlife. Now, it is a show about how we can all live better in this one.