The Good Place may embody the definition of insanity, but repeating the same story has given us amazing results.
The Good Place showrunner Michael Schur insists that he didn’t name Michael, the bowtie-wearing architect of the afterlife played by Ted Danson, after himself. But you don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between the two.
Ultimately, for the first season-and-a-half of The Good Place, Michael (psychopomp edition) is a man who pitches a big idea to his bosses and, after it gets off to a difficult start, lands a second chance by reimagining his creation. As the co-creator of Parks & Recreation – a show which only really blossomed after its first season, when it was given a not-so-soft reboot – Schur might be able to relate.
The first season of The Good Place basically put Danson’s Michael in the role of showrunner to Neighborhood 12358W, his own personal Truman Show. The Season 1 finale’s big twist revealed that Michael was pulling the strings of every love triangle, farcical misunderstanding, and convenient last-minute save, directing his cast of demons on how to best torture Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason.
The message seemed pretty clear: hell is other sitcoms.
And then, in the grand tradition of long-running half-hour comedies, Michael hit the show’s reset button. The memories of Eleanor and co. were wiped, letting Season 2 pick up almost exactly where the first began – with a few small tweaks, as Michael tried to make a success of this reboot.
Of course, this status quo didn’t even make it through the Season 2 premiere, which ended on another reset. The next episode, “Dance Dance Resolution,” cycled through versions of the entire first season’s plot over and over again, squeezing 800 reboots into half an hour. It was like watching the normal sitcom structure, where each episode tests and then restores the status quo, accelerated to the point of parody.
From there, The Good Place ditched the concept of a stable sitcom premise completely, blowing up the set halfway through Season 2 and jumping to a new status quo practically every week. By the start of Season 3, the show had reset the characters’ memories one more time, and dropped them into their latest new normal: resurrected, rescued at the point they should have died, and left to live out the rest of their days back on earth.
Saying goodbye to the status quo
The first half of Season 3 felt like it might have settled into a sustainable premise: a workplace comedy about an unlikely group doing a neuroscientific study together, while behind the scenes heaven and hell battle for their souls. Which – and this says a lot about the show – is a relatively mundane set-up by Good Place standards.
For a little while there, you could come back two consecutive weeks and know roughly what you were going to get: new situations within a familiar premise.
That didn’t last long, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Michael’s part. Back in the role of showrunner, he was constantly nudging things into place for that week’s plot and trying to maintain the status quo. As he did, Michael started to turn to familiar sitcom tropes himself, relying on increasingly zany schemes and attempting to trigger that vital third-act turnaround by saying things like: “You just gave me this crazy idea. It’s so crazy, it just might… fail.”
There was a genuine desperation in the last of these scenes, as Michael turned to Janet and pleaded: “But you’re forgetting one, crucial piece of information. Right? You’re forgetting one crucial piece of information that’ll save us?”
At which point, his efforts to hold back the human characters from discovering the truth – and the season from moving past that initial premise – crumbled entirely. The humans discovered they were damned, and briefly became The Soul Squad: a team of friends traveling the world to help their loved ones become better people, so they might stand a chance of getting into the Good Place. It was another premise that could support a season, if not a whole series, of any normal sitcom.
Naturally, it only lasted a couple of episodes, and the season jumped from dimension to dimension, idea to idea, until the finale eventually landed on a premise that looks like it’s going to stick. Which is, more or less, the same one we started out with: a fake Good Place Neighborhood, with a handful of unaware humans being put through their paces by Michael and his team.
In a way, it’s a sign that the show has done the normal sitcom thing. It’s taken much longer than the usual one-episode cycle, but it’s tested the boundaries and then placed everything carefully back where it was at the beginning, so we can have a new adventure in a familiar setting. After two seasons of near-constant change, this Season 3 reset could feel like a cop-out, even with the fairly major differences in this version of the premise. But it works because something has changed over that time – the characters themselves.
As Michael put it in Season 3: “At first I thought it was that the system didn’t allow for the possibility that people could improve.” He’s talking about the afterlife points system, but it applies to the way characters are written in most sitcoms.
This is the problem with the reset-every-episode model: for all their adventures and epiphanies, characters have to stay more or less the same. How many times has Homer Simpson had to learn that he doesn’t appreciate his wife enough, or that he has more common ground with his daughter than he thinks? But he’ll always forget that lesson, in time for the next story about his relationship with Marge or Lisa.
For most shows, it’s certainly not a fatal flaw – The Simpsons is a prime example because it proves you can still get hours of excellent, entertaining, and even moving television out of this cycle, while completely ignoring any idea of episode-to-episode continuity. But that kind of stasis simply wouldn’t be right for The Good Place, which at its core is a show about change.
This might not be the most natural theme for a sitcom, but it unites almost every element of The Good Place. It’s why the premise and plot are constantly leaping forward. The characters are always pushing to change the status quo they find themselves in – whether it’s Michael challenging how the Bad Place tortures humans or questioning the entire points system itself – and growing in themselves, even when, as with Janet, change is supposed to be impossible.
Change and/or die
Season 3 was all about the question of how easy or hard it is for someone to change.
The four humans start the season determined to turn things around, after having near-death experiences. Their progress isn’t linear – they frequently backslide, because it’s hard or because they’re around family members who cause them to regress – but that’s how it works in real life. We don’t stay the same, but we aren’t constantly improving either.
The best example of this is probably Chidi, who changed more in Season 3 than perhaps any other character. Chidi’s flaw has always been his indecisiveness. He’s so scared of making the wrong choice that he’ll avoid making any, even if it ends up hurting people he loves. He tries to move past that, but before long, he’s back to crying at the muffin stand because the simple binary choice is too much.
Eventually, with the help and the love of his friends, he progresses. When it’s Eleanor’s turn to be uncertain, he anchors her – and, arguably more importantly, plants one on her. He takes confident steps forward, in their relationship and in the big metaphysical experiment of the new Neighborhood.
And then he makes a final, heartbreaking decision: to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
The Eleanor/Chidi Problem
Every season of The Good Place has ended with the humans having their memories wiped: so that Michael can try his Bad Place experiment again, or so that they can return to their lives on earth. In “Dance Dance Resolution,” it happens hundreds of times.
This is both a commentary on how most sitcoms work and, depending on how you look at it, either a smart solution to the character development problem or a bit of a cheat. It allows characters to change and carry things they’ve learned across episodes, but before they can get too far from their core – away from Tahani’s snobbiness or Chidi’s crippling indecisiveness, which is where most of their jokes stem from – they get wiped clean.
It also provides a solution to something else endemic to sitcoms: the Ross/Rachel Problem (or more appropriately given the presence of Ted Danson, the Sam/Diane Problem), where watching a couple getting together is more compelling than actually seeing them together, long-term. Because of the resets, Eleanor and Chidi have been able to have their first kiss over and over again.
The thing about going back to the status quo is that eventually, it becomes repetitive. Season 3 is smart enough to hit that beat one more time, but with a major difference: it’s only Chidi who gets reset.
Looked at coldly, this is because he’s made the most progress this season – and frankly what is an episode of The Good Place without a Chidi panic attack? – but it builds brilliantly on what’s come before. The memory wipes were initially a TV trope made literal. Here, they’re twisted into something real, and emotional, giving the episode – and the upcoming fourth season – real stakes.
It hurts to watch Chidi return to the person he was in that very first episode, because what’s being erased – his own personal development and relationship with Eleanor – has been so hard-earned. Like his namesake, Michael Schur has turned a sitcom premise into a brilliant method for torturing both his characters and the audience, ensuring that we’ll keep coming back for more.
For more on The Good Place, check out how Season 4 will handle that Season 3 finale twist.