Culture

Confusion is the forking point of ‘The Good Place’

The hit show’s third season is a nonstop philosophical crisis — and it’s great.

Culture

Confusion is the forking point of ‘The Good Place’

The hit show’s third season is a nonstop philosophical crisis — and it’s great.
Culture

Confusion is the forking point of ‘The Good Place’

The hit show’s third season is a nonstop philosophical crisis — and it’s great.

The third season of Michael Schur show The Good Place kicks off in a totally new world: the real one. Flipping the narrative on its head is, by now, an understood tenet of the show. It began in the titular “Good Place,” where the self-centered Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) mistakenly found herself after a post-life mix-up with a philanthropist of the same name, as she attempted to learn how to be a good person with the help of some newfound acquaintances (moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye; clout-seeking socialite Tahani Al-Jamil; Floridian DJ Jason Mendoza). Only they were never in the Good Place to begin with — at the end of the season, we learned they were part of a new pilot program designed by heavenly interlocutor Michael for the Bad Place, centered around psychological, rather than physical, torture. And now, following a long series of failed attempts to torture them in The Bad Place, the human characters find themselves given a second chance at life on earth, with much higher stakes — except, of course, they don’t realize that, as their memories have been wiped when they wake up anew in the real world.

The Good Place has been heaped with praise for playing with complex tenets of philosophy through its characters. Michael explores the validity of the idea of putting people together as torture, and whether the cut-and-dry tenets of good and evil that have driven him are too simple to apply to the complexity of human nature. Eleanor quickly latches on to the idea of utilitarianism but continues to surprise herself beyond what she’s able to outright grasp from Chidi’s philosophy lessons. Chidi himself struggles to bridge the gap between the many thought experiments in which he’s embedded himself and making choices in the real world.

It’s exactly this willingness to unseat set ideas and expectations that makes the rest of the show so exciting. It’s not often that you find a show where anything could happen and that’s a good thing; usually, it signals flimsy writing or a lack of planning. In season two, after Eleanor realizes what’s really going on, Michael resets the experiment and starts over. In each reboot — and it happens hundreds of times — the humans, who should theoretically be making each other’s lives horrible, come together, improve, and figure out his plan. Michael, himself in a bind when it becomes possible his boss will find out and inflict a lifetime of torture on him, ultimately teams up with them after about 800 failed attempts, offering to help them get into the Good Place in return for their cooperation.

Throughout the show, we’ve gotten glimpses at the characters when they were alive, which contrast with their dead selves. Season three Eleanor, surprisingly, is naturally friendly, and while at least some of it is selfish in nature, she’s much more relaxed than she was when affecting the theatrically fake persona of philanthropist Eleanor. Chidi and Tahani are very much entrenched in the real-world power and relationships their positions give them; Jason is still buoyed by the very over-the-top stupidity that has defined his character but is now struggling to make ends meet in a legitimate way. That all the characters are deeply unhappy in the real world points to one of the show’s bigger questions: Who do you become when the world is overwhelming and you feel empty?

The characters, who don’t realize the stakes of their existence on earth, become better people briefly before sliding right back into old habits. They seem to be on a one-way track back to the Bad Place, but Michael and Janet are hell bent on saving their souls. Demon Trevor, as a wonderfully hateable ball of cheer who might make Mike Judge’s Office Space Chotchkie’s manager blush, is finding it all too easy to move the needle in the opposite direction as he attempts to split the characters. For Eleanor’s part, not knowing of an afterlife makes her generous actions seem useless to her, bringing into sharp relief a question that recurs in the series — is it worth doing good if there’s no clear reward?

The show has been excellent in balancing several potential outcomes with sheer plausibility; viewers fall so easily into the big lie of season 1 because, new to The Good Place’s world, a series of cosmic errors is totally possible. In season 2, when Michael offers to collaborate with the humans, the looming presence of his evil supervisor Shawn (a brilliant, deadpan foil to the emotive Michael) makes the possibility of his truth-telling plausible; it’s also plausible, as a precedent set in the first season, that he’s using the humans’ tendency to be sympathetic toward him to torture them even more. The human characters agonize over the choice; because of the power dynamics at play, Michael can literally do either thing.

Each season’s end has acted as a reset button — in part because of the structure of the show, in which resetting human lives is built in to the universe, but also in a way that makes each character’s narrative arc as tentative as a thought experiment. From the beginning, the show’s direction has been designed to fall directly on the fickleness of its characters. It’s as set in stone as a pachinko ball — and because the constant state of confusion the characters are in is a feature of the show, not an unhappy accident, it works.

The show is very deliberate about adding to the postmortem world it builds, and there are still lots of elements that might make viewers go “hmm.” (The addition of Maya Rudolph as a judge and alternative authority figure for Michael is a great touch.) The show revels in the fact that the characters — even those with the myriad secrets of the universe across eons — are totally forking confused.

It’s not often you see a show where literally anything could happen and be narratively satisfying on some level. Maybe Michael is still torturing all the characters; maybe they aren’t actually on earth; maybe everything will work out neatly and they’ll live happily ever after. Show creator Michael Schur is well-aware that he won’t be able to easily get away with the sort of twist he pulled in the first season — “The only reason we got away with that twist was because nobody was looking for it,” he told Newsweek — so it seems unlikely that cheap surprise will ruin the momentum the show has going for it in season 3.

In discussing the first season, some critics brought up Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which originated the oft-misinterpreted concept of “Hell is other people.” The third is reminiscent of a lesser-cited work of Sartre’s, The Chips Are Down, a 1943 screenplay that Sartre later turned into a film. In it, two recently deceased souls are told that they can come into an afterlife in which they are placidly devoid of cares if they can, as their human selves, break away from their worries and duties in order to be in the right place at the right time. Spoiler alert: They fail miserably. Will it happen here? Who can say? That’s the fun.

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