Monday, February 5, 2018

"The Good Place," Year Two

Moderate spoilers for the first three episodes of the season ahead.

I'm not sure that the people behind "The Good Place" understand that they're making a network sitcom, or if they do then they don't particularly care. I see no other explanation for the show having chosen to devote so much time to discussing ethics and morality in completely serious, non-ironic terms. Or that it's barrelled through ten other sitcoms worth of story and plotting in a scant thirteen episodes. Heck, it's prone to such wild deviations from anything that looks like a formula that it's impossible to predict where each episode is going to take us. And that's fantastic.

I seriously underestimated what the writers were capable of, expecting that we were going to be spending a good chunk of the season following Eleanor as she tries to find Chidi in Michael's second version of The Good Place. Instead, it takes everyone two episodes flat to end up right back where we were at the end of the first season. And this leads right into the third episode, my absolute favorite episode of any sitcom this year, where Michael runs through hundreds of different variations of The Good Place, eventually coming to the conclusion that he's going to have to change tactics and try something else.

Oh sure, "The Good Place" still relies a lot on sitcom logic, like a horribly evil character becoming a good guy after only an episode or two, and the power of friendship trumping good sense on a regular basis. However, there is nothing else on television right now that consistently delivers the unexpected. And that's true of both of the big picture stuff like Michael abusing the reboot button and little details like the now-legendary food puns that accompany every new iteration of the Good Place's ever-changing eateries. The biggest laugh I got this year was from a throwaway visual gag - Jason's wide-eyed delight when Janet gives him a Pikachu balloon. Which he then immediately pops.

And now I'm going to gush about the cast, because "The Good Place" has one of the best comedic ensembles on television. Most improved performer status goes to Manny Jacinto, who has made Jason into the most endearing idiot manchild character on any sitcom I've ever seen. A close second is D'Arcy Carden as Janet, walking that fine line between inhuman gag machine and loveable gal-pal. Ted Danson remains the show's MVP, way more fun playing an evil demon in conflict than he ever was as a flustered goodie-goodie in the first season. I also continue to be impressed by Kristen Bell's comedic chops every time I see her. She sells such ridiculous material with such ease.

And the cast is a big reason why the show keeps getting away with things that I don't think a lot of other shows could. Each big existential dilemma that comes up fundamentally alters the show's premise, and everyone rolls with it without missing a beat. But more importantly, the series has revealed itself to be about four (or really six) schlubs learning to be good people in unlikely circumstances, and has proved over and over again to be fully committed to this. The characters get to have these meaningful debates about heady, philosophical ideas, and it's funny and entertaining and sometimes even touching.

I also appreciate how tremendously silly the show is. Jason's devotion to Blake Bortles, Tahani's endless name-dropping, Chidi's epic indecision, and Eleanor's inability to be profane are running jokes that have just gotten better with time. And I love everything about Janet's weird emotional evolution, Michael's casual put downs, the continuing boredom of Mindy St. Clair, and the extravagant descriptions of the tortures in the Bad Place. The show also makes good use of its guest stars this year, including Marc Evan Jackson, Jason Mantzoukas, and Maya Rudolph.

Halfway through the season, I was worried that Mike Schur and the rest of the show's creators couldn't possibly keep up the level of quality for the rest of the season, let alone multiple seasons. We'd already explored so much of the show's universe, where else was there to go? And of course, there turned out to be plenty left to explore in year two. And now, after the finale, I fully trust that "The Good Place" could go for a dozen seasons if they wanted to. I certainly want it to.

And good grief, it's way too long until September.


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