Quite possibly, the best television show in production at the moment is The Good Place. NBC’s extremely quirky comedy about the hereafter is fantastically acted, supremely detailed, and far, far smarter than most other shows on television at the moment. We love all of the actors, particularly Kristen Bell as the embittered Eleanor Shellstrop, Ted Danson as the afterlife architect Michael, and William Jackson Harper as the ethics professor Chidi Anagonye. William Jackson Harper, in particular, is known to me (and my kids) through his portrayal of Danny Rebus in The New Electric Company, so I feel as proprietorial thrill as I do about Lin Manuel Miranda skyrocketing career, and delighted that his talent is being recognized.
Cameron Dixon put us onto this series after the first season came out, and the show recently finished its first half of its second season and is going on a two-month hiatus. Of course, it ended on a cliffhanger. I have to say that Erin and I have gotten deeply invested in this series. We love the characters, we love the details, and I’m enjoying trying to figure out where this series is heading next.
I know this is a fool’s errand. The series has pulled some genuine surprises, not least of which is how well they’ve managed to follow up on their first season revelation. Seeing how the characters have developed, and seeing the plotting guns that remain on the wall, I am confident of some big moments to come.
There is little that I can say about this series without spoilers, which makes it a challenge to review, and I am eager to jot down some of my speculations. The series really does turn on a major plot point at the end of season one, so you really have to have seen the first season in order to appreciate the awesome developments of season two.
So, what follows isn’t really a review. I’m going to assume that if you’ve read this far, you have watched the first season and, indeed, you are as up to speed as Erin and I on this series. I am going to make a prediction based on the most recent episode (Derek), and see where the chips land in two months.
The Good Place is far from the first piece of fiction where people wake up in what seems to be Heaven, only to discover that it’s really Hell, but The Good Place takes things into new territory partly through its exploration of ethics and redemption, and also through the big plot gun on the wall regarding how the real Good Place will respond to Michael’s attempt to disguise his Bad Place as a Good Place.
After all, think about it: Michael stole a “Good Place” Janet to make the ruse work, and she has been steadily outgrowing her programming through the whole sequence of events. Michael’s been trying to keep the fact that his humans keep figuring out that they are in the Bad Place from his superiors in the Bad Place, and the Good Place has been conspicuous by its absence, albeit name-checked numerous times. If people from the Good Place figured out what Michael was doing, how would they respond?
One of the best things about The Good Place for me is the tension it presents to my own theology. I want to believe that God is merciful, and that redemption is possible even in the afterlife. This was one of the motivating factors in the Catholic’s creation of purgatory, in my opinion. And although Anglicans officially have dropped the fire-and-brimstone vision of Hell in favour of simple non-existence, other Anglican thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle have ascribed to Hell many of the characteristics of purgatory: there is punishment, but there is also the possibility of redemption.
While the people of The Bad Place appear to ascribe to the fire-and-brimstone view of Hell, Michael has inadvertently created a purgatory. All of the characters, from indecisive Chidi, to competitive and self-centred Tahani, to the cynical Eleanor, come to the realization that, at some level, they were bad enough to deserve to be in the bad place, and they want to be better people. In my view, that’s a redemptive moment, and amazingly Michael gets one too (when he refuses to destroy Janet, because she has become a friend and a real person in his eyes). All of the characters grow, with the possible exception of Jason and, in his case, I don’t believe he deserved to go to the Bad Place because he is too dim-witted to be criminally responsible for his actions.
Either way, creator Michael Schur appears to agree: the characters grow enough and redeem themselves, and they no longer deserve to be in the Bad Place. Now the question is, can they continue their deception against the demons of the Bad Place and find a way, as Michael promised (admittedly as a long shot), to the Good Place?
So, here’s the big speculation on my part: the first half of season two ended with the arrival of Shawn, Michael’s boss. Shawn had previously told Michael that his planned fake Good Place was going to fail, and Michael had only one second chance to make his plan work (Michael has since rebooted his fake Good Place 802 times). Now, he is at Michael’s desk, looking through a red folder, grimly telling Michael to come in and have a seat. What will happen? We’ll have to tune in in two months, ugh!
The thing is, if Shawn was going to shut down Michael’s experiment as soon as he found out that he had been lied to, I think he would have done it more quickly. Why waste time making Michael sweat? Why allow Michael to say something for himself, since what is there to say?
There’s got to be a reason why Shawn doesn’t shut things down right away, and perhaps this is where the real Good Place comes in. Perhaps they’ve seen what Michael has done, and have taken an interest. After all, Michael has created a way for more people to improve themselves enough after death to get into the Good Place — this is a big gain for them.
And perhaps Shawn is, in fact, a secret agent for The Good Place, about to make Michael an offer to expand his purgatory. The only problem with that theory is that there’s little conflict here. It effectively ends the series right there, so how do we spend the next five episodes of the season, much less a possible Season Three?
While Michael’s purgatory might be a good thing for the Good Place, it’s certainly something the Bad Place would be hotly opposed to. They would freak. And if the Good Place takes its moment to claim Michael’s discovery, the Bad Place may react violently. The result? Perhaps a new war in the heavens?
And, intriguingly, that echoes the plot of Milton’s Paradise Lost. And, if I recall correctly, there was someone named Michael in that story as well.
Can you imagine Ted Danson wielding a sword of the heavens? Because I kind of think I can…