MAJOR SPOILERS for season one of The Good Place
There’s a lot to love about The Good Place. It’s diverse, as Meredith pointed out last season. It’s got a little bit of a found family vibe (if your found family is four people trapped in hell together, an unknowable cosmic being bent on torturing them, and a cheery AI). And there’s something lovely about watching someone deeply selfish grow into a better person just by learning to love the people she’s with.
But from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, the writers of The Good Place have managed to do something different than any other show on the air right now - continuously pulling the rug out from underneath its viewers without letting them hit the ground afterward. Almost every episode, I find myself wondering how they’re going to sustain the plot, and every time, they pull everything together into a conclusion more rewarding than the one I’d anticipated – and more rewarding, still, for the way it keeps me on my toes.
Anyone who consumes a lot of content can feel out the basic beats of a story. When a premise is introduced, you’re usually able to guess how long it’s going to keep going – a book, a season, an episode. And TV, on the whole, has a tendency to stretch out a premise for as long as possible (in most cases, especially with American television, “as long as possible” is too long).
So the premise “woman ends up in heaven instead of hell on a clerical error and has to hide her true identity” is something that I assumed would be stretched over the course of season one, until Eleanor was found out. It’s also what Michael assumed. But halfway through season one, Eleanor changes the premise – and the stakes – by confessing. She’s unpredictable because she grows, which makes this version of the afterlife feel a lot more like purgatory.
The clearest example of all is the now-famed season-ending twist: our crew is actually in the Bad Place, not the Good Place. It’s a twist that could only land coming out of such a carefully constructed first season; so many of the little things I assumed were just mistakes were really clues that something more than Eleanor was not right in the Good Place. Chidi is always anxious; only actions with the correct motivation count as “good,” but Tahani only did good deeds on earth to try to one-up her sister.
This is the kind of premise-shift that only works once. The stakes are allowed to change, but any sort of walking back of the general universe after this reveal would feel hollow. (It’s a good thing Mike Schur has mentioned that “a double switchback reversal” isn’t going to happen.)
My expectations were cut down again as soon as the show returned for season two: when she realizes that Michael is about to erase their memories, Eleanor leaves herself a note in Janet’s mouth with three words on it – “Eleanor – Find Chidi.” This is the kind of clue that could carry a story for episodes – Eleanor tracks Chidi down, the two of them slowly puzzle out what’s happened. But things fall apart for Michael within the episode. They figure it out almost instantly. When he erases their minds this time, there’s no note; they’re written into a corner. It’s an explosive start to the season, and it keeps the audience hooked.
This is what makes The Good Place so exciting to watch – it’s impossible to predict what the next episode is going to look like. The writers feel out the beats of the story, find the next logical step, and don’t follow it. It’s a one-two step that, so far, has worked every single time. And that’s because the characters themselves, like actual human people, are profoundly unpredictable.
In keeping the balance between “unpredictable” and “in-character,” most storytelling errs on the side of “in-character.” But when current events seem increasingly like a heavy-handed, poorly plotted novel, it feels right that The Good Place’s characters are allowed to keep surprising us. It’s also the reason that they keep getting a leg up on Michael, even after hundreds of iterations: the more he tries to orchestrate their (after)lives, the more they keep ruining his.
After such a strong first season, The Good Place has its work cut out for it going forward. Too many twists run the risk of feeling exhausting instead of exhilarating, and navigating the space between cosmic character growth resets without restoring everyone’s memories is going to be difficult. But the writers haven’t let us down yet – with the stakes shifted yet again last week, I can’t wait to find out where we’re off to for the rest of the season.