This column is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
The Good Place continues to be in a bit of a slump in “The Snowplow.” Trevor the demon is gone, and Michael and Janet defied the Judge to remain on earth—without their powers—to help the four humans stay together. It’s hard to put a finger on why it feels so different. Perhaps it’s simply too normal? We don’t have the stakes of the first season—eternal conscious torment vs. Heaven, and Eleanor constantly scheming for how to both stay and how to be an honest, ethical person. We also don’t have the constant plot twists and changes of scenery of the second season, or the long-term character development and relationship arcs that cemented the drama in actual human interactions.The Good Place ultimately is obsessed with the small miracles of forgiveness and love we can learn to extend to ourselves and others.
The third season seems almost wistful, remembering the bonds that friends Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason used to have in bygone reboots. It’s like an ex-boyfriend reminiscing about a past failed relationship. It’s like watching once-vibrant characters in the fuzzed out glow of a new reality, one where nothing is quite like you remembered, and nowhere near as good as you would want.
I miss it. I miss the ethic lessons, couched in both high and low stakes situations. I miss Chidi and Eleanor’s slow-burning, complicated, and ultimately decent relationship. I miss Tahani never quite believing she was destined for the bad place. I miss Jason getting a lot more joke time. And I miss Michael as the nefarious, complicated, grinch-like softie who was also on a journey of learning to care.
I’m not sure where the writers of The Good Place are going, but it seems like they are exploring how ideas of science and biology explain human behavior. Simone, the neuroscientist who is working with Chidi on his scientific study—while also dating him—is a complex and likable enough character, but she is somewhat shoe-horned into the position of being the episode’s moral harbinger. For this situation, Simone tells Eleanor that she is acting in a “me vs. them” mentality. She talks about how human groups interact with each other in ways that can be hurtful, mentioning racism and nationalism and how various wrestling fans hate each other. Simone rationally explains Eleanor’s behavior of acting out, but the episode doesn’t dive fully into the pathos of the fear and terror a traumatized person faces when losing the one community she has ever been able to find.
To be fair, this is still an eminently watchable show. Perhaps one issue is that this season has covered so much ground in only a few episodes. The first couple covered a year in the life of the gang, and this one covers yet another year—all told through flashbacks and montages, giving the viewer a jarring sense of lessened stakes. But I still find myself delighted by the oddity of it all. The running gag of Larry Hemsworth is incredible (as well as Tahani’s Heir-BNB), and I am enjoying the evolution of Janet and Michael’s relationship (his terrible Australian accent!). But I still hope it gets back to the roots of what made it so great—the joy and energy of watching people change and learn to care for another, when real consequences are at stake.
Scientific studies, explanations of our behavior rooted in biology or sociology, an awareness of data and using it to come to conclusions—all of these things are important. But they aren’t as important as the feeling you get when watching someone do what isn’t supposed to be possible. In the case of Eleanor, it’s watching someone who has every reason not to trust or attach to other people, decide to do it anyway.
People aren’t supposed to change; people aren’t supposed to get better. But if they can, then that means the whole good place/bad place system is flawed. That’s what Michael said to the Judge at the end of season 2. I hope The Good Place comes back around to addressing this issue—the fundamental unfairness of life, and the variety of ways we learn to cope with it. I think in the long run, the creators don’t believe there is rational explanation to our behavior, nor a system that can neatly categorize who is deemed good or bad. Instead, I get the sense that The Good Place ultimately is obsessed with the small miracles of forgiveness and love we can learn to extend to ourselves and others. And that ultimately, when we choose to enter into the life and suffering and chaos and joy of other people, we will stop viewing them as a group threatening our sense of self or survival, but instead see it as our chance to experience real connection and change.