This story contains spoilers through the whole first season of The Good Place.
The moment The Good Place transformed from genially quirky sitcom to malevolently brilliant work of art came at the end of the first season, when Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finally twigged that something was extremely wrong with heaven. After dying in the first episode and being welcomed by an angel named Michael (Ted Danson) to a sterilized, fro-yo friendly paradise, Eleanor spent the series trying to earn her spot in The Good Place, since a clerical error seemed to have sent her there by accident. But observing how efficiently the afterlife emotionally tortured Eleanor and her three new friends, she concluded that it was actually The Bad Place, a.k.a. hell. With that, Michael’s gentle expression twisted into a diabolical grin, revealing the monster he’d been all along.
Not since a journalist morphed into Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate has a metamorphosis been so jarring. Of course, there were clues: Michael kicked a puppy in the very second episode, and no self-respecting Elysium so closely resembles a chichi outdoor mall in Pasadena. But Eleanor wasn’t the only target. We, the audience, had been fooled into thinking The Good Place was just a zany comedy about a drunken pharmaceutical rep who lucks her way into heaven, but really it was a much craftier and more complex beast, using food puns and toilet humor to disguise a show that was deeply interested in the moral philosophy of existence. When Eleanor scribbled a note to herself to “find Chidi,” her “soulmate” (William Jackson Harper) who actually ended up being her soulmate, she wrote it on a page ripped from T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, a 1998 treatise that considers the duty humans have to be good to one another.