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.
The brilliance of the twist was that it upended everything viewers thought they knew about the show while also making perfect sense. Where could a second season go from there? Judging by the first four episodes, two of which air on Wednesday night before the show returns to a normal Thursday schedule, The Good Place’s showrunner, Michael Schur, has it all figured out. To reveal too much would be to spoil the surprise, but the second series picks up where the first left off, with Eleanor in The Good Place 2.0, her memory wiped, trying to decipher the note she wrote for herself while acclimating to an afterlife that’s just as strange as ever, though tinged with a more palpable darkness.
The most obvious advantage of The Good Place post-reveal is that it allows Danson to play up his devilish side. His fiendish giggle from the finale, rapidly immortalized in GIF form, offered a glimpse of Michael’s potential as a baddie, but he’s not just evil in the new episodes—he’s in trouble. Understandably so, since the (dubious) conceit of The Good Place is that it’s a worthwhile investment to recruit hundreds of demons as actors and construct a huge paradise just to torture four souls who weren’t even that terrible during their time on Earth. (In addition to Eleanor, Michael’s carefully crafted hell-alternative was designed to plague Chidi, a Senegalese ethics professor who can’t make decisions; Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a self-absorbed and shallow philanthropist; and Jason (Manny Jacinto), a moronic DJ and wannabe dancer from Jacksonville.)
The Good Place has always had elements of a workplace comedy, but with Michael intent on finding ways to make his elaborate idea work, the show is now more explicitly akin to The Office and Parks and Recreation (both of which Schur also worked on). Michael gives himself comforting pep talks about confidence before Skype meetings with his boss, a demonic higher-up (Marc Evan Jackson). And he has to negotiate with his disgruntled underlings, most of whom want to go back to their old jobs pulling out fingernails, tossing people into acid pits, and working the old (self-explanatory) penis flattener. There’s a meta element, too, with the demon who played Real Eleanor last season (Tiya Sircar) now unhappy with her new, diminished role (“There’s a great arc coming for Denise the Pizza Lady,” Michael tells her, placatingly.)
Watching the first few episodes, I was concerned that it all seemed too scattered, with Groundhog Day–like repetition that could quickly become wearing. But I wasn’t giving Schur enough credit. There’s a distinct plan in place, one that opens up all kinds of new narrative ground for the show to explore. Along the way, it gets to pursue the most fascinating questions it set up last season. What does moral growth really mean? What if The Good/Bad Place ended up redeeming the four souls it was designed to torture? What if Michael, in trying to devise a hell for others, created a world that ended up tormenting him just as much? And, most intriguingly, what does the real Good Place look like?
These are complex existential questions for a show obsessed with terrible puns (“Knish From a Rose,” “Biscotti Pippen,” and “Beignet and the Jets” are a few of the bakeries in the new, improved Good/Bad Place), one that has space in its universe for something called “butthole spiders.” But that’s the magic of The Good Place: The bad stuff is really what makes it special.