In her 1991 book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, the author Alice Walker offered a simple explanation for why she continued to believe in the human capacity for change even as untold harm is wrought all around her:
Whenever I experience evil, and it is not, unfortunately uncommon to experience it in these times, my deepest feeling is disappointment. I have learned to accept the fact that we risk disappointment, disillusionment, even despair, every time we act … Every time we decide to trust others to be as noble as we think they are. And that there might be years during which our grief is equal to, or even greater than, our hope. The alternative, however, not to act, and therefore to miss experiencing other people at their best, reaching out toward their fullness, has never appealed to me.
Walker’s nearly 30-year-old text, like much of her work, is a balm. It doesn’t present a blindly idealistic vision of what humanity can achieve, and how we can relate to one another, so much as it suggests that the process of becoming better—whatever that might mean—is one that requires diligent work. And that labor itself is valuable even, and perhaps especially, when it feels most futile.
This principle undergirds the entire premise of NBC’s The Good Place, which returned for its third season Thursday night. The Michael Schur sitcom, which fuses workplace comedy with high-brow philosophical lessons and giggle-worthy visual gags, follows four deceased humans as they navigate what they first think is The Good Place, an otherworldly realm meant as a stand-in for heaven. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) are an eclectic group of screwups who all enter the afterlife somehow both loathsome and endearing in their own unique ways. As Michael, their all-knowing guide to the good place, Ted Danson offers an impossibly charming foil. His afterlife assistant, the nonhuman and nonrobot Janet (D’Arcy Carden), can give the dead crew any answer they need—except the shortcut to becoming good people.
When Eleanor discovers at the end of the first season that they’ve been in a version of The Bad Place all along, actively torturing one another, the show shifts gears. Rather than present the question of Eleanor’s counterfeit morality as the single most pressing concern of the show, The Good Place questions the ethics of its entire ensemble—and their ability to change. If the biggest thrill of the reveal that upended Season 1 and set the stage for Season 2 was that it allowed “Danson to play up his devilish side,” then the second season’s greatest delight was Michael’s growing sense of moral clarity and camaraderie with the humans he was meant to persecute.
The Good Place revels in its ethical in-betweens. Michael abandoned a(n eternal) life of exacting methodical torture to help a group of flawed humans better themselves and earn spots in the real Good Place. This switch is amusing, to be sure, but it’s also an important setup for the show’s implicit belief in its human characters’ ability to pursue more principled lives. “I still believe that they would’ve become good people if they’d just gotten a push in the right direction,” Michael tells Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph), short for Hydrogen, at the end of the Season 2 finale.
The Season 3 premiere finds Michael returning to Earth to reverse the deaths of the show’s four leads. In each scenario, he intervenes just before what would’ve been the character’s tragicomic demise. “Oh, wow! I was just on Earth. It was incredible,” he tells the “doorman” who guards the portal to the planet. “The traffic, the pigeons! And I saw this place that was, at once, a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell. I mean, oh! The mind reels!” Michael finds excuses to repeatedly venture down to Earth, nudging the crew together so they find the tools they need to become the upstanding people he believes they can be.
Season 3 keeps all of the show’s core tenets—moral lessons, terrible but satisfying puns, visual jokes, musings on the state of humankind—but quite literally grounds its characters. In depicting Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani on Earth rather than in a nebulous cosmic or spiritual space, The Good Place makes their concerns and journeys all the more relevant to viewers. The season offers both the simple pleasure of a reunited ensemble (despite the characters thinking they are meeting for the first time) and the benefit of a new setting. It’s hard not to root for the crew to find one another in Australia, where Chidi teaches philosophy. The series also introduces a new character, the neurological researcher Simone Garnett (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), whose fledgling romance with the ever indecisive Chidi presents an opportunity for him to apply his finely tuned moral compass to a situation that isn’t purely theoretical.
Michael meddles in the humans’ earthly lives despite repeated warnings from Janet that he could get them in trouble with Judge Gen. In each of his scenes, Danson is preternaturally charismatic. He takes great pleasure in dressing up as new human characters, trying on new accents, and interacting with mortals on their own turf. Michael’s enthusiasm about the most quotidian elements of life on Earth do as much to point to the existential question at the heart of the show as Chidi’s obsession with philosophical texts like the oft-referenced T. M. Scanlon tome What We Owe to Each Other.
Rather than present a stale, heady exegesis of Aristotelianism or Platonic ideals, The Good Place trusts its audience to latch onto the more subtle lessons it offers within the familiar parameters of everyday life on Earth. As ethical boundaries continue to be crossed in nearly every realm of America’s social fabric, it’s refreshing to watch a series wrestle so earnestly with questions of what human beings owe one another on an interpersonal basis—and how that informs the way all people move toward a more just future. The Good Place does so with humor, gentleness, and a fundamental faith in its viewers. Being a good person takes work, the show suggests, but it’s worth trying. The alternative clearly isn’t appealing.