Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Good Place - Season Two

When I first wrote about The Good Place midway through its first season, it felt like writing about a small indie band very few people had heard of. While the show featured two legitimate stars – Kristen Bell and Ted Danson – NBC’s 13-episode commitment and the show’s premise, of an unworthy soul put in eternal paradise, did not scream visionary art, but then it happened. Keener viewers than me surely saw the season finale plot twist – that Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), along with her three friends Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, were not in the “good” place after all, but rather, an elaborately staged simulacrum of the good place that was in fact, the “bad” place (i.e., hell). Eleanor’s eureka moment, as the group is fighting over who will go to what they think is the bad place to save the others left show creator Michael Schur with one last rabbit to pull out of his hat – a cliffhanger where Michael (Danson) is revealed to be the diabolical mastermind behind the scheme. Once his ruse is discovered, Michael simply snaps his fingers, wipes everyone’s memory, and starts all over again.

It was bravura television and since I did not see the plot twist coming, the ending did what I suspect Schur hoped – it required me to rewatch the entire season with a totally different understanding of what was going on. It was so clever and so unexpected, that I had no idea what direction Season Two would take. At the risk of repeating the error of writing about Season One before it ended, if anything, Season Two has exceeded its predecessor’s high standard. Having shown his ability to think outside the writing box once, Schur did it again. Instead of simply making the second season a carnival-funhouse-mirror version of the first, he conceded the point early on – Michael would create a new “good” place, and every time, Eleanor would figure it out: THIS IS THE BAD PLACE she screamed, in everything from monk’s garb to a cowgirl outfit (well, except attempt #649 when Jason figured it out, which, as Michael whined, was a real low point.)

And so, the narrative arc became not about Michael’s efforts to torture the humans, but his need to partner with them to avoid being retired (having his essence scooped out with a flaming ladle and his every molecule placed on the surface of a different sun) and sending them to the bad place when Sean, his boss, discovers that Michael did not merely do a second reboot, but more than eight hundred. Of course, because Season One ended with such a dramatic plot twist, even as Michael was incorporated into “Team Cockroach” you were never quite sure where his allegiances fell.

To Danson’s credit, his virtuoso performance is the beating heart of the show. His two-steps-forward-one-step-back effort to become a better err demon centers much of the second season’s best humor. In an ethics lecture focused on the “trolley car” problem (whether to crash into a group of five people or steer the trolley onto a side track and kill only one), Michael misses the point entirely, instead speculating about how you can kill all six people (hang a pole out the side with a blade attached to lop off the one person’s head and run over the other five – DUH). In the same episode, he casually mentions that being French automatically sends you to the bad place (plus, while stealing a loaf of bread scores -17 points, three are added if it’s a baguette, because it makes you vaguely French). When Janet’s unresolved feelings for Jason threaten to destroy the neighborhood, Michael refuses to kill her, lamenting that she is his friend, and later, he reluctantly comes clean to Eleanor and the gang when they realize he has no plan to get them to the real good place.

Opting for this story telling arc allowed Schur to dig far deeper into the ethical and philosophical conundrums we experience. Is lying okay in certain circumstances? When can you put your own needs over those of others? Can you trust an actual demon? Schur is neither pedantic nor heavy-handed in tackling these problems. Like the parent who slips veggies into the chocolate chip cookies, his musings on these cosmic queries are done with a light touch. Eleanor notes the value of the little white lie, just dressed up in the fancier cloak of “situational ethics.” Michael’s coded message to the group at a satirical comedy roast just before they are to be sent to the bad place is laced with references to Kant and Kirkegaard, but you do not need a two a.m. dorm room rap session to follow along.

And because Schur so successfully flipped the script to end Season One, the possibilities for how Season Two will end are limitless. We wait to see if our four heroes will convince the judge that they belong in the real good place, but do they? Tahani, for example, has not really shown much growth. When she learns she was felled by a statue of her sister, her takeaway was not that she wasted her mortal life nursing an insatiable amount of jealousy toward her sibling, but rather, that she died in Cleveland. Similarly, when she confides in Janet that she uses the “Duke” test (either university or title of nobility) for her dating partners and that Jason was unemployed at the time of his death (and in the sad way, not the good, rich way), she exposes her elitist attitudes just as much as when she name drops Johnny Depp (they dated), Taylor Swift (her best friend), and Vanessa Redgrave (whose panic room she was in with Javier Bardem). Jason has remained an amiable dunce throughout, and while he attracted both Janet (they married in Season One) and Tahani (they “pounded it out” in Season Two), has he done anything to distinguish himself other than sharing a story of slashing a rival dance crew’s tires to avoid a confrontation and securing the group’s escape from Sean by lobbing a Molotov cocktail and yelling JORTLES?

This is where the unpredictability Schur inserted thanks to his season one twist will really come into play and also why his mentioning that The Good Place shares storytelling DNA with LOST may also be meaningful. After all, LOST was about souls stuck in purgatory who needed to learn how to trust and have faith in one another before they could receive their eternal reward. Might something similar happen to our fab four? Then again, we may find out Michael played a long con (another LOST nod) and a snap of the fingers may result in an 803rd reboot.

Season Two also provided a few callbacks for fans like me. We get a cameo from Mindy St. Clair, eternally living in the “medium” place (which happens to be a suburban home from the 1980s that includes a clunky old VCR and the Pierce Brosnan “World’s Sexiest Man” issue of People magazine) as a horny cokehead in a period-perfect big shouldered skirt and jacket combo. When we learn Janet came up with the idea of using frozen yogurt as the thematic food for the neighborhood (frozen yogurt being a food people think they enjoy but know is kind of a bummer) I was reminded of Michael’s observation from Season One that he liked frozen yogurt because it showed how humans will take something perfect (ice cream) and ruin it just a little so they can have more of it. Similarly, when Eleanor and the team give Michael a “starter kit” for being human, which includes a set of car keys (which he can ask if anyone has found or tap his pockets to look for), I thought of Michael’s lament from Season One that he wanted to have human experiences, like pulling a hamstring or telling someone to “take it sleazy.” And when the group decides to risk going through the real bad place so they can plead their case for entry into the real good place before an all-powerful judge, Michael is thrilled because it is a futile plan, created with unearned confidence, and doomed to fail – in other words, a quintessentially human idea.

It is in these scenes where Schur’s sharp eye for the human condition shines. The demons who run the “toxic masculinity” shop in the bad place are of course frat bros who fist pound and ball tap each other while prepping for the creator of “Girls Gone Wild” inevitably arriving in hell. Sean, Michael’s boss, notes that he selected the body of a 45-year-old white man because that is the easiest way to fail upward. And, in what I thought was one of the more poignant lines in Season Two, Eleanor explains to Michael, who had just experienced the existential crisis of mortality, that the reason humans are always “a little sad” is that we understand that we all die one day. It is these minor riffs and grace notes that make the show something more than just a philosophy lesson put through a pop culture blender and one of the many reasons it is my favorite thing on television.

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