heaven is a place on earth

watching the good place on nbc

When is The Good Place going to run out of room? Thus far (up to and including the current third season, which began September 27), Michael Schur’s afterlife-set opus has been a constantly funny Parks and Rec-like sitcom, sure. But it has also been, in season one, an existentialist, philosophical text about the nature of goodness, and, in season two, a sci-fi bliss-out. Now, in season three, the show has become slightly more conventional, a (literally) earthbound friends-in-a-bind situation comedy. But it remains as inventive as always. How long can it possibly last?

For those who haven’t seen the show—and that demographic seems to be increasingly shrinking (like John Mulaney, The Good Place is rapidly becoming a mechanism of comedy hipness-signaling)—it follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a trashy Arizona sales rep who’s hit by a truck and wakes up in the titular Good Place, apparently Heaven. A dizzying series of twists follows: Eleanor thinks she’s been placed in the Good Place by mistake; Eleanor is actually in the Bad Place (you-know-where) being tortured by a demon, Michael (Ted Danson), who is attempting a social experiment; Michael warms to Eleanor and convinces his fellow demons he’s continuing the experiment but actually isn’t; Michael helps Eleanor and the other three victims of the experiment escape from the Bad Place; Michael resurrects all four of them in an attempt to prove they can become good without otherworldly interference. If this seems like a lot of ground for a half-hour comedy to cover, consider that most of season two concerned Michael restarting the experiment over and over again in a sort of Groundhog Day/Heaven Can Wait crossover scenario. Yet, the show never became repetitive—actually, it just got better and better.

Most of that is thanks to the writing, probably the second-best for a television comedy behind Veep. Certainly The Good Place is the reigning TV champion of making complexity seem breezily easy. (Attention, belabored writers of Westworld: I’d suggest calling up Schur in the near future.)  But the cast, perfect from the beginning, has relaxed into a comic familiarity that rivals the best of this century’s comedy ensembles. Eleanor and her fellow Great Beyond misfits, Jason (Manny Jacinto), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Chidi (William Jackson Harper), are re-introduced at the beginning of season three, back on Earth for a second chance—this time as the subjects of Chidi’s thesis study on victims of near-death experiences. They’re not meant to remember each other, yet they bounce off one another right away, full of chemistry. Danson, robbed of an Emmy this year, is the best thing about the show by far in his half-deluded, half-naïve, newly-found enthusiasm for humanity. D’Arcy Carden is wonderful as Janet, his angelic assistant,  and Jacinto, who is to stupid what Meryl Streep is to commanding, somehow manages to steal the episode every time. His somewhat reduced role this season is one of the only slightly sour notes in the show’s development.

Our four human heroes have one foot in the Bad Place now; a cosmic psychopomp called the Judge (Maya Rudolph) has decreed that any screw-ups in this new life will condemn them to the down-below forever—really, we mean it this time. This lends the show a moral immediacy previously concealed by antic comedy, and Michael and Janet’s desperate (technically illegal) interference on their wards’ behalf in the human world has an earned urgency. Still, I miss the afterlife. The show’s strong suit has always been its clearly delineated rules for fantastic landscapes; the Good and Bad Places were almost characters in themselves in their wild, magical-realist cruelty. I sense the writers miss it too. One of their favorite pastimes was giving the restaurants in Michael’s fake “Good Place” neighborhood outrageously-punned names, and this carries over to the real-world setting of season three: for instance, Chidi visits a muffin stand in Sydney called “We Crumb From the Land Down Under.”

The real brilliance of the show lies in its very slow reveal of the fact that the whole posthumous procedure is basically unfair. Chidi, for example, is a strictly ethical thinker and pretty nice guy whose one crime was that he found it difficult to make decisions; if that’s a prescription for the Bad Place, most of the people ahead of me at Starbucks on an average day should start preparing for pitchforks. But this realization only comes with time. We start off thinking Eleanor’s the real criminal, a deviant who somehow slipped under the wire into a perfect eternity reserved for all of us decent people. Not so, it turns out, as the road to the Bad Place is paved with most folks’ good intentions. As Michael explains in season one, its denizens even include “every President except Lincoln.” In other words, Schur and his writing team revel in setting up their pins and then knocking them down, over and over again. The Good Place is a show about people trying to reinvent themselves, and the show itself is not to be outdone. It’s impossible to say how many times the team behind The Good Place can start over. But watching them try is exciting as hell.