Sunday, September 03, 2017

Whither "The Good Place"?


NBC's comedy "The Good Place" returns soon for its second season -- excellent news for anyone who saw season one (if you haven't seen season one, stop reading this post -- because, again, *spoilers* -- and binge it on Netflix or Hulu). But it'll be interesting to see what direction it goes in its sophomore year.

The big twist at the end of the first season is that the titular "Good Place" was a lie. Eleanor and all of her friends were in "The Bad Place" all along -- the entire set-up was an elaborate construct to get them to torture each other while they all thought they were in paradise. Michael, the architect of their afterlife "neighborhood" and seeming friend and ally, was actually the puppetmaster behind it all.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the "person who seemed by all appearances to be an ally is actually the big bad!" twist genre (it almost completely ruined "Dollhouse", for example). The question is whether the character's behavior up to that point continues to make sense with the knowledge that they were secretly playing for the other side. Jill and I rewatched the first season yesterday (yes, we started and finished it in one day), and I think that Michael passes that test, albeit not with flying colors -- there are a lot of instances where it seems like he is (for lack of a better word) nicer than he should be given what his ultimate objectives are.

But one major alteration that this twist causes is that, from the audience's vantage, it dramatically changes the stakes for the characters. In the first season, the drama surrounding the core quartet was "would they be caught" and/or "would they be sent to the Bad Place". In season two, that drama will mostly be absent -- they already caught and they already  are in the Bad Place, even if they don't know it yet.

So I think the big shift in Season Two will be a reorientation of perspective towards Michael.

Of the main characters, Michael is the one we've gotten to know the least (if only because most of what we thought we knew about him was a façade). Moreover, if the stakes have functionally dropped for the quartet, for Michael they've risen astronomically. At the end of Season One he had to beg for the chance to reset his grand experiment, and while Shawn agreed he also warned Michael that he was "way out on a limb". And while we don't know if Michael's description of "retirement" was accurate, the way Shawn talks about it to Michael in private suggests that it may well be, and it represents the consequences if Michael does not successfully create his auto-torture machine this time around.

Meanwhile, Michael's gambit in round two is to separate the four torture targets from one another in the hopes that they don't form a merry band of support and mutual growth. But that also makes it harder for them to truly torture each other. Eleanor's new soulmate -- a hot but seemingly shallow mailman -- is exactly the sort of person she could settle down into, if not a truly "happy" existence, than at least a comfortable one that doesn't keep her perpetually on edge. I can imagine Season Two focusing on Michael's increasingly frantic efforts to ensure that his targets are unhappy without either giving up the ruse or building up a sufficient relationship between them to create a repeat of Season One.

In any event, I'm excited to see where "The Good Place" goes. It's one of the funniest and most creative shows on television, and the only place where one is likely to see characters reading books by T.M. Scanlon to boot. The question is whether it can maintain that momentum and emotional edge in the new world its written for itself. Color me optimistic.

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