‘The Good Place’ season three finds its footing on Earth

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson lead a quirky, clever ensemble cast in the latest installment of the afterlife comedy.

This review contains spoilers for season three of “The Good Place.”

“The Good Place” prides itself on being a show that is not afraid to break out of the traditional sitcom mold. Instead of sticking to a number of familiar locations with largely unconnected, situational episodes, the rigorous, richly detailed story follows our main group of characters (lovingly dubbed “Team Cockroach”) through a series of twists and turns as they try to become better people and gain entry into an idyllic afterlife.

At the end of the second season, the capricious “judge of the universe” (Maya Rudolph in a delightfully irreverent guest appearance) sent protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her friends back to Earth to test whether they could improve as people on their own. After Eleanor regressed into her mediocre old ways after a year, reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) illegally intervened and ensured that she flew to Australia to meet Chidi (William Jackson Harper), her former philosophy teacher and lover in the afterlife. While the second season ended with the two unknowingly reuniting, the decision to send four of the show’s main characters back to Earth struck me as one of the most ambitious writing decisions that the show had ever made. How would a series that has relied heavily on otherworldly quirkiness manage to progress and maintain any semblance of consistency? Thankfully, if the season premiere is any indication, “The Good Place” has managed to usher viewers into a new phase while remaining a fiendishly smart, heartfelt and strange half hour of network television.

In any other sitcom, audiences might expect to spend at least half of the season waiting for the characters to reconnect. However, as creator Michael Schur and his team have proven with numerous plot twists in previous seasons, this is not a typical sitcom. The majority of the premiere is spent following the gang as we see how they’ve spent their time on Earth, and how they found their way back to each other after being spread across the world. Throughout the hour-long premiere, the narrative weaves back and forth in time as we catch up with what Chidi, haughty British socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and sweet, dopey amateur DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) have been up to for the past year.

Much like Eleanor, her friends were motivated to make strides towards improving their lives before eventually slumping into their usual self-destructive habits. After a neuroscientist named Simone (new recurring star Kirby Howell-Baptiste) assures Chidi that his indecisiveness is not a side effect of his brain being “broken,” he gains enough confidence to restart his 3,000 page thesis, give a philosophy lecture at his university and (as his friend points out) pick a muffin from a food cart in less than an hour. But, when Henry adopts Chidi’s new attitude and subsequently winds up in the hospital due to a gym accident, he quickly returns to a constant state of anxiety. Tahani decides to give her many possessions away, delete her celebrity phone contacts and spend time at a Buddhist monastery, where she learns to let go of her constant need for validation. This lasts until she is offered a book deal and publicity based on her experiences, which prompts her to resume a life of fraudulent philanthropy under the guise of helping people “get out of the spotlight.” Jason decides to improve his 60-person amateur dance crew and enter competitions, rather than engaging in petty crime. After a long string of losses, he loses hope (and rent money) and is caught attempting to rob a restaurant.

Michael, who is watching the humans’ actions back in the judge’s chambers with the group’s friendly ambulant database, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), seizes an opportunity to get Team Cockroach back together when Chidi decides to start a new thesis about the impact of near-death experiences. Thanks to a series of disguises and one truly terrible fake Australian accent, he succeeds. In true “Good Place” fashion, however, the episode can’t end without a final twist. Chidi announces that another participant has joined their study: none other than“Bad Place” demon, Trevor (“Parks and Recreation’’’s Adam Scott).

Although the season three premiere has a much heftier amount of story to sift through than most “Good Place” installments, the episode manages to wade into new territory without seeming disorienting largely because of the ideas that have continually propped up the show thus far. In a series that readily strips away plotlines and locations, the themes of how much work it takes to remain a decent human being and the necessity of leaning on others around you in order to grow and learn are constant. Through the veneer of comedic gags and otherworldly special effects, these basic tenants of the show are present without becoming trite. We may be in a new timeline, but seeing how characters that the audience knows and loves act without the weight of eternal ramifications adds a new layer to “The Good Place,” keeping it fresh and wryly optimistic.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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