THE SERIES “The Good Place”
WHEN | WHERE Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC/4
WHAT IT’S ABOUT At the end of the first season, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) learned that she wasn’t in the “good place” at all, but in the bad place — aka hell, or Hades, if you will — where she and her three new friends, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), were part of an ambitious experiment by Michael (Ted Danson), the leader of the Good Place. That plot: To torture these four through infinity, by pairing them with someone else who would literally drive them crazy. To Michael, it all seemed so much more inventive than putting them through the usual hellish effects, like fire and brimstone. When the four found out, Michael erased their memories, and then tried again. And again.
MY SAY In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of existentialism, wrote a play with the line, “Hell is other people.” A half-century or so before that, another philosopher wrote about something called “eternal recurrence” (or the notion, roughly stated, that each human life repeats itself through infinity). Put both together and you begin to have (sort of) a handle on the second season of TV’s most brazenly original comedy.
To get a firmer grip, you need to add some more recent stuff, like movies (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Memento”), along with some classic plays (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” almost certainly “Waiting for Godot”). Put all of this in a blender, turn on high and wait for the true meaning of “The Good Place” to sort itself out. You never have long to wait: Life is meaningless, death is also meaningless, so your choice is to either laugh or despair. “Place” chooses the former option, and it’s a wonder that there’s any option at all, considering.
A wonder that a series like this is on commercial TV, and NBC, no less. With the brilliant reversal at the end of the freshman season (the good place is actually the bad place), a brand-new series was born. But with that, a whole new set of complications arrived, both narrative and philosophical. Because Michael had essentially devised a dastardly plot drawn from Sartre’s “No Exit,” he had no choice but to keep trying, then try, try again. He loved his idea, even if no one else did. By the second episode this season, he had cycled through (seriously) 649 combinations, or memory wipes, of his four victims. But Eleanor saw through each one, quickly learning that she really was in the bad place. Michael was at an impasse, apparently the show, too. “The Good Place” was turning into “The Insane Place.”
Then the problem was solved: Vicky (Tiya Sircar), one of this netherworld’s more grasping careerists, blackmailed Michael into giving her the keys to his kingdom. (She had threatened to tell Michael’s boss that his many attempts at human psychological torture had failed.) Suddenly Michael had become trapped in his own Sartre play.
He joined forces with the other four in an attempt to usurp Vicky. It was all weird, also occasionally hilarious. As a devil caught in his own Goldbergian contraption, Danson has found the perfect mid-to-late-career role, also one as far from Sam Malone as anyone could have ever imagined. Meanwhile, the rest of this terrific cast rolls along, too, blissfully unfazed by whatever jackknife twist the show tosses at them.
Yes, “The Good Place” is strange — also ridiculously inventive, silly, smart and strangely, unexpectedly deep. Here’s hoping the few fans keeps rolling along with it.
BOTTOM LINE The oddest of oddballs, with heart, style and smarts.