In the life of an immortal creature as old as time itself, two seasons of television is barely a drop in the infinite bucket. But over the course of The Good Place, Ted Danson’s Michael has gone from the being the nigh-omnipotent creator of a cosmic torture chamber to enthusiastically conspiring with the lost souls hoping to escape it. In the show’s third season, which begins airing on Thursday, Michael takes on a new role: helicopter parent.
The role of a demon—the closest term for what Michael is, although he notes that the word is considered “a little bit racist”—is meant to be a simple one: Torment the unlucky many condemned to eternal damnation via a complex, virtually impenetrable moral scoring system. (One of the show’s running gags is that anyone you can think of, including the philosophers who spent their entire lives theorizing about how to live a good life, ended up in the Bad Place.) But Michael wanted to understand what makes humans tick, at first for the purposes of making them squirm: The show’s core quartet, self-proclaimed “Arizona trash bag” Eleanor (Kristen Bell), chronically indecisive philosopher Chidi (William Jackson Harper), narcissistic socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and dopey small-time criminal Jason (Manny Jacinto), spent most of the first season convinced they were in heaven, not realizing they’d been carefully matched to drive one another mad.
As soon as they found out the truth, Michael wiped their memories and rebuilt their faux Good Place from scratch, but no matter how many times he rewound the clock, they always pushed onward in their clumsy human way, and their dogged persistence eventually won him over to their cause. By the end of the second season, it was clear there was no way to transfer already-damned souls from the Bad Place to the Good, so Michael devised the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: Reset the timeline and give the humans more time on Earth, forestalling their deaths in the hopes that they’d finally blunder into the light.
Unfortunately, living beings don’t have unlimited time to work out their problems, and Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason remain as clueless the second time around as they were the first. To make matters worse, Michael and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an omniscient artificial intelligence who has taken the form of a department-store perfume clerk, are powerless on Earth and have promised the genuinely omnipotent Judge (Maya Rudolph) not to meddle in their affairs. Michael already broke that rule once at the end of Season 2, with Danson stepping behind a bar for the first time since Sam Malone rung last orders at Cheers to steer a wayward Eleanor in Chidi’s direction.
In Season 3, the gang is reunited in Australia under the auspices of a neuroscience study run by Chidi’s university colleague Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) focusing on survivors of near-death experiences—another seed planted by Michael and Janet, in hopes that reuniting the foursome would knock something loose. (One constant across Good Place creator Michael Schur’s other shows, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, is the power of collective action. Schur is also an occasional Slate contributor.) But while their brush with the infinite steered them in the right direction for a time, it turns out that, as Eleanor put it after an extended flirtation with virtue, “Being good is for suckers.”
Michael and Janet know that there’s a reward for being good, if not in this world—there’s no “moral desert”—then in the next. But simply telling Eleanor et al. that would break the rules and ruin the experiment. So they’re left watching from the wings, giving a hint here and a nudge there and hoping their naïve charges will start to figure things out. They seem, in other words, a lot like parents. When Janet started to fret whether they’d earn “enough points to get into the good … ” I reflexively completed the phrase with “ … schools.” At one point, Janet confesses that she’s started to refer to the Judge as “mom,” mostly to try on the concept of a parent-child relationship, and asks Michael if she can call him “dad,” but he quickly demurs: They’re co-workers, for one, and he’s already got four spiritual infants to look after.
Throughout its run, The Good Place has flirted with the idea of sitcom premises as a Sartrean hell: a fixed group of people confined to a handful of locations playing out variations on the same scenarios again and again and again. (Schur has said he didn’t name Danson’s character after himself, but the parallel is irresistible.) The show has radically reworked itself from season to season, and even within them, but its underlying architecture of people striving for goodness and falling short hasn’t changed, and it can’t. Instead of having to work around that limitation, The Good Place has made it its central theme. Unlike most network sitcoms, The Good Place allows its characters to change—the Michael of Season 3 is radically different from the one we knew two years ago. But there’s only so far they can go, and the longer it’s on the air, the longer its characters will continue to suffer. Hell is other timeslots.