Kristen Bell, William Jackson harper, Ted Danson (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

“Okay. Take two, folks.”

“Everything Is Great!” reads the sign on the wall of Michael’s office once Eleanor Shellstrop reawakens. Written in the same friendly green font as it was the first time Eleanor opened her eyes at the very beginning of the series, the calming message looks just the same, but for the crucial difference that, originally, that secretly mendacious greeting promised the newly arrived Eleanor, “Everything is fine.” The change—one of the many, many details creator Michael Schur and company have seeded throughout The Good Place (and the Good Place)—rewards sharp-eyed viewers looking for clues that, in its second season, the series remains as tightly, one might say fiendishly, dense and ingenious as ever.

The thing is, for much of this two-part season premiere, it doesn’t seem that way. Not that this season doesn’t kick off with both a lot of laughs and a breathlessly entertaining mystery for those of us hungry to see where Michael (revealed as the devious mastermind behind what turned out to be the Bad Place in last season’s nearly flawless finale) plans to take things now that the jig is up. Intended as his passion project, this prototype evolution of the way that the Bad Place traditionally tortures those humans who didn’t measure up to the universe’s still-baffling scoring system was built for just four people. Boorish Eleanor, waffling academic Chidi, faux charitable egomaniac Tahani, and ultimate doofus Jason were all intended, in Michael’s elaborately diabolical afterlife, to subtly and unknowingly torture each other for a thousand years. Instead, thanks to the unlikely bond the quartet forged in trying to figure out, for example, why heaven has dirty dishes, easy-tear garbage bags, and the occasional outbreak of giant, flying shrimp, Eleanor figured out Michael’s game in a matter of weeks. With the triumphant Eleanor assuring Michael that his intention to put them into his demonic rats’ maze again will fail even quicker (her insult “Ya’ basic!” is cut off by the smug Michael’s sneering finger-snap), the group’s memories are erased, and the season ends with Eleanor opening her eyes on that same, serenely soothing sign.

(Screenshot: NBC)

Except that now it promises things are “great,” complete with a cheery exclamation point, a subtle tinge of desperation mirrored in the premiere’s pell-mell pace, and Ted Danson’s Michael. Seeing just how Schur would pivot his gleefully weird little TV world after such a major twist was always going to be the test for both his vision, and The Good Place’s sustainability. Picking up the series from Michael’s point of view here is a logical move, as we were finally clued into his role as the Bad Place’s iteration of the idealistic dreamer underdog. Sure, the Bad Place has its lava monsters, food that turns into spiders in your mouth, and, as Michael mentions offhandedly tonight, something called the “penis flattener,” but Michael, a desk drone with big aspirations, saw the opportunity to think outside the box. (Said box would probably be full of spiders, considering that Marc Evan Jackson’s hysterically deadpan Bad Place superior Shawn notes tonight that they’re also trying out the new “butthole spiders.” “They’re enormous,” he asserts upon hearing a fresh scream of the tormented emanating from somewhere offscreen.)

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Shawn—after playing his own part in Michael’s complex charade as an all-wise adjudicator before Eleanor blew the lid off the scam—reveals that the gambit had put Michael in serious jeopardy of forced retirement. (Which, as we know, involved, among other nasty things, his soul being scooped out and ladled over hot, ugly diamonds, plus some more penis torture.) And so Michael, after begging for another chance, is on the hot seat (literally), something that informs Danson’s portrayal, even down to the way he’s shot. Michael, whether briefing his increasingly restless Bad Place extras or attempting to set off just the right “chaos sequence” at a lavish welcoming party intended to start this round of tortures off just right, always looks a touch sweaty, a trifle blotchy. The big reveal last season was a masterful long con by Schur and Danson. The revelation that the sweetly befuddled, politely courageous Michael is actually a petulant, devious torture-architect, is extra crushing for how it robbed us of one of the most indelibly endearing characters in recent memory. Here, Michael is not only still smarting from his humiliation at the hands of puny mortal Eleanor, but in genuine fear for his eternal existence at the hands of the impassively contemptuous Shawn.

Ted Danson (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

And so Michael’s machinations this time around smack not only of desperation, but of haste. Michael admitted that his scrupulously plotted neighborhood only really went off the rails last season because he never could have anticipated that the legendarily selfish Eleanor would attempt to give herself up in order to save the Good Place, and her reluctant friend and ethics mentor Chidi. He had to think on the fly then, and could only scramble helplessly until Eleanor finally blew the gaff. Now, with significantly less time to prepare a whole new infernal world, most of “Everything Is Great!” is made up of his increasingly forced and exasperated improv. Think Groundhog Day, where Phil Connors’ perfect plan to seduce Rita, rebuffed even after all his careful scheming, quickly devolves into painfully forced attempts to recapture what he’d spent so long making look natural. (Bill Murray’s fake surprised, “Hey! Some kids just threw a snowball at us!” remains one of his most exquisitely squirmy line readings.)

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The problem is (or at least appears, until Schur yanks the rug out once again by the end of this two-parter) that “Everything Is Great!” looks desperate and forced as well for much of its running time. Michael, orchestrating a new reality where Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are no longer soulmates but will be brought together gradually through their splinter-line annoyance that this Good Place only has coffee pods and Hawaiian pizza, is all winks and head-nods and plastered-on smiles. Like the first few episodes of the first season, though, these sitcom-standard shenanigans are all revealed to be in service of something much more interesting. Last season, the idea of Kristen Bell’s peerlessly crude and thoughtless Eleanor trying to keep her accidental reward secret through a fro-yo-paletted, sickly sweet afterlife showed the barest hints of wear before the show revealed its long game. Here, Schur and credited episode writers Jen Statsky and Joe Mande make Michael’s mounting panic a part of the structure of the show. For those wondering if The Good Place could maintain its exquisitely balanced tale once it revealed its first trick, all the interlocking, farcical plotting here looks like a show running out of ideas. But, as we see once Eleanor and her friends twig to his game even quicker this time, its revealed that Schur and his friends have only just started to toy with us.

Kristen Bell (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Thankfully, the lead-up to the episode-ending reveal here is a lot of fun—and, like a (highly recommended) rewatch of the first season shows, uniquely rewarding. For one thing, the glimpses into the inner workings of the Bad Place and those who run it like some infernally boring mid-level torture-manufacturing concern remain a prickly, giggle-inducing delight. Michael, setting the stage for his new go-’round, is freed from having to be on all the time (for Eleanor and our benefit), allowing new colors to sneak into Danson’s performance. We saw the barest hints of his impatience last season (he just couldn’t hide how Tahani’s endless, self-interested toadying got on his nerves), but now he’s faced with a neighborhood filled with skeptical coworkers who took on the gig as a lark, only to find themselves recast into often less-juicy roles. Tiya Sircar (last season’s “Real Eleanor”) was, like Danson, a bright light, her portrayal of Chidi’s too-good-to-be-true supposed soulmate remaining resolutely delightful rather than cloying. Now, we see her her as she really is, her Vicky a demanding diva unsatisfied with a role running a pizza joint and forcing Michael to allow her at least a hammy limp to set her apart. (She’s unsatisfied also with Michael’s assurance that she’ll have a subplot where Chidi accidentally kills her cat in about 80 years.) Similarly, the hunky mailman (Luke Guldan) cast as Eleanor’s gym-obsessed soulmate this time around, is too dim to realize that Michael was just making one possible suggestion when he told him to create a workout-based diversion every time Eleanor wants to talk about what’s going on. So the dude—formerly happy as part of the Bad Place’s twisting department (he twists people until they break)—strips off his shirt and flees to the gym every time things get hairy, and, like the rest of Michael’s increasingly fidgety minions, just wants things to go back to normal.

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D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

The fact that his four victims all realize something is seriously wrong in the Good Place so quickly leaves Michael in an even more precarious situation, as he lies to the neighborhood that Shawn has okayed a third attempt, and lies to Shawn that things are going fine. He excuses a late progress report by vamping about how Eleanor—getting drunk as planned, even though Eleanor’s courage shots wind up going to the appalled Tahani—had even flashed somebody. (It does sound like her, to be fair.) Whereas Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason—through a series of cleverly intertwined individual misadventures—all come together after the big welcoming party Michael has planned and recognize, if not each other, that there’s something in the baffled manner of these other weirdos that they can relate to.

Kristen Bell (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

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This all means that our investment in Michael as a character—as this character—is going to be a major factor in this second season. And I’m here for it, especially considering how sure-handedly Schur and his team have sprung themselves from their self-designed, seemingly inescapable narrative traps so far. Yeah, Michael’s evil, but he’s also different from the run of the mill assholes that populate the Bad Place. Whether his little glimmer of creativity marks him as someone who’s going to ascend to new heights of awfulness in the mysterious Bad Place hierarchy, or one whose intimate contact with the show’s four imperfect specimens of humanity will complicate his nefarious ambitious remains to be seen. (One of the loveliest elements of season one Michael’s character was his continual delight with all things human. Here, he rails against humanity’s gross little mouths and ridiculous elbows, but, even with Danson in the driver’s seat, I’m not sure Michael was a good enough actor to fake it all that time.) “Everything Is Great!” reasserts that, in the hands of The Good Place’s own creative masterminds, the journey is likely to be pretty great, indeed.

Stray observations

  • D’Arcy Carden’s Janet remains a delightfully singular creation, her pre-programmed complete honesty nonetheless allowing the actor to craft a slyly funny character, all without ever violating the logic of her existence.
  • Plus, the way she keeps obediently popping up whenever anyone says “Janet” continues to be deployed with impeccable comic timing.
  • That being said, I’m still not certain why, when she susses out the miserable Jason’s guileless loneliness, she takes him to Eleanor. Janet’s been rebooted, so her instinctual drive to bring the band back together, so to speak, suggests... something.
  • The central four are, well, less central to these first episodes. That suits the conceit of a more Michael-centric focus, but Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto continue to inhabit their variously clueless dupes splendidly. That each of them have their own reasons to be suspicious of their new surroundings builds off of everything we’ve gotten to know about them, but, like Janet, there are hints that they retain some lingering glimmers of awareness.
  • “Chidi?”, asks Eleanor of Jason (still masquerading as silent monk Jianyu) once she catches him—as we find out during his story—sabotaging his “soulmate”’s bicycle.
  • Eleanor has the note she shrewdly left for herself (inside Janet’s mouth, natch), but she’s also the best of the bunch at suspecting others’ motives, as we’ve seen in flashbacks. Here Michael’s off his game, and she pins him down all the quicker.
  • Poor Jason gets stuck with another fake monk (Hayden Szeto), cast by Michael as the perfectly in-tune soulmate whose serene ubiquity drives Jason up the wall of their shared yurt—and looking for comfort from what he doesn’t quite remember as his former wife Janet.
  • Chidi’s vulnerability to indecision sees Michael devising the truly wrenching torment of two supposedly perfect soulmates he must choose between. That one (Paulina Bugembe) is clearly designed to be perfect for him—only to be snatched away by Michael’s announcement of a clerical error—is what finally makes Chidi receptive to Eleanor’s note. (His stomach really shouldn’t hurt that much in paradise.)
  • Tahani, too, is hoisted on her own petard, as Michael forces her to smile and bear the selfless life she claimed all through her time on Earth to aspire to. A self-sacrificing but short soulmate, a tiny, rustic house (that Michael makes even smaller in keeping with Tahani’s supposed humbleness), Crocs and cargo pants—this is truly Tahani’s hell.
  • Eleanor’s still open to hooking up with both Chidi and Tahani in this new Good Place.
  • Michael, telling Chidi that all the world’s great philosophers are in the Bad Place, excitedly talks about the clever torture that they’re all forced to have the same “naked, taking a test” nightmare, adds that they are also smashed with hammers. “That part is not so clever,” he concedes.
  • Welcome back to the Good Place, people. Or at least the A.V. Club’s coverage of season two of The Good Place. The series returns to its regular time slot starting next Thursday at 8:30.

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