This piece was originally published January 24, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018
The “dumbass” sneaks up on you. The Good Place’s trick of turning “shit”s to “shirts”s and “asses”es to “ashes”es ceased being a punchline a long while back. Such bowdlerization is just part of the show’s vocabulary now. And yet, Eleanor Shellstrop’s seven-letter insult hangs in the air for a beat before she and we realize that she’s regained the ability to curse. It’s Kristen Bell’s delight at the word, not the word itself, that registers as the joke, and it stirs the same mix of amusement and alarm as a taboo flouted in real life. A rule that’s been in place since Eleanor first asked, “Why can’t I say ‘fork’?” has finally been broken.
It’s a playful way of showing that The Good Place isn’t in Kansas anymore, a definitive sign that the neighborhood that hosted most of the comedy’s two seasons is gone for good. But it’s not the most important thing “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent” has to say about the show’s new normal. That honor belongs to the episode’s ethical lesson of the week, a primer on moral particularism that prompts Eleanor’s equivocating soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), to declare, “There are no fixed rules that work in every situation.” An important life lesson, one that’s as true of The Good Place (the TV show) as it is for the Good Place (the setting). With Chidi fretting over the lies he’s telling, Janet (D’Arcy Carden) attempting to override her programming in order to appear as unhelpful and insulting as her Bad Place equivalents, and even reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) mustering the courage to call out the “illegal” actions of his boss, “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent” is The Good Place’s second season in miniature: an episode about breaking all the rules in a season that has consistently written, torn up, and rewritten the rulebook for the show’s bureaucratic afterlife.
It’s not uncommon for a TV show to establish its voice, tone, personality, or philosophy through some prohibition or another: Think of the “no hugging, no learning” pledge that set Seinfeld apart from the touchy-feely sitcoms of its day, or The Simpsons’ choice to never reveal Springfield’s exact geographical location. This is especially handy when the show is set in the realm of the fantastical or the speculative, where establishing a sense of baseline reality prevents the entire enterprise from whirling off into what’s colloquially known as “Crazy Town.” Sometimes there’s hundreds of years of folklore backing these things up, like the vulnerabilities of the otherwise immortal adversaries on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (in no particular order: sunlight, sharpened wood, a lineage of super-powered teenagers). Sometimes they’re laid out by luminaries in the field, like the influence Clarke’s three laws—the third and most commonly cited: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—have held over years of science fiction. Sometimes they’re stated, but frequently violated, like the Star Trek franchise’s Prime Directive. And, in at least one notable case, it’s just a matter of an actor’s contract: The humans and Cylons of the Battlestar Galactica reboot never encounter any other forms of intelligent life among the stars thanks in part to a legally binding request made by Edward James Olmos.
Across its first two seasons, The Good Place has taken a little from column A, a little from column B. The swearing rule, introduced just 10 minutes into the pilot episode, has both restricted and inspired the language the writers can use in their scripts. (For my money, it’s the best work-around for broadcast networks’ standards and practices since Arrested Development first mashed the “bleep” button.) And that rule, along with other facts established in the pilot—Chidi’s speaking French, but the afterlife has a universal-translator function; cosmic personal assistant Janet can’t show you the Bad Place, but you can hear what it sounds like—have helped maintain a consistent reality for The Good Place ever since.
Which is helpful, because other aspects of what the characters had taken for granted started going kerflooey shortly thereafter. Flying shrimp and a wardrobe malfunction of unimaginable cruelty—everyone in the neighborhood is forced to wear the school colors of the University Of Michigan—are followed by other “malfunctions” that drive the plot forward and put impostor Eleanor perilously close to being found out. And then she outs herself. And then it turns out the whole thing was orchestrated by Michael, who’s actually Bad Place middle management. And then it turns out he has the power to bring the whole torturous experiment back to square one, which he does, literally hundreds of times, during the events of season two.
The Good Place is an “anything can happen” type of show, but “anything” must adhere to a set of “if X is true, then Y” statements. The very core of The Good Place’s premise is rule-bound—how its characters will spend eternity rests on what they should’ve or shouldn’t’ve done when they were alive—and this goes a long way toward making the universe of the show feel real, well-rounded, and familiar whenever a reset takes place. The neighborhood is the neighborhood whether its streets are dotted with frozen yogurt shops, pudding stands, or chowder fountains.
But none of that is the foundation that’s held firm through all the renovations. Rules give shape to The Good Place, but character gives it life, and consistency and rigor in that department is what has truly kept the show from rocketing off of its axis in season two. You could sense this even in season one, when the show’s acts of demolition were less flashy, more minute tweaks to its central premise. Through all the changes in rules, restaurants, and location, these traits remain self-evident: Eleanor’s confidence, Chidi’s cautiousness, Tahani’s gumption, and Jason’s unceasing loyalty—in the face of gridiron events fictional and factual—to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Developments like Eleanor’s reminder about Jonathan Dancy in “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent” demonstrates that these people can evolve; the things that stay the same about them are what makes it believable that they’d always find each other in the midst of Michael’s reboots.
The Good Place has treated its status quo with a refreshing lack of preciousness, its many reinventions a reliable engine for story and surprise. And yet I wonder if making rules only to break them will be a habit the show leaves behind in season two. The end of last week’s episode—in which Michael sacrifices himself so the humans can make it through the portal to the Eternal Judge’s chambers—signals a significant shift. It’s no stretch to imagine the show’s third season as a Search For Spock-type situation (I’m not the only one to see the Wrath Of Khan parallels in “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent”’s solution to The Trolley Problem) in which Eleanor and friends seek to free Michael from retirement, or whatever awful fate awaits his treasonous actions. At least I hope it’s something like that and not another turncoat switcheroo, which wouldn’t just betray the audience’s trust—it’d also be a fatal crack in the show’s credibility. It would upend a truly spectacular character arc, the turn toward humanity that finds the grains of truth in Michael’s first-season performance and brings new depths of pathos and humor out of Ted Danson’s. The rules don’t matter when they can’t apply to every situation. But character—you’d have to be a dumbass to want to futz with that.