Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
High concept shows are a difficult thing to sustain. A fascinating premise is a sure way to draw attention, but there’s no guarantee that interest will stick around. Without constant reinvention even the most unique conceit can grow stale, and then it’s down to engaging characters, strong writing and satisfying arcs to keep an audience tuning in.
NBC’s The Good Life has had all these things since season one. Though the concept is what drew many to the show in the first place (What if you died and went to heaven, but you actually weren’t supposed to be there?) its wit, cleverness and relatability is what kept audiences coming back for more. Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop proved to be the perfect audience surrogate, a fish-out-of-water jerk with a heart of gold, and her journey to become a good person before time ran out was as life-affirming as it was hilarious. Her relationships, whether with fellow imposter Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), fastidious socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) or will-they-won’t-they soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) were organic and layered, taking as they did a full season of setbacks, betrayals and heartfelt moments to flourish.
The Good Life had everything it needed to set up a second season by the end of the first, but then it threw it all away. In an explosive finale that had the entire social internet buzzing, Eleanor figured out what the audience never could have: that she’d been in “The Bad Place” all along. Benevolent god (or “Architect” as the show tactfully put it) Michael was actually a demon determined to prove that humans could inadvertently torture each-other, a revelation that only made Ted Danson’s already surprisingly nuanced performance even more brilliant. The writers kept the concept from dulling in appeal by flipping it on its head, which of course had consequences for the characters.
Season 2 opens with an identical shot to the first, Eleanor opening her eyes in “The Good Place”, only this time we know better. Eleanor herself is not so lucky, as her and her posse of hard won friends have been mind-wiped by a now demonic Michael. Any character development we’d seen so far was erased in the same moment that their memories were, a bold move for a show whose character interactions were its strongest asset. Instead of following Eleanor as she slowly learns the truth about the world around her, we watch her figure it out a score of times, each time being made to forget and plopped unceremoniously back into the simulation. Then before we even reach episode four we get another twist and the reveal of the true arc of the season: Michael must let the gang keep their memories, so that he too can make it to “The Good Place”.
Once again the script has been flipped, opening the doors for more hijinks, more bumps in the road, and a regaining of the squad dynamic that was lost in last season’s finale. All of this is served up with a smattering a smattering of real philosophy, courtesy of Chidi’s ethics lectures tasked with saving all their souls. Normally, name dropping Kant and Nietzsche into an otherwise fluffy comedy would be a recipe for disaster, but there’s just something about seeing The Trolley Problem play out in real life that makes the show’s brushes with academia feel both energised and relevant. Likewise, the playful snark and overall lightness of the tone give the more grounded moments real gravitas, whether they’re romantic or heart-breaking.
However, where season 2 really shines is in its finale. Not content to change up the show’s central thesis just twice (from “what if you woke up in heaven in a case of mistaken identity?” to “what if heaven was your personal hell all along?”) the writers end a three-episode action and adventure arc with another mind-bending bombshell. I won’t reveal it here, since this is one of the few scenarios where knowing actually could impact your enjoyment, but the twist is perhaps the writers’ bravest move yet. After resetting both the audience’s expectations and the stakes of the world at the end of season one, they do it again in season two, once more undoing all the progress that the characters have made.
Such a move is infuriating, but in that tantalising way that makes that makes you wish season three was already out and available to binge. Though it means we will no doubt see the cast re-tread some of the same ground from previous seasons, the implications for the characters themselves and the world of the show are even bigger this time around. Plus, there’s something extra romantic about watching a protagonist find love only for it to be snatched away, and Eleanor has already experienced that countless times. Seeing her take baby steps towards a love that we know she is destined for but she does not is torturous, but it’s also kind of delicious. The first stages of a relationship are always the most exciting, whether that’s a burgeoning crush or the slow burn of enemies becoming sweethearts, and the show has been smart in letting those early days play out again – hopefully this time in full.