If the season 1 finale of The Good Place dropped what we can call one hell of a twist —wait! the Good Place is totally the Bad Place! —the surprise of season 2’s capper can be described as… heaven on Earth.
In a different kind of game changer, NBC’s crafty afterlife comedy veered its cosmic adventure onto terra firma: Devilish-but-evolving architect Michael (Ted Danson) persuaded Judge Jen (Maya Rudolph) to give damned souls Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) another crack at eternal paradise via a mind-erasing do-over on Earth. A year into the unorthodox experiment, Michael played wise bartender and planted seeds — highly unauthorized seeds — into the brain of reformed/relapsed/and at-the-time hammered Eleanor, prompting her to show up at ethics professor Chidi’s office in Australia, curious about “what we owe to each other.”
Season 3’s first order of business? Second chances. “A lot of stuff happened in that year,” understates creator Mike Schur. “They’re in wildly different places than we’ve ever seen them. Noting that the foursome’s near-deaths did beget growth — temporarily, at least — Schur employs a rather nerdy reference in describing this bold reset. “It’s like you’re rolling a bunch of D&D dice,” he explains, “and the character attributes are coming up differently every time.”
Let’s start with Chidi, who does not exactly extract the lesson that he should from his fatal-now-turned-near-death encounter with a falling air conditioner. “When it crashes to the ground, he says, ‘This is a sign,’ and the sign that he interprets is that he shouldn’t be using air conditioners because they’re terrible for the environment,” says Schur. “And the response from his friend is, ‘That’s insane.’” Our anxiety-addled moral philosophy professor seeks out Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a fellow academic and neuroscientist at his university to determine if his brain is broken. “She’s extremely smart, but she’s also very confident in a way that he is not because he’s in a discipline that does not reward confidence,” says Schur of the newly added recurring character. “He’s in a discipline where people mull over the divine secrets of the universe and try to tease out incredibly indistinct meaning from various pure thoughts, and she is a person who scans things with machines, determines results, and draws conclusions. She has science and math on her side.”
Eleanor has neither of those on her side — though, to be fair, she has a PhD in scams and reality TV — and she has made the boldest, most impulsive decision of her (new) life by flying to Sydney. “She’s putting a lot of eggs in the basket of ‘This guy I’ve never met before is going to help me,’ and she’s also at a kind of a low point,” notes Schur. “I would say her biggest problem is that she’s just way out on a limb.” Will the opposites-attracting Eleanor and Chidi reform a fast friendship — or more? — in this new reality, or will Simone earn his highest marks? “Buckle up,” advises Bell. “There are more emotional levels this season that people can relate to.”
Spotlight seeker/jealous sibling Tahani — who has arguably made the most of her near-death experience — is unbuckling from her high-society obligations to pursue true enlightenment. “Shirt gets very real between Tahani and her sister,” adds Jamil. “Real siblings are going to feel quite triggered by what they see between the two of us.” Dim bro and kindly manchild Jason questions everything in his life and decides to… double down on his dance crew. “Jason is learning to become less selfish,” shares Jacinto. “In this season, he’s really growing up. I feel like he’s at least 10 percent smarter than he was previously.” The all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden) questions her role — as well as Michael’s — in the lives of the rebooted quartet, whom they’re supposed to be watching from the afterlife via tickertape. “She and Michael are trying to decide what’s appropriate,” says Schur. “How do we care about them, but also what are the limits of how much we’re allowed to care about them? Are we allowed to intervene more? Should we? Should we not?” Of course, the fraught situation is further complicated by Janet’s feelings for Jason. “That’s not going anywhere,” says Carden. “It’s in her DNA now — it’s in her computer.” (Carden calls their relationship moving forward a “rollercoaster,” while Jacinto simply hints: “Ride or die.”)
Meanwhile, if Michael is not careful, he’s going to ride his way to retirement; his affections for the group compels him to engage in that ill-advised meddling. “What made Michael decide to go down there?” says Schur, tossing out more questions for you to chew on. “When did he decide? How do you literally get down to Earth? Once you do, how do you get back? Does the judge know he’s doing it? Is the judge angry? When does the judge, if ever, find out that he’s doing it?” Along the way, Michael will encounter the gruff doorman (Mike O’Malley), who guards the door to Earth and kinda has a thing for frogs. Here are some other cryptic clues to chew on: “Oh, dip!” says Jacinto. “John Wick,” whispers Carden. And Danson carefully utters: “A bridge to nowhere goes everywhere.” Oh, and did we mention that Bad Place boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) is demonically pissed about this quartet’s do-over? Because he totally is. Hints Schur: “He’s not going to just sit around and hope for the best, which is to say: the worst.”
The show won’t just sit around in one place either. “Every episode there is some sort of world-changing thing,” says Harper. “There are so many weird things that happen, I can’t even begin to tell you what twist to be looking for. It’s just too much.” Indeed, season 3 aims to surprise and subvert on a regular basis, as opposed to once again ripping down the fabric of everything you thought you knew. “This season is less about any one giant curve ball and more about a continual steady diet of breaking balls,” quips the baseball-loving Schur. “After season 1, it was less about, ‘We’re going to turn the entire world upside down all the time,’ and more about just trying to keep in the DNA of the show the idea that unexpected things can happen. The basic idea of this whole season is: whatever the established parameters are, those parameters will change fairly quickly.” Matters of the heart also will matter more this year. “There are a lot of tiny emotional problems that are paramount to our survival,” says Bell. “It’s the most emotional season. We had a couple of scenes where we went, ‘Is this a comedy?’”
While The Good Place is balancing laughs with afterlife-or-death stakes — “We’re constantly skating that thin line between being the smartest or the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen,” chuckles Jamil — look for at least some mystery resolution in the process. “We’ve been on a rollercoaster for the last two seasons,” says Bell. “This season we stop, we get off, we look around, we talk about where we are and why metaphorically. We answer some questions this season.”
Danson thinks that said enlightenment will make perfect aha! sense. “It’s so right that it doesn’t even surprise you — you just hadn’t thought of it,” he says. “”‘Yes, of course!’ is the feeling you get when you hear the discoveries of season 3. Here’s hoping for a few “Fork, yeah!”s, too.
The Good Place returns Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
To watch the first scene of the season 3 premiere right now, head over here.
To check out some first-look photos from season 3, complete with more hints from Schur, click here.