“The key was Eleanor and Chidi’s connection.”

That’s Michael, the former demon, to Janet, the former Janet, desperately trying to save the souls of former bad people Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in “Everything Is Bonzer!,” the gloriously assured and hilarious third-season premiere of The Good Place. Keys are prominent in this double-sized opener. Apart from the unlikely but hundreds-of-reboots-tested bond between disfiguringly indecisive philosopher Chidi and self-described “Arizona trashbag” Eleanor, there’s an actual key to this year’s startling narrative shift. Flashed protectively by new character The Doorman (Mike O’Malley), this nondescript-looking key to Earth (with standard “Do Not Duplicate” warning stamped into it) was “made from the very first atoms that came into existence in the universe.” It also has a cute frog keychain because, as the dour Doorman explains, “I’m a frog guy.”

Then there’s the key fob the Doorman gives to Michael for his return trip to the realm of Judge Gen (short for Hydrogen, if you recall), which, he offhandedly advises, is just for Michael’s use. (The Doorman’s “Make sure you’re alone” when pressing the button slips by almost as slyly as Michael’s explanation that the plan to return his human friends to Earth might cause “some ripple effects” in the “new timeline” being created.) Michael, being Michael, is delighted at the prospect of heading down (over? perpendicular?) to Earth in order to avert the sudden deaths of Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani, not least because he finds out that his powerlessness there will mean he has to take the bus. “I’m going to get so motion-sick!,” he blurts excitedly. He’s also, once more, bucking the heretofore unchallenged rules in order to save his friends.

And that’s one key to The Good Place, returning with the signature confidence of an enterprise whose course is clearly plotted by a master storyteller. Creator Michael Schur has said that he went into his decidedly more high-concept follow-up to Parks And Recreation with the cautionary tale of Lost in mind, that promising show’s careening plot twists evidence of a fantastical premise without a steady hand at the wheel. The Good Place has a plan, not that Schur and company (part one of the episode written by Schur and Jen Statsky, part two by Statsky) are sharing. Like Eleanor and her pals, we’re dropped into a weird new world whose rules are unclear, and left to find our way while the powers that be sit back and, presumably, laugh with contentment at our bafflement, and our delight.

Ted Danson
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

And that benevolence is the key, too. For a show that posits an afterlife run like a smugly omniscient insurance agency, The Good Place has always suggested that, if there’s anything like just deserts*, there should be room for a quartet of deeply flawed but striving people like its four (human) heroes. Held up throughout—in flashback and present-afterlife example, once the truth of Michael’s scheme was revealed—as “bad people,” Eleanor, Jason, Tahani, and Chidi are, indeed, not great.

Eleanor turned her neglected childhood into a protective armor made of equal parts creative rudeness, preemptive rejection, and reality TV. (Here, she confesses to Chidi that her proudest achievement was correctly identifying all the Kardashian’s slang terms—but that she also cheated.) Jason, product of a dirtiest of Florida dirtbag environments (and a school made up of tugboats lashed together), followed his stunted dreams of self-worth into abortive careers of street-dancing, amateur EDM DJ-ing, and petty crime. Tahani had parents as neglectful as Eleanor’s (although about a billion degrees wealthier), and turned her desperate need for parental approval into a career in self-aggrandizement (with a side of philanthropy). As for Chidi, his single-minded pursuit of philosophical and ethical truth turned him into an indecisive nonentity, driving everyone around him to exasperation. (“Chidi, your brain is broken! You need to fix your brain!,” his best friend rages after Chidi’s near-miss with that falling air conditioner sends him immediately waffling about the ethical ramifications of air conditioners.)

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The thing is, if the Good Place of The Good Place is as all-knowing and perfect as Michael and every other functionary in the universal machinery would have it be, there’s precious little room for human weakness of any kind. (Tellingly, we’ve never been told of a single person, historical or otherwise, who definitively resides in the Good Place. We know Florence Nightingale just missed the cut.) Especially since, as Michael successfully made his case to Gen, his disastrous fake Good Place experiment showed that these four people—at least when they have each other—can be better. The Good Place set itself up originally as a clever, very funny lark, with unrepentant jerk Eleanor Shellstrop destined to outsmart the goody-two-shoes and beat the system. But the show quickly spun its premise out to comedic and philosophical reaches both unexpected and unprecedented in your average network sitcom. As Eleanor gathered her three disparate friends and sussed out the scam Michael was perpetrating on them, she lit a narrative fuse that’s been exploding and reforming (and exploding) ever since.

Kristen Bell
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

So here, now that Michael has engineered a last-ditch gamble to yank his four human pals from the moment of their deaths, the show’s philosophical compass shifts again. Michael—whose nick-of-time saves recall Phil Connors’ effortless, all-seeing bank robbery caper in Groundhog Day—bets on the shock of a near-death experience to jump-start everyone’s moral engine. And it works. Until it doesn’t.

We’ve seen Eleanor’s sincere quest for goodness sputter in the harsh truth that selflessness usually means taking repeated body blows and nuisance lawsuits. Jason’s renewed commitment to comically overpopulated dance crew Dance Dance Resolution flags once all their genuine hard work (and decision to stop doing crime) runs up against establishment indifference. Tahani travels (comfort-plus commercial, even) to a monastery in search of non-material enlightenment, only for her months of effortful bliss to be shattered by the untimely arrival of a douche-y news bro (a funny Moshe Kasher) from Vice-esque Squalor News, reigniting her need for recognition. (Her best-seller Get Out Of The Spotlight scores her glowing blurbs from Malcolm Gladwell and Cormac McCarthy, plus an offer to be the new Oprah.) And Chidi finds his newfound decisiveness (he even manages to order his morning blueberry muffin after less than an hour’s deliberation) crushed like colleague Henry’s legs after Henry follows Chidi’s advice about seizing the day with an extremely ill-fated turn on a leg-press machine. (Plus, Chidi hears about how badly blueberry pickers are treated, and that’s a whole other thing.)

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And so Michael, waving off Janet’s warnings about being caught violating Gen’s rules for their experiment, decides that his subjects need yet another push. (Beyond, say, the one that stopped Eleanor from getting creamed by a truck advertising boner pills.) He charms his way past the suspicious Doorman (a frog-emblazoned travel mug for his morning cup of decaf antimatter helps), and, as we saw in last season’s finale, plays bartender with Eleanor. He impersonates a wise, if dodgily accented librarian with Chidi. He horrifies Tahani back to her senses as fake guru scammer Gordon Indigo, and lends a sympathetic ear to Jason as talent scout Zack Pizzazz. (Michael’s delight in everything human extends hilariously to alibis, as he later sends an introductory letter to Chidi as one Dr. Charles Brainman.) There’s no question that Michael is heading for trouble here—as obsessed with bingeing NCIS as she is, Gen is, after all, the all-wise judge of the universe. And he is, undoubtedly, violating the rules he and Gen agreed upon, all of which would be problematic enough if Bad Place boss Shaun weren’t revealed to be vindictively pursuing vengeance against the escaped humans. (Marc Evan Jackson remains the comic exemplar of clipped, bureaucratic evil. Plus he just likes sealing mouthy underlings in very slimy cocoons.) By setting the four humans on a course for each other once more, he restates to Janet that their connection is the key, and that’s, perhaps, the key to The Good Place, too.

Jameela Jamil
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

We all suck. Some way, way more than others, sure, but Chidi’s lifelong search for the true nature of human goodness eventually lands on a version of contractualism, as summed up in the title of Tim Scanlon’s oft-appearing philosophical tome What We Owe To Each Other. (And here’s to Scanlon’s royalties.) When Michael, blessedly channeling Sam Malone, asks Eleanor a version of that question, it leads her to Google, and thus to Chidi’s online lecture on the topic. Chidi’s three-hour presentation ends with the conclusion that, absent any evidence of eternal reward, we still “choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.” Still, without Michael preparing the ground, it’s unlikely in their respective stews of pain and confusion that—absent the terrifying reality of being stuck trying to save themselves from eternal torment in a candy-colored afterlife—the earthly Chidi and Eleanor would have come together to help each other this time. Humans are weak, epiphanies have a shelf life, and, without a helpful shove—whether toward each other or out of the path of a toppling golden idol of one’s too-perfect sister—we can lose the key.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

All of this theorizing about what shape, exactly, this earthbound season of The Good Place will take should not detract from what a gracefully plotted and uproarious double episode of television “Everything Is Bonzer!” is. Stripping itself of Michael’s faux paradise and its anything-goes malleability in favor of dull old Earth would seem a handicap if The Good Place’s actors weren’t so uniformly outstanding walking around in it. William Jackson Harper continues to make Chidi’s voice-of-reason asides as funny as his regular expressions of tortured ethical anguish. Manny Jacinto climbs right inside Jason’s hollowed-out, whippit-addled head and makes Jason’s peerless dim-bulb pronouncements ring with something like grace. Jameela Jamil somehow manages to make Tahani’s insufferable self-regard affectibly human, no matter how many names she drops. (She tells an interviewer that the Dalai Lama texted her to advise her that enlightenment comes from within.) And Kristen Bell remains an all-star, Eleanor’s crusty selfishness always cracking just enough to make her stubbornness admirable without ever losing sight of the fact that she once spent Christmas breaking into Charles Barkley’s house and trying on his enormous sneakers.

Manny Jacinto
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

Michael’s latest plan to bring the four together speaks to that spark of aspiration in all of these people (and whatever Michael and Janet are). When Jason’s best friend and running partner Pillboi (Eugene Cordero, as ever killing it as perhaps the only person dumber than Jason Mendoza) admiringly calls Jason (just released on bail after being caught stealing and then accidentally confessing while proposing to a female police officer) “a dreamer,” he’s right on the money. Sure, Jason’s dreams are as silly as he is, but they’re real, and, in their own way, admirable. They aspire. In the world of the Good Place as presented so far, that’s not enough, while The Good Place continues to make the case that trying to be better is worthy of . . . something. Something more than an eternity of butthole spiders, penis flatteners, scorpion diapers, and endless renditions of Shaun’s favorite song, at any rate. (Add Richard Marx to the Bad Place playlist.) After tearing down the show’s world once again at the end of last season, this season’s earthly do-over continues to kick down the doors of our expectations, and, maybe, the entire moral universe. You know, if they can’t keep track of the key.

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Stray observations

  • Oh, Bonzer.
  • The only bit of effortful world-building here is the quick retcon of why earthbound Chidi doesn’t have an accent. After a quick palaver with a French-speaking colleague, he explains to Eleanor that he grew up speaking French in Senegal but went to American schools. For more of The Good Place’s callbacks, in-jokes, and obscure references, the A.V. Club has you covered. We’re keeping a running tally of everything you might have missed here. (And we’re taking suggestions for the stuff we missed.)
  • Michael stands in for all the Chidi-Eleanor shippers out there (and right here) when he decries the arrival of utterly delightful new character and obvious Chidi soulmate candidate, Simone. Played by Barry’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Simone’s brilliant nerdy goofball scientist provides exactly the right impulsively intuitive counterpoint to Chidi’s waffling, and Eleanor’s mischievous desire to bring the two together only reinforces Janet’s point that Chidi and Eleanor’s connection has been a constant, romantic or not.
  • The capper to the episode (Adam Scott’s Trevor returning incognito to sabotage Chidi and Simone’s promising-looking project about ethics and near-death experiences) would have worked even better if his last-minute appearance weren’t spoiled a few seconds early by the scrolling end credits. That’s some Bad Place shenanigans right there.
  • Chidi, after Eleanor calls him out for not taking up Simone’s obvious invitation to a date: “It’s not impressive to guess that I’m scared, Eleanor.”
  • Eleanor advises Chidi to imagine every person in other peoples’ boring stories to be insanely hot, responding to Chidi’s unimpressed look with a helpful, “Do you not do that? You can do it for free.”
  • Eleanor doodles a burrito while Chidi teaches about Aristotle, leading her to wonder if Chipotle is pronounced “CHIP-o-tottle.”
  • Tahani gives all her designer clothes to Goodwill, by which she means Prince William, who probably knows some needy people.
  • D’Arcy Carden’s Janet doesn’t get to do much out of the gate other than worry about Jason. Although the fact that she’s taken to calling Gen and Michael “Mom” and “Dad” suggests she’s got a lot cooking inside her giant, evolving Janet-brain.
  • Michael is thrilled to get a gumball while on Earth. He does forget all about chewing it, though.
  • Chidi’s chosen muffin cart is called “We Crumb From A Land Down Under.” I accuse Megan Amram.
  • Eleanor, summing herself up to Chidi: “I’m a trashbag from Arizona, which is saying something. Our biggest exports are racist sheriffs and HPV.”
  • Janet, assessing Chidi and Simone’s potential offspring: “One of them is hot enough to be on The Bachelor, and smart enough to never go on The Bachelor.”
  • Deleting all the celebrity contacts from her phone, Tahani reveals that The Edge has a secret second phone number he doesn’t give to Bono.
  • There’s something heartbreaking when the seemingly broken Jason tells Zack Pizzazz, “I’ve had a really tough year.” Followed by something hilarious when he tells Zack, “Well, my year . . . started about a year ago.”
  • *As has been pointed out, I accidentally kept referring to “moral dessert” rather than “moral desert” in last season’s finale review. Dumb mistake, but I’m sure Chidi would say something good-naturedly cutting and then move on. Also, I don’t know what a moral dessert is, but I’m pretty sure it is not frozen yogurt.
  • We’re annotating this season’s episodes to keep straight all the running gags, visual humor, and breadcrumbs for later episodes.