“What do we owe to each other?” This line, adapted from philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s book, has been the central question of Michael Schur’s delightful NBC comedy “The Good Place.” Over the course of two seasons, viewers have been treated to the continual edification of Arizona “trash bag” Eleanor (Kristen Bell), materialistic socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), indecisive moral philosopher Chidi (William Jackson Harper), benign dummy Jason (Manny Jacinto) and reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson).
From the game-changing season one finale onward, the hand of “The Good Place” has been perpetually hovering over the reset button. Time and again, we have seen the show restart from scratch with the confidence that the compatibility of its main characters will reemerge in each reboot. What began as a light screwball comedy about four flawed humans navigating an afterlife designated for good people slowly revealed itself to be a meditation on our ability for moral improvement. In its highly anticipated season three premiere last week, “The Good Place” remains as charming and smart as ever, full of delightful details like an Australian muffin cart called “We Crumb From A Land Down Under” and a joke about claustrophobia being a fear of Santa Claus.
The hour-long premiere is grounded in a literal sense, as the four humans receive a second chance at life on Earth in an alternate timeline. All rattled by a near-death encounter, each sets off on a journey of self-growth. Yet, their progress is soon deterred. Old habits die hard. Michael realizes the four will not be able to achieve redemption alone, and steps in to play matchmaking fairy godmother under the guises of a bartender, a librarian, Zach Pizzazz and Gordon Indigo. The quartet is reunited by the end of the hour.
In his since-discarded thesis, Chidi argued that “we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people.” These same bonds — when strained — can prompt people to make bad choices. The new Amazon Prime dramedy “Forever” feels like an expansion of the question posed by “The Good Place.” Creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard, both alums of Schur’s “Parks and Recreation,” explore the tensions that can arise from our most treasured relationships. The focus of the show is the marriage between an upper middle class couple, June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen). She works at a timeshare company, he’s a dentist. The pilot kicks off with a montage of their relationship: a meet-cute and proposal culminate in Oscar serving his signature plate of trout to June again and again and again on their annual lake house vacations. A numbing sense of repetition instills a darkness underneath the orange-tinted California landscape. Everything seems so very sterile and humdrum in contrast to June’s vibrant persona. Oscar’s brand of passivity and affinity for crosswords seems more compatible with a “Portlandia” character. June’s marriage with Oscar feels like an impediment.
A la “The Good Place,” the world of “Forever” is not what you first expect. In the pilot, June breaks their lake-house tradition in favor of a ski resort trip that goes awry. By the end of the second episode — spoiler alert! — June and Oscar have both died and are reunited in a place called Riverside. Unlike Schur’s comedy, where time passes inconsequentially, the presence of time is undeniable in Yang and Hubbard’s creation. The title itself is connotative of time. Even when years in the afterlife begin to blur together, the passage of time is felt in the mundanity of life. Comedy is placed on the back burner, allowing a sense of wistfulness to pervade instead. Oscar and June experience growing together and growing apart in a dual sense. Aside from depicting their union and separation, the show catalogs how Oscar and June as individuals evolve on a personal level with and without one another. If you vow ’til death do you part, must you stay together in death?
The intended message of “Forever” is murky and wavers at times, but it is clear that the connections humans build are essential for growth. Its sixth episode “Andre and Sarah” is the standout of the bunch and is a standalone story. Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau) are star-crossed realtors whose story bears no true weight on the overall narrative. From the afterlife, June is a spectator to how their relationship pans out over decades. If you watch only one episode of “Forever,” let this be the one. This singular episode forms a beautiful diorama on the sustainability of marriage and the interference of circumstance, summing up the moral of the series in 35 minutes.
Although irony tends to reign supreme in the media landscape, “Forever” and “The Good Place” do not shy away from intimacy and the comfort of lived-in relationships. Rather, they imply that such relationships are fundamental for maturation. We owe it to each other to be open-minded. In this contrast to our current national climate, both shows offer a form of escapism. The belief that the potential for goodness exists in all of us underscores both. Not even mortality limits our capacity for betterment. Notably, with comedy as its medium of choice, neither are pedantic or smug in their approach.
The first season of “Forever” is available on Amazon Prime. “The Good Place” airs Thursdays on NBC.