But The Good Place has always been interested in doing more than just telling jokes, even if it's pretty damn great at that. A sitcom can't be said to succeed unless it's consistently funny, and if a sitcom is consistently funny it can't be said to fail. But that doesn't mean it's humorless or unfair to raise questions about other things a show offers.
And that's particularly true for The Good Place, which from day one has - with great skill - grappled with the big problems of moral philosophy and asked difficult questions about the nature of human betterment and how the motives of self-improvement affect its morality.
And the show has a very clear answer to those questions. You can pretty fairly sum up the show's philosophy with Michael's impassioned speech in the season finale:
"Because of my accidental experiment, these four humans got better. After they died. That's not supposed to be possible. Over and over again I watched as they became thoughtful and generous and caring...."
It's a good speech, and Ted Danson sells the hell out of it. It's a wonderful sentiment, beautifully expressed, and it serves as a succinct mission statement for a wonderful show.
It's also kind of bullshit.
Oh, it's not all bullshit. In fact, it's mostly true. It's true of three of the four humans Michael is talking about. Hell, it's even true of eternal Siri analogue Janet, whose character arc has been one of the show's great successes.
But it's bullshit when it comes to Jason Mendoza, the lovable dolt played with such skill by Manny Jacinto. Because to put it bluntly, Jason isn't better. He hasn't improved himself. In fact, Jason's pretty awful.
None of that is a reflection on Jacinto, who has been a revelation in the role. But there's an extent to which Jacinto's performance, which has brought a real depth of emotion to what could have been a one-note dirtbag role, has hidden his character's lack of development, and how that static characterization undermines - at least in some measure - the show's driving ethos.
To use the clickbait-y title I rejected but am not too proud to break out here, The Good Place has a Jason Mendoza problem.
Every other member of our charming foursome has, indeed, shown the improvement Michael raved about. Eleanor has taken huge strides to make herself a better person. Chidi has embraced a measure of decisiveness. Tahani has found self-awareness and (a little bit of) humility.
So it's weird that, in his big speech to the immortal Judge, Michael highlights Jason's supposed improvement, saying "And now he's so much better." It's weird because Jason isn't better.
Jason's the same guy he's been since his true nature was revealed in the first season. And that's a guy who - in his pre-rigor mortis days - would:
- Chuck empty spray paint cans at flamingos
- Sell fake drugs to college students
- Exhibit entirely too much passion for Molotov cocktails
- Get himself killed trying to commit robbery
Of course, you could put together a similar list for Eleanor, who made her living telemarketing fake pharmaceuticals to senior citizens. The difference is that we've seen Eleanor evolve over the course of two seasons - above all else, we've seen her grow to regret her life and her decisions and to recognize her moral failings. We've seen her try to become a better person.
Can we say that about Jason? I don't see how. He's positively proud of the flamingo assault ("When I was six, I hit one right on the butt!"). In "Rhonda, Diana, Jake and Trent," which saw the group briefly invade the actual Bad Place, Jason doesn't just get along with the demons he and Chidi have to interact with - he gleefully bonds with them, connecting in a way that's too earnest for the largely guileless Jason to fake.
Jason is not a more thoughtful character than he was when we first met him. He's not a kinder person than he was when we first met him. He is fundamentally unchanged from the person he was when the series starts.
What we've heard about Jason's life, and what we've seen of him in the afterlife, doesn't paint the picture of evil or even maliciousness. But there's no great normative benefit to hurting people through thoughtlessness.
This isn't just complaining about a fictional character's personality flaws - these flaws speak directly to the theme of the show. It doesn't necessarily undermine the idea at the heart of The Good Place to say that Jason has never improved as a person - three out of four ain't bad, after all. But when your North Star is the concept of betterment, of self-improvement and the power of human connection to spur positive changes in our lives, you need to at least grapple with the reality that a quarter of your data set doesn't fit the narrative.
Or, at the very least, your characters shouldn't act as though Jason's improvement is a self-evident thing. There's simply a huge dissonance between The Good Place's conception of Jason and the reality of the character as shown on-screen.
This particular failure isn't fatal - even great shows have flaws, and The Good Place is undeniably a great show. But Jason's static characterization stands out - not just because every other element of The Good Place is so well done, but because character development is an intrinsic part of the show's DNA. It's arguably what the show is about, in a fundamental sense.
The Good Place has earned the trust of its viewers - it has surmounted every hurdle that its premise and narrative would seem to suggest. If, two seasons in, the worst thing we can say about it is that one character is more a well-acted amusement than a dynamic human being, that speaks volumes about the show's quality.
Still, as we look forward to a much-deserved third season, the big outstanding question for The Good Place isn't narrative in nature - we know Schur and company will handle that part fine. Instead, the big question is how - and if - the show will be able to reconcile its perception of Jason with the reality of the character.