The Good Place

The Good Place is, for a US network TV series, a remarkably daring piece of work, but to explain why will require HONKING GREAT SPOILERS. I’M NOT KIDDING, YOU KNOW I DON’T NORMALLY CARE ABOUT SPOILERS BUT THIS TIME I DO

I’m actually going to put a big picture in so those of us who read fast won’t read the rest by accident.

Still here? Good. For those who don’t know, The Good Place is a US half-hour network sitcom that first aired last year, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Its second season started a couple of weeks ago, and Netflix got the streaming rights for the UK, putting the whole first series online at the same time as the first episode of season two, which is currently being added every Friday.

The first episode sets up a premise that has near-infinite potential. Eleanor Shelstrop is a bad person who has died and been sent to what is always referred to as “the Good Place” by mistake. The angel in charge of her case, Michael, has mistaken her for someone else of the same name, and now she’s in a small village of three hundred people — one of many such villages, full of monks, humanitarians, people who gave their lives to save others, and just generally the most morally good people there are.

Her being there and behaving like herself causes things to go wrong, though — she’s like grit in the clockwork, and when flying shrimp and giraffes start causing havoc, she realises that she can’t continue to stay in the Good Place as she is. But if she’s found out, she’ll go to the Bad Place, which would mean being tortured for eternity.

She confides in Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics, who agrees to teach her how to be a good person, but of course she keeps making mistakes.

And this, in itself, is the premise of a series that could run for years — you’ve got an indefnite story engine in Eleanor trying to keep her true identity from Michael, and along with that you’ve got the “professor in the afterlife trying to teach a bad person to be good” plot and comedy hook that worked so well for the first few series of Old Harry’s Game. The comedy isn’t the funniest thing ever, but there’s at least a couple of genuine laughs per episode, and as Rick & Morty has also been showing, the half-hour sitcom format is a good container for imaginative SFF, which this definitely is.

The cast is great (and diverse — the protagonist is bi, and the other three main human characters are a British-Pakistani woman, a black man from Senegal, and a Filipino man. Other than Danson there are almost no white men in anything other than bit parts or guest roles) and the series could easily continue with Eleanor learning her lessons for ten seasons or so.

Apart from one thing that bothered me as I watched the first few episodes. You see, the characters here are all meant to be moral exemplars — Tahani Al-Jamil, for example, raised sixty billion dollars for charity — but they know for sure that Hell really exists, that there is an infinite amount of suffering there, and that the vast majority of humanity go there. Any *remotely* decent human being would, on arrival in the Good Place, immediately decide to devote the whole of their infinite existence to the destruction of any system that allowed such inconceivable horrors, not sit around eating frozen yoghurt and hosting extravagant parties, as the people of the Good Place do.

Now, this would be OK as just a game-rule of the show — fair enough, the rules of the programme say there has to be a hell, but don’t poke too closely at the characters’ reactions. At some point *all* TV programmes have a point where you have to do this, and that’s just something you have to accept, unless you want to end up saying “but that’s not even the real Latin name for a road runner! You know, I think this cartoon may be lying to us!”

But the series seems to just sort of… keep *poking* at it. Chidi’s ethics lectures to Eleanor actually deal with some real, serious, issues of moral philosophy and ethics, and give at least a broadly correct overview of the major positions held by different philosophers. Not an in-depth one — this is, after all, a half-hour sitcom with fart jokes and will-they-won’t-they romances to get in — but it clearly takes the issue of ethics and morality seriously enough that it expects the viewer to as well. And yet this aspect was never brought up.

After about four episodes I started seeing this as a major flaw in the series, and trying to figure out ways they could improve it, because as it was one had to either see the sympathetic characters as monstrous or ignore the ethics that the show clearly thinks is important. And I figured out one way round the problem, but thought “they can’t possibly do that, because that would completely break the story engine they’ve got, and no TV writer is so profligate with ideas that they’ll smash a story engine”.

So in the first season finale they did exactly that. They did what I thought would be too daring for them to do, and stated that the Good Place we’d seen all season is really the Bad Place, that almost all the human characters are really demons there to torture our human principals, and that there was no-one good in the whole programme. Then they wiped the characters’ minds and started the whole thing over.

So the second series, currently airing, has what amounts to a totally different premise — can our major characters realise they’re really in Hell without alerting the demons that they know, can they keep their memories, and can they somehow escape from the Bad Place and make it to the real Good Place. What was a slightly-more-imaginative-than-average sitcom has now become The Prisoner meets Old Harry’s Game (and Danson’s performance as Michael, which I thought was far better than I expected from him when I thought he was playing an angel, having only previously seen him in Cheers where I wasn’t impressed by him, is astonishing once you realise he’s playing a demon playing an angel. One of the best TV acting jobs I’ve seen in recent years).

This is now a series that has already pulled the rug from under its viewers once in a major way, and has burned through a good premise for an ongoing series and turned it into a magnificent premise for a definitely-finite series. It’s rare that you can say of a series that you don’t know what kind of thing it’s going to do next, but here I truly don’t know, a third of the way through season two, what on Earth the show will even be by the end of the season.

I can’t recommend this enough, with one caveat — which is that there are three occasions in the series so far where bad things happen to dogs. It’s all cartoony and completely unrealistic, but I do know some people who will want a warning anyway (though there’s nothing that will traumatise anyone if they’re prepared, and it shouldn’t put you off watching).

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15 Responses to The Good Place

  1. misssbgmail says:

    Awwwwwww man. Right up until the last paragraph I was thinking “Oooh I could watch this!”
    Curse my inability to watch bad things happening to dogs :(

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s you I was specifically thinking of with that warning (though I know another couple of people who’d appreciate it). I’m pretty sure you’d be OK with it, because it’s *very* cartoony in those sequences — more on the level of something that would happen in a Tom & Jerry cartoon than anything remotely realistic — but I’d not want you to watch on a bad day without being aware of the possibility.

      But yeah, ultra-high-concept version of this for you would be “if Thomas from Old Harry’s Game was a bi woman trapped in the Village”

  2. MattM says:

    To me, the real genius of the show goes further than that—the first season finale reveals the show to ultimately be about the difficulty of creating the American sitcom. After all, what is a sitcom but people who ostensibly like/love each other torturing each other endlessly, week after week, for eternity?

    It’s no coincidence that the ‘architect’ is named “Michael.”

    • prankster36 says:

      Yes! There’s definitely a meta-commentary going on here, also factoring in the way most sitcoms are set in cozy, idyllic settings that mask an awful lot of pent-up aggression. And of course the literal “reset button”.

  3. prankster36 says:

    The sense of the show constantly backing itself into a narrative corner and then busting out of it in daring ways, such that it becomes impossible to figure out exactly what it’s going to be going forward, really is impressive. A lot of “serious” drama and genre shows have attempted this and I don’t think any of them have pulled it off so well (though Good Place benefits from being a sitcom, so no one was really expecting it to pull such a hard left turn anyway)

    I do start to worry that they can’t keep it up, though. The whole second season so far has been one radical shift after another, and though it’s all been logical and elegant so far it could eventually become exhausting. That’s also taking into account the natural limitations of the premise–they can’t *actually* leave The Good Place (aside from their jaunts to The Medium Place, that is) or the show is effectively over, and while “trying to maintain a facade of being dupes” could definitely keep the show going for a while, I don’t think they can stretch that out for too much longer.

    I do have some theories about where they might be going, and Andrew’s point about the fundamental moral problems with a “heaven” that exists knowing eternal torture and suffering are going on elsewhere raises a lot of possibilities. I’m of the opinion that the show introduced us to a pretty cliched idea of “heaven” on purpose and that we’re slowly going to learn the afterlife is radically different than we thought it was. Even Michael, I suspect, is unaware of what’s really going on…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, they definitely *HAVE* to be heading towards a close. I think they can probably squeeze one more season out after this one, but certainly no more than that.
      (Of course, I’d love to be proved wrong and have this somehow manage to outlast the Simpsons while still doing “everything you thought you knew was wrong” about every third episode, but I can’t see any way that could happen. Right now this seems like it has to be finite in the same way The Prisoner does).

      • prankster36 says:

        This being an American sitcom on a major network, they must have more than 3 seasons planned; while it’s technically possible, it would be extremely unusual. Add to that the fact that it’s apparently a ratings success and it’s hard to imagine ABC agreeing to let it go off the air so soon. American TV has become more open to the idea of letting their shows come to a natural conclusion, but never so quickly when the show is a hit. To use similar examples, Breaking Bad, which came with an obvious expiry date built in, lasted 5 seasons (the last being drawn-out by being split into 2); Lost, which had to negotiate with the network for a planned ending, ran 6 seasons and was definitely padded in the middle.

        So they must have more twists and turns planned. Again, they’re going to have to strike a balance between constantly blowing things up and finding a relatively steady premise that lets the actual story and themes develop, but there must be more paradigm shifts on the way. My money, personally, is on “zooming out” to learn more about the afterlife and the idea that there’s much more to it than any of the characters expect (remember, in the very first scene, Michael essentially said as much). The trick is that they’re going to have to do this while serving the needs of a sitcom and indeed commenting on the inherent limitations of the sitcom format–so they can’t simply have the characters run off to a new location, or switch genres, or something. Furthermore, some of the rather ambitious ideas that could probably sustain multiple seasons–like, I don’t know, Armageddon or a second Harrowing of Hell–seem extremely, uh, out of place on a fairly light-hearted sitcom, even one that’s delved into waters as deep as this one has. (Though now that I’ve brought it up I wonder if they might do *something* like this in their own distinctively goofy fashion…)

        I legitimately have no idea how they’re going to walk this tightrope, but I do trust this team (based both on their past work and how well the show’s been handled before) to at least have a plan in place, whether it ultimately works or not.

        • prankster36 says:

          It’s also worth noting that one of the main writers of this show, Drew Goddard, is the co-writer and director of the movie The Cabin In The Woods, which in a way may be both the antithesis (in the Marxist sense) and the thematic companion of this show.

          Wow, that sounded pretentious.

  4. Sass says:

    I started having problems with the first-season “flaw” about the same time as you did, but guessed at a different resolution. I thought we were going to find out that all 320 people were there by mistake and that the mechanics of the afterlife universe were somehow breaking down. I got so into that idea that the actual denouement completely blew me away.

  5. LondonKdS says:

    Danson was also very good in a villainous role in the series Damages, as a corrupt, unthinkingly privileged and destructive, weak-willed, bad-tempered millionaire. He was particularly good in the second season, in which his plot arc was a very funny parody and demolition of “redemption narratives” in which sexy white male characters who have done truly monstrous things can be “redeemed” without actually doing anything to atone or make restitution for their crimes, if they just act slightly more nicely to people and sometimes fight on the side of good if it isn’t inconvenient to them. (I don’t recommend the show though, thanks to its horrifically misogynistic final season and ending.)

    On the other hand, talking about The Good Place has the same problem that I experienced years ago with The Sixth Sense. That is, once you know the basic concept of the work, stating that there is a massive twist that must be avoided will cause anyone with moderate intelligence to guess it, because once you know there’s a massive twist it’s obvious what it’s likely to be.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah. I tried to make sure that I didn’t say that there was a twist in my spoiler warning, only that there would be spoilers, but it’s *VERY* difficult when you get things like that. Another example is Phil Purser-Hallard’s Devices trilogy — he spoilered the first book’s twist with the second book’s title, but until that was announced I had *great* difficulty talking about the first book because the twist is so very good.

  6. What if the eventual series end is Hell is gradually being harrowed to save even the devils (like Michael) and that our human are deep cover angels, or preferable bodhisattvas humans enlightened enough to resubmit to darkness to help others.

    Simon “loving the Good Place” BJ

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, that would work.

    • prankster36 says:

      While I think revealing that all the main characters have secret identities would arguably undermine a lot of the show (Lost used to pull this kind of thing to point where the characters and themes became incoherent), I *do* think they’re aiming for something along those lines, with a possible influence being C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Certainly I suspect something’s working behind the scenes to help the heroes and that even Michael doesn’t really know what’s going on.

  7. Simon Bucher-Jones says:

    Provided they don’t reveal everyone isn’t dead, but in a tank, on the way to Mars, I think we can be heartened that any further reveals will be as well done as the end of season 1.

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