[This is the first of a whole series of posts that will be going up, and will eventually be bookified. I’ve written enough of them now to know that I’m not going to just drop this series half way, as it’s basically done so it’s starting to go up now and over the next few weeks]
Welcome, everything is fine. We’re going to talk about The Good Place.
So, why talk about The Good Place?
Well, for a start, it’s quite possibly the most intelligent TV programme created in the last fifty years. Certainly it’s richer with meaning and with ideas than any other comparable US sitcom. This is a series that requires literary analysis, but all the discussion about it online so far has mostly consisted of plot synopses and recaps of the funniest lines.
Even the discussion about it that has attempted some form of analysis has been fairly trivial – it’s noted, for example, that the name of Michael is the same as that of Michael Schur, the showrunner and creator, and found some parallels between the actions of the character and the job of running a TV series.
And this is deeply unfair to the series. The Good Place is doing interesting things, in interesting ways. As we’ll see, later, there’s a lot more that can be said about the character, and the name, of Michael. It’s unfair, but it is understandable – after all, this is a series that’s pitched as a sitcom, whose showrunner is otherwise responsible for series like Parks & Recreation, The Office (US), and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Whatever one thinks of those series, they are not series that admit of much analysis on either the conceptual or the structural levels.
The Good Place is different. It is doing different things, and doing so in a different way.
Just on the most basic level, what other TV series can you remember, ever, which has as major plot points the understanding of Kierkegaard or consequentialism? I’m not talking about stories which rely on those concepts, but ones which explicitly, didactically, say “this is what this philosopher said about this issue” and give pointers for further reading. Yes, the concepts that are covered are ones which are fairly basic in modern philosophy, but they’re still far, far in advance of anything talked about in any other sitcom that I know of.
But also, The Good Place is a remarkably structured piece of work. It has the best use of cliffhangers I have ever come across – it manages, almost every episode, to come up with a cliffhanger which completely turns the whole narrative on its head, but which makes perfect sense within the overall narrative. This is a series which regularly sets up premises which lesser sitcoms could use as story engines to generate years’ worth of good material, and then throws them aside after a single episode – it’s amazingly profligate with its ideas, and there’s a casual confidence to it that only comes from people who know exactly how good they are – this is a series which is more self-assured than anything I’ve ever seen.
Remember that the idea that we see at the very start of the series – with Eleanor turning up in the Good Place by mistake and having to hide her true identity – is one that is entirely plausible as the sole premise of a long-running series. We can easily imagine a series based around the same idea lasting five or six years, with Eleanor getting trapped in increasingly implausible lies, and having to hide more and more outrageous mistakes from Michael.
Instead, by episode seven of season one, Eleanor is out to Michael as the problem he’s been hunting, and even before that we’ve seen several smaller changes of premise. So far, in fact, by the end of season two we’ve had at least six major premises for the series:
Eleanor trying to hide from discovery
Eleanor fighting to be allowed to stay in the Good Place after being discovered
Michael repeatedly rebooting Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani and trying to stop them discovering they’re really in the Bad Place
Michael working with Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani against Vicki, and trying to learn ethics while preventing Vicki from discovering they haven’t been rebooted
Michael trying to get Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani through the Bad Place to the Judge, and advocating for them to be allowed into the real Good Place
and finally (so far) our four principals being in a simulated version of reality, their minds wiped, being given another chance to prove themselves truly good.
We can be sure that season three will have at least two or three new premises as well. Compare this to, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur’s other current show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an entertaining series, and produces far more episodes per year than The Good Place does, but while the series does occasionally have a change in premise (for example Captain Holt being reassigned at the end of season two, or Holt and Perralta going into witness protection at the end of season three), those storylines are always finite and always see the status quo ante restored within a handful of episodes (the only changes that seem to stick are those involving romantic/sexual relationships, and those are fairly minor when compared with the dynamic of the series as a whole).
The Good Place goes far, far out of its way to make sure that the very possibility of a reset button does not exist – even as numerous in-story reset buttons get pushed (literally in the case of the one that reboots Janet). The closest it comes to using a reset button is at the end of season one, when all the characters get returned to the state they were at the start of the season. Even there, though, the reset button hasn’t quite been pushed – even though the characters are unaware of their predicament, we the audience are entirely aware of it, and so the experience of watching can’t possibly be the same. Now, instead of watching Eleanor and wanting her to be able to hide the fact that she’s not a good person from Michael, we know that he knows the truth, and we want Eleanor to discover again that she’s really being tortured.
The Good Place may, in fact, be the first comedy series to apply the kind of arc-based storytelling that is usual in soap opera and superhero comics, which moved to SFF TV in the 1990s, and which has recently become de rigeur in “prestige” TV dramas. But crucially, it’s doing this properly, with actual changes made in every episode. Normally, one finds that series made for binge-watching suffer from the problem of plot-blocking – each episode doles out a tiny bit of the puzzle, while having everything else spin its wheels and go nowhere. Compare, for example, the Netflix House of Cards with the British TV series on which it is based. I watched the first four seasons of that show, coming to some fifty hours of TV, and it had roughly reached the same point in the overall plot that the British series had reached halfway through its second series, a total of a little under six hours.
Compared to these plot-blocked series, The Good Place moves at a ferocious pace. Each twenty-five minute episode covers the same ground one would expect from three or four hour-long episodes of even the most compressed drama, and it manages to do so without sacrificing concerns like characterisation. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Janet, and Michael, and even more minor characters like Mindy, Vicki, or Sean, are all well enough characterised that any viewer can say what they would do in any given situation. Each has their own manner of speech and attitude towards life.
But even more than all of this, The Good Place is a series that takes ideas seriously, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.
So over the course of this series of essays, we’re going to look at The Good Place in far greater depth than anything else I’ve seen about the show. We’ll talk about the questions the series raises – questions of morality and ethics, of the nature of identity, and what we mean when we say someone is a good person. And as we do so, we’ll see that the series has a lot more to say than is initially apparent, and is examining questions that go to the heart of western culture.
So join us, and don’t worry, everything is great.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about identity…
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