What can I say about The Good Place that a thousand others haven’t already?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to gain the traction that it has, but I’m charmed nonetheless. The Good Place has almost become a water cooler show like Game of Thrones or The Office just in terms of its sheer popularity. Everyone, it seems, watches this show. It’s an odd choice for it, because while the premise of the first season is straightforward with a bit of a ridiculous twist at the end, from there, the show dives headfirst into the strangest episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek, while firmly planting its foot in the sandbox of academic ethics. It’s a peculiar little show.
Fitting this theme, it is also rather short. While its twelve-episode seasons are on the long end of series these days, it has decided to go out with seemingly every other television show on-air this year and end with only four seasons. From the state of the fourth season so far (not terrible by any means, but clearly losing steam in some vital places), that’s probably not a bad thing.
However, the legacy of the show is destined to be a curious one, and therefore I think it’s worth explaining my early dismissal of the series in its first season.
3P Reviews: The Good Place, Season One – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Infinite Chaos
Americans have a rich tradition of clinging to strict binaries for nebulous reasons. We are a simple folk who cannot accept that the dress is both white and gold and blue and black. It has to be one way or the other, and we will fight everyone to support our side. It’s not a great strategy of governance, to be honest. People died.
Anyway, foremost among these is the Heaven/Hell dichotomy, the latter part of which we have a particular fondness for. As it turns out, freedom from religious tyranny tends to bring over some odd opinions on the matter, and if you thought Enlightenment-era Protestantism was a bit stringent, whoa boy, wait until you delve into the American Puritan sect circa 1700. I don’t mean to demean anyone with fringe religious values (unless you use them to hurt people — in that case, you waive all rights to be made fun of), but we’ve had a lot of Bible-thumping advocates wandering about for the past few hundred years. The consequence of this is that while the U.S. is a patchwork of many different beliefs, we have ended up with a bit of a fascination with Hell.
See, the thing is, when you have a lot of severe religious leaders talking about how you have to only eat hand-milled wheat and, I don’t know, wear bonnets, or else you’ll be greeted with fire and spiders for eternity, that tends to invite a fascination with punishment over reward. Either you have artists who are genuinely terrified of going to Hell and want to promote the word for religious reasons, or you have the rebellious artists who paid attention at Sunday School, but only to the bits about the animals and all the creative ways you can be ironically punished.
This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the U.S. (a lot of people still forget that Dante wrote more than the Inferno), but it’s especially pervasive here. The art of a largely religious culture tends to reflect the parts of that religion that orators focus on. For some, it’s the great variety of deities. For others, it’s the myths, or abstract religious concepts, or people upholding the religion’s values. We happened to get fire and spiders. And now we have television shows where Lucifer helps solve crimes and video games about fighting Mars demons. Do you see any cooking shows called Heaven’s Kitchen where Gordon Ramsey goes around shouting praise at people for trying their best? No, no you do not.
So yes, you can thank the Puritans for The Good Place. I’m sure they would be thrilled.
Because while the bulk of the first season takes place in an idyllic magical suburb, the main thrust of the show is a desire to avoid eternal punishment. Hell looms over the characters throughout the series, particularly its protagonist, and while they all seek happiness as a concept, it’s upset at being unfairly punished that is the far more powerful motivator.
Part Two: Fun With Ethics
The premise of The Good Place doesn’t stray far from the basic gist of “people want to get to Heaven, avoid Hell.” Eleanor Shelstrop wakes up dead and is told by a man named Michael how the afterlife works. While not specifically denominational, there is a Heaven-like Good Place and a Hell-like Bad Place that more or less conform to the expectations of Abrahamic religions, at least on an aesthetic level. Every action in a person’s life accumulates points based on whether it produced a net gain of goodness or badness, and if a person has enough points, they get sent to the Good Place. Like a typical weed-out college course, the vast majority of people do not make the cut and are eternally punished because they bought too many avocados in their time on earth.
But Eleanor doesn’t have to worry about that, because she’s one of the exceptional individuals who got into the Good Place. Michael reveals himself to be a Good Place Architect who designed and built the neighborhood she and a few hundred other people are to live in for the rest of eternity. As one might expect, it’s a lovely place, with plenty of frozen yogurt shops, supernaturally fun activities, houses customized to their inhabitant’s tastes, and soul mates.
Here’s the thing: Eleanor has been mistaken for someone else and most certainly does not belong here. She’s not a murderer or anything, but she is the sort of petty asshole who trips people in the grocery store for perceived slights and scams old people into buying “vitamins” for her primary income.
She is certainly not the sort of person who would be content in a world where she has to pretend to be nice to everyone and lives in a tiny house full of clowns, for instance.
She tells her assigned soulmate, Chidi, almost immediately. Being a nervous (yet oddly ripped) ethics professor, Chidi is none too happy about his new ethical dilemma. If he rats on Eleanor, he dooms her to eternal suffering, but if he helps her stay hidden, her bad behavior will make paradise miserable for everyone else. What’s more, the world around them starts to deteriorate to reflect Eleanor’s rude behavior; when she steals shrimp at a welcome party and calls her neighbor a giraffe behind her back, giant shrimp fly through the sky and giraffes rampage down the street. Michael, understandably confused, blamed himself for the problems, and Eleanor is terrified of being found out.
The solution, Chidi decides, is that he will make Eleanor a better person by teaching her ethics. Over the course of the first season, Chidi and Eleanor build up a relationship while Eleanor learns different philosophical concepts pertaining to ethics and Michael tries to find out what’s causing his perfect world to deteriorate into chaos. As the season develops, the characters learn more about this world and the people who inhabit it, such as Tahani al-Jamil, a name-dropping billionaire heiress who lives in a mansion next to Eleanor; Jian Yu, a Taiwanese monk who never speaks and turns out to be a Jacksonville DJ named Jason Mendoza; and Janet, a human Siri.
The season is standard for how one might expect a series like this to go: Eleanor gets closer and closer to discovery, causing undue chaos, but when someone else is at risk of taking the blame, her better self owns up and she confesses to not belonging. Bad Place representatives arrive and Michael decides to try to delay them to save Eleanor. While arguing about who they must send to the Bad Place, Eleanor figures it can’t be much worse than what she’s been through in the Good Place, which is when, at the last moment of the first season, she realizes they’ve all been in the Bad Place all along.
Part Three: Medium People
I’m not honestly sure why I picked up this series initially. I had the first season available and I didn’t know it was well-regarded, and the plot summary didn’t appeal to me, but I suppose I needed something to watch. The first episode sold me on its absurdist humor within a few minutes. Michael has a picture of a very plain looking person on the wall of his office, and while explaining how the universe works, he claims that all of the major religions predicted a little bit about how the actual system works, except for Doug Forsett, a Canadian teenager who once got high and guessed at random almost all of the Good Place/Bad Place system. That’s the kind of joke I’m here for, and it largely intensifies with each new season.
The rest of the first season, though, is a bit of a slog. It’s still funny, and the characters come to grow on you once you understand their motivations. As the introduction to the characters and world, the first season is necessarily slow. It also takes some time for the series to make its six protagonists clear, as Jason, Tahani, and Janet all seem like they’re there to simply flesh out the world. The plotting is very predictable, at least for the first season, and its aesthetic frequently makes bizarre choices. I very nearly stopped watching after the end of the first episode because the chaos sequence was littered with cartoonishly terrible CGI. Plenty of jokes, like how terrible the Bad Place personnel are, also fall flat. The best elements of the show have a lot of heavy lifting to do to keep the series afloat, and the first season ending with a rote plot twist and Michael’s painfully fake laugh did little to reassure me.
To be completely honest, all of these complaints are why I’m having a hard time loving this final season. However, I was wrong about the show on the whole, and something that has become clear since watching the second and third seasons (which go immediately off the rails in just the way I love) is that this is a series we kind of need right now.
Where many TV dramas are pushing for awards recognition and genre series are trying to reap what they can of nostalgia before it withers, new comedies are struggling a bit. Sometimes you get a drama or genre show with a bit of humor built in, or rare delights like Schitt’s Creek, but the overwhelming trend in the comedy sector is irreverence and reality. Even in cartoons, there is seldom a middle ground between humorous programming almost exclusively for children and South Park-style immaturity. You’ll find just as many stand-up comedians on Netflix as actual comedy shows, and most of the popular ones concluded ten years ago or more. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s gotten more pronounced over the years.
The Good Place is not for children, but nor is it really inappropriate for them either. It has dark jokes every so often, but they lean far to the softer side of things. It’s bright, it’s happy, and it breaks down complex philosophical subjects into manageable bites, displaying an honesty you rarely see in any show these days, much less comedies. This could have so easily been a cheap cash grab of a show full of Friends references and characters who never learn and catch phrases and a laugh track, but it’s not. I won’t say it never does any of those things, but they’re not at its core.
The Good Place has a deep reverence for what it’s built. Its pop culture references often don’t have that familiar hollow ring, nor do its rote plot developments fall into place with all of the other series that have gone in similar directions. Part of this is that the show pursues its tracks as far as they’ll go. While the whole series is a wild ride from start to finish, it reconnects to its past often enough to remain a cohesive world. Bit-part characters from the first season have cameos in the others, and the idea that the world can be reset and characters’ minds wiped is part of the stakes. Admittedly, later seasons seem to have a better handle on this than the first, but re-watching it, I’ve found it to have its own charms.
For instance, the gray morality of the system becomes a lot more apparent when you realize this show holds that as one of its core themes. On a surface level, the characters are simply trying to come up with a solution to a problem: how to keep Eleanor hidden. The same plot could come about from, say, a character being accidentally admitted into a school or job they’re underqualified for. But not only is the Good Place a very particular — very suburban — vision of paradise, the idea that eternal punishment is the only alternative and that lesser assholes get grouped with actual monsters precludes any sense of balance. What’s more, all of the human characters being punished are tied to the people around them. They make bad decisions, but many of these decisions cannot be completely decoupled from the actions of others. Eleanor is arguably the most vicious of the group, but her family was a bit of a mess and raised her to be selfishing for her own survival. Tahani is vain and proud, but her ills frequently stem from her parents showing obvious favoritism to her sister. Jason is a complete numpty who grew up impoverished and never learned right from wrong in the first place, much less which one he should strive for. And Chidi, being the one best suited to deal with the problem as the only one aware of it, is so daunted by the task of being a basically good person that he has chronic indecision and anxiety about it.
The Good Place is a light little entertaining comedy of a piece with Pushing Daisies, and as the latter deals with topics like death and grief, The Good Place deals with morality and the systemic issues with the basic moral system most narratives embody. I wish more series took serious topics to heart without assuming them to be inherently engaging, but at least The Good Place stands as a positive example.