Can a TV show make you a better person? The good place, an NBC sitcom from the same team as Parks and recreation and Brooklyn 99definitely try. The high-concept comedy is now done (completed, not canceled) after four seasons, and it̵
The elevator parking space for The good place is: what if someone accidentally went to heaven? But it’s much more than that. The show begins as an introductory course in ethics and philosophy, its middle section is an exploration of how these lessons can be applied in real life, and ends as a meditation on the nature of death. And because it’s entertainment too, it’s all set to a fun sitcom beat with a camera.
Near-perfect comedy performances, a setting that allows for fresh humor and observation, and a surprisingly sane heart The good place one of the best shows in the last 10 years. It’s also incredibly timely, although it probably wasn’t meant to be – the lessons the characters take home are perfect uses for an increasingly angry and divided world. To miss this would be a mortal sin.
The bait: trouble in paradise
The good placeWe start with Eleanor (Kristen Bell from Frozen and Veronica Mars) Arrival in the afterlife, greeted by Michael, a technically not angelic angel (Ted Danson, cheers). She said that her life of charity and humanity earned her a place in the Good Place, an amalgamation of skies from different religions in the shape of an idyllic neighborhood (the often used Little Europe ticket at Universal Studios).
He tells her that as one of the best people who ever lived, she is destined to spend eternity in a perfect paradise, along with about a hundred other wonderful people and a perfectly chosen soulmate. The only problem is that the life he described her life is not hers: she is an “Arizona trash bag” who molested her friends and family for 30 years and is generally a selfish ass. If there is (and there is) a bad place, she knows she should be there.
Eleanor, with the help of her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, The Electric Company, The Breaks) who was conveniently a professor of philosophy and ethics in life. Chidi tries to help Eleanor transform from a trash bag into a person who is actually good enough for the Good Place before anyone finds out.
In the first season we also get to know Tahani (Jameela Jamil in her first acting role), a former British celebrity, and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto, The Romeo Section), of whom we are told that he is a monk who also takes a vow of silence in the hereafter. In addition to Michael’s ongoing presence as the well-meaning but clumsy “architect” of Heaven, we also spend a lot of time with Janet (D’Arcy Carden, Broad city), an almost omnipotent helper who is halfway between the enterprise computer and GPS from Ocarina of Time. (Eleanor calls her “Busty Alexa”.)
Season one is all about exploring both the Good Place, with its unique structure and rules, and the characters who are unique but uniformly goofy and familiar to fans of the creator Michael Schumer. Jokes and cultural references come at a breakneck pace, but help to flesh out both the characters as they are and the life they lived before they died. Michael and Janet are perennial comedy mines thanks to their otherworldly perspective and skills. A sequence in which the gang has to “restart” Janet while insincere pleading for her humanoid life. “Are you sure you want it?” Pop-up is one of the funniest parts I’ve ever seen.
Season one ends with a shocking cliffhanger, but it’s so well set up that eagle-eye watchers may have figured it out by now. The rest of the series continues to delve into the cosmology of the Beyond the New Age as the gang seeks to solve deep-seated problems of life and death.
The counter: There will be a quiz
The first episodes and most of the rest of the series are generally structured according to a lesson from basic ethics and moral philosophy. The second season, in which the famous trolley problem is dealt with in detail and in depth, is a highlight. The lessons are basic and are usually delivered by Chidi to the characters who are more or less idiots – they’re kind of a philosophical equivalent of the old “Knowledge Is Half the Battle” segments from GI Joe.
These lessons are as simple as they are, and help round out both the characters and the broader themes of the show: exploring what makes a good person good and a bad person bad, and how to move from the latter to the former. I would like to point out that this ongoing discussion is fairly neutral. It is made clear that this is about philosophy, not theology tied to any religion or culture.
Of course, most sitcoms have something similar. The moral game is an everlasting structure, and the lessons Chidi (or sometimes spontaneously learned from Eleanor, Jianyu, Tahani, and finally Michael) are not much different from, for example, a concluding monologue in Peels. But in the much more immediate context of a real (fictional) heaven and hell, they are immediately framed and realizable for both characters in their current arc and the viewer in our daily life. And thanks to the limited scope – just over 50 episodes in four seasons – the characters really apply those lessons, moving from one day to the next.
It’s a pretty rare comedy that obviously prompts you to think about how its situations can be applied to your own. It’s an even rarer one that actually makes you want to do it. And if I don’t emphasize this enough: The good place manages to do this while remaining fun throughout.
The Closer: Everyone dies, you know
There are plenty of twists and turns in the second half of that could potentially spoil The good placeand it would be a shame to do so. Suffice it to say, however, that the final season is less about learning the lessons of a good life than it is about accepting an inevitable death. It’s sobering and contemplative, just as American comedy almost never tries.
As much as the show has explicitly avoided religious themes up to this point, it’s difficult not to see season four as a modern attempt at a manufactured religion. The writers are almost saying, “We don’t believe in real heaven … but if we did, this would be what we want and believe would actually work.” This is interesting because media that includes a fictional portrayal of paradise after death rarely stop thinking about the problems it would cause or the solutions it would need.
The show is not without its low points. As short as it is, it could be shorter: I think it could have combined the last two seasons into one without losing a stroke. And as is the style of comedy, the characters eventually lean on their own personalities, amplifying their quirks to the point where they border on anger. That’s fine for the smaller parts – Maya Rudolph and Jason Mantzoukas both have memorably wacky guest appearances – but it can wear off for the main cast.
The good place also has a bad habit (and this is where I’m breaking the spoiler’s limit) of very literally erasing the progress some of his characters are making. It’s a crutch that the writers lean on more than once to take the plot to a specific location in the show’s very strange universe. Ultimately, it’s all ironed out, as The Good Place has essentially no-nonsense magic, but it’s no less boring to watch the characters relearn important lessons, even if there is a justification for the story.
That means: the ending is incredible. It’s refreshing to see a show tell its story and end without wanting to do more – another extreme rarity on American television of a genre. When the credits rolled in for the final episode, I was sad that I couldn’t spend any more time with these characters, but wonderfully pleased with the time I was doing.
It felt a lot like a good funeral, in a way that is totally intentional. The good place did everything he set out to do and better let his audience do it.