What more can be said about The Good Place at this point?
Entertainment Weekly has said that though nothing is perfect, “The Good Place comes close.” New York Magazine said has praised the writing and world-building, which “is taken to another level by its cast.” And the AV Club has celebrated its complex nature as a “supernatural mystery combined with a small-town comedy and a philosophical morality play.” Is it really all that good?
Yeah. Yeah it is.
Storytelling is a complicated thing that can be hard to balance. On the one hand, you need to be able to put together an intriguing enough premise that people will stick around for, especially on network television. Just think about some of the most highly praised shows of the past decade that have popped up on channels like NBC and ABC.
The Office was a workplace comedy that operated under the conceit that it was some kind of office place documentary. How I Met Your Mother teased fans for nine years about who “the mother” might be and how Ted Mosby ended up marrying her. Tina Fey’s 30 Rock pretended to take the audience into the NBC studios to show what it was like producing an SNL-like comedy while featuring clashes between writers, actors, and producers.
All of those shows decided to break away from the traditional family sitcom setup that had become a constant stagnant feature of TV comedy. The Good Place does something similar, but with the wildest setup possible. In this show, the featured characters are all dead and living in a bizarre version of Heaven. What might seem like a preachy setup becomes immediately intriguing because most people identify Heaven as a place where ‘good’ people go, and yet the characters we’re presented with are all terrible people in their own ways. So what’s the deal?
That question, how such awful people could end up in Heaven, becomes the premise of season 1. Creator Mike Schur puts forward a moderately interesting premise that becomes far more intriguing because it forces the audience to ask, “Just how did these people get to Heaven, anyway?” The sense that something is ‘off’ builds through the first season, actually creating a season long mystery that entices the audience to stick around for the every episode. Then, at the end of the season, it discards its premise almost entirely in favor of another. It then repeats the same adoption of a new premise for season three and four, all while retaining its powerful central cast.
The idea of a seasonally changing premise would grow tiring and potentially grating if the show wasn’t constantly working within the bounds of its established lore and maintaining a tight focus on its cast of characters. At the center of the show is Eleanor, a deceased disaster of a woman who spent her life selfishly pushing away others while living for only the most shallow goals in life. Her opposite counterpart is Chidi, a young man so obsessed with living an ethically good life that he actually ends up never making a good decision . . . because he so rarely makes any decision at all.
Joining these two in the afterlife are Tahani and Jason. Tahani was a wealthy socialite while alive and, almost too obviously, looked down on anyone who had to money. Jason, on the other hand, was a failure of a drug dealer and a somewhat talented but inept street dancer. This core of characters are written with enough contrasts to one another that, when they interact, it creates engaging conversations and hilarious material.
Joining our four deceased heroes, however, are Janet and Michael. Janet isn’t a robot, but she’s not human, either. She’s a kind of afterlife artificial intelligence with almost unlimited power and knowledge, so long as she’s in The Good Place. Michael, on the other hand, is the architect of The Good Place, a sort of overseeing angel who loves to observe human interactions.
What create such an enduring show as The Good Place is this intriguing blend of characters set against the background of a comedy-mystery sitcom. However, the magic really flies because of Chidi, whose role in almost any episode is to be the ethical voice of reason. Even in The Good Place, this group tries to become better people, partly because they slowly grow to like one another and partly because they mostly don’t feel like they belong in this version of Heaven. So, multiple episodes revolve around ethical quandaries.
Chidi, for instance, eventually has to own up to the fact that he can’t keep ‘not’ making decisions when challenged. Not making a decision actually leads to other people getting hurt. So, how does Chidi grow? Well, as part of helping Chidi become more decisive and helping Michael learn more about human ethics, Michael puts him into a live version of The Trolley Problem. In its most basic form, The Trolley Problem asks who you would rather kill if you were aboard a runaway trolley, a group of people or a single individual.
Here’s the version Michael provides for Chidi.
So, what sort of lessons can writers take away from The Good Place? First, any premise can be a great premise with the right twists. The afterlife has been tackled in the past, but mostly in dramatic shows like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. It seems clear many writers feel the afterlife, and particularly Heaven, are boring or almost impossible to write conditions for a weekly recurring series. The Good Place presents an awfully intriguing version of the afterlife that has an almost Lost-esque type of mystery running beneath it throughout the first season.
Second, conflict is about more than just fighting. It’s also about the small ways people disagree with one another day to day. Chidi is the most ethically sound person in The Good Place but the powers that be somehow decide he’s supposed to be married to Eleanor in the afterlife. That leaves the two constantly negotiating their different backgrounds, with Eleanor trying to help him become more decisive while Chidi tries to help her become ethically moral.
Finally, even complex moral issues that face us every day can be tackled in a sitcom. However, these huge ethical discussions have to be appropriately contextualized. For a comedy like The Good Place, it’s important to make every ethical discussion funny, if not hilarious, while still communicating the point of that discussion.
It’s a fine balancing act to perform when trying to keep all these elements flowing smoothly, but The Good Place does it better than almost any other. Along the way, it creates one of the most memorable comedies of the past decade, if not longer. Catch it on Hulu and NBC when it returns next year for season four.
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