The Good Place

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Re: The Good Place

Postby Okri » Sun Nov 29, 2020 7:20 pm

Thanks for this, Sabin.

The show is definitely in my top ten of the 21st Century. There are few shows I fell more deeply in love with as they progressed, warts and all.

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The Good Place

Postby Sabin » Sun Nov 29, 2020 3:26 am

A quick bit of writing on The Good Place...

Me and a friend were writing a barely similar, terribly misguided script I won't bother recalling for you off and on for a couple of years (really a side-burner project) that I became sick of and then one day I saw The Good Place playing at a bar and laughed out loud. Someone had done a heaven sitcom! Of course. I watched the pilot and found it a little irritating and twee. Cleary, by design. Pilots are funny things, especially when it's truly all about the journey like this one.

Sometime later, I forced myself to complete the first season and the season finale remains one of the highpoint of my viewing life. The scene with Michael, we'll just say. I had to stop after Dance Dance Resolution in Season Two for two years for reasons that aren't important. Over this past weekend, I finished the series. My goodness, what a series. I have some thoughts.

Because we are dealing with a high concept series, every episode must follow the central mystery of The Good Place and every episode largely must escalate. And wow, does the series escalate, occasionally to its own detriment because fundamentally sitcoms are low-stakes things. They're all about personalities bouncing off each other. So a typical episode of The Good Place largely pushes the buttons of our ensemble and their clear flaws (Eleanor's lack of self worth, Chidi's indecision, Tahani's shallow need for approval, Jason's impulse control) and we arrive at a cliffhanger. Plus, A LOT of explaining -- and water-treading. This can occasionally feel forced when the series must rehash developments we've seen before. This rears its head during season three during the "Soul Squad" episodes, an idea that sounds like a great idea but only serves to remind the audience why this stuff never works and why certain premises don't lend themselves to sitcoms. It's conceptually strong but only serves to divide them up, even if it does leave us with that inspired bit of lunacy where we learn Donkey Doug is actually Jason's father, which is an episode that could work in any series.

That said, it's a surprisingly earnest discussion about philosophy to the point where every episode is a bundle of Twitter threads: in a good way. It's a smart tonal mix of heady conversation, sweetness, morbid comedy to off-set the sweetness (constant jokes about how horrible The Bad Place is, or turning Janet into marbles), and pop culture references (Maya Rudolph's Judge is TV-obsessed) make for one of the most interesting assortments of comedy in a sitcom. Usually, sitcoms have one gear or two. The Good Place ambitiously juggles four making every episode feel rich. The plots are usually rather short in The Good Place as they serve out a larger, season/series-wide whole. It's a conversational series, and it's smart enough to stage much of it in Chidi's wheelhouse, as he spouts off philosophy theory. Chidi is one of the dearest sitcom characters in recently memory and the knowledge that William Jackson Harper was about to give up acting before landing the role makes it only sweeter. As a Senegalese philosophy professor paralyzed by indecision, he manages to do something usually impossible in a sitcom: create an active passive character.

The ensemble is more archetypal than the usual Michael Shur sitcom. I've mentioned the types above. They do function as a set of flaws come to life. It's all perfectly cast. Ted Danson's Michael really is some of the best work of his career, a truly canny piece of casting as an eternal being who doesn't remotely understand the human condition and mostly times barely wants to. He's like Q with a soul but with Ted Danson's sweetness. Kristen Bell's Eleanor is also quite good, another sweet performer smartly cast as an "Arizona Dirtbag" with an endless history of being an awful person which is made palatable by her self-knowledge of how attractive she is coupled with the fact that it's clearly the farthest thing from Kristen Bell. Manny Jacinto is a bit underrated as Jason Mendoza, one of Michael Shur's more memorable idiots. I'll say that Jameela Jamil never quite gets beyond the name-droppy schtick of Tahani, whose name is actually the best thing about the character. I would say this might be Michael Shur's most balanced ensemble but the tradeoff is they don't always feel like people. One always gets the impression that this is such an abstract show that we're not seeing real human interaction, which is something Shur's hero David Foster Wallace warned against in television. Danson's Michael rings very credible and moving. And so does Chidi, as well as Eleanor especially when seen through Chidi's eyes.

I really do love the theory that The Good Place isn't really about the afterlife but rather a meta-commentary about making a sitcom. After all, Ted Danson's name is Michael. He's an architect who masterminds the miseries of the flawed humans in his purview but ultimately grows to love them and wants to help them become better people, much like a showrunner who must manufacture contrived plots to make his creations suffer again and again. In that sense, The Good Place is basically *every* sitcom. Another thing I love about this show is it contains such a clear worldview on the part of Michael Shur. We're living in an age of auteur-driven television. Michael Shur has done this on network television. We know what he thinks about how paralyzingly difficult it is to do the right thing but also how annoying people who are needlessly good are. The Good Place committee, for example. One of them memorably resigns and is applauded for doing so after *ALMOST* taking a negative tone on social media, exemplifying toxic positivity. I mean, this is remarkable stuff. And of course there's the poignant ending (that impossibly poignant ending) which must read as the struggle to find an ending for characters that have become so real and should go on forever but can't.

Over the course of four seasons, twelve episodes a piece (I'm not convinced ten wouldn't have been a better number), The Good Place proved to be a remarkable piece of television, if occasionally frustrating. I think that's because it truly did stretch the limits of what a sitcom could be -- and was supposed to be. I'll say this again: a sitcom shouldn't be this show. Which means at its worst, The Good Place felt a little like a curio. At its best... I mean, will you ever forget it? I won't. No matter how many Bearimies.
"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." ~ FDR

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