Sunday, February 05, 2017

Make of Heaven a Hell: On the First Season of The Good Place

"Welcome! Everything is Fine." So says the big, friendly sign that greets Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) when she wakes up in a pleasant waiting room. She is quickly informed, by the genial Michael (Ted Danson) that she has died, and that because in life she worked tirelessly for poor and disenfranchised, she has gone to "the good place". This particular slice of heaven looks like a quaint, cod-European neighborhood, full of charming cafes and many, many frozen yogurt shops. Eleanor has her own house, designed exactly to her liking, and there she also meets her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who in life was a professor of ethics.

There's only one problem: Eleanor was not the selfless person that Michael believes her to be. In real life, she was selfish, manipulative, and narcissistic, committing evil deeds that ranged from the mundane (littering, constant rudeness) to the disgusting (selling useless diet supplements to the elderly, abandoning a dog-sitting assignment to go see Rhianna). Confiding in Chidi, and terrified of being sent to "the bad place", she convinces him to keep her secret and teach her how to be a good person. But when she inevitably missteps, the good place reacts violently. Stealing shrimp at a party causes giant shrimp to fly through the air, menacing the neighborhood's population. Destroying a cake whose baker worked for hours on it causes a sinkhole to open in the middle of town. Eleanor must then evade the investigations of Michael and his all-knowing assistant, the AI Janet (D'Arcy Carden), as well as the attentions of her neighbors, former model and socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto).

It's been repeatedly noted that in the second wave of the Golden Age of TV, comedy is more often a site for innovation and artfulness than drama. It’s a genre whose definition is wide enough to encompass the depressive musings of Bojack Horseman, and the zaniness of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Created by Michael Schur—who has run the gamut of comedy styles in his own career, writing for the American The Office and Saturday Night Live, producing The Comeback and Master of None, and creating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-NineThe Good Place might be the first comedy to derive most of its humor from its fantastical, elaborate worldbuilding. Every episode opens up our understanding of the good place and how it functions, from the Minority Report-esque screens and interfaces with which Michael and Janet try to repair the damage caused by Eleanor, to casual observations like "Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104% perfect. That's how you got Beyonce." When the neighborhood is visited by representatives of the bad place (led by Adam Scott in a performance so perfectly nasty that one can hardly recall his turn as the lovable dork Ben on Parks and Recreation), they signpost their evil by talking up their love of The Bachelor and performing karaoke to the speeches of Richard Nixon.

Though its premise initially looks like a Three's Company-esque comedy of lies and misunderstandings, what really drives The Good Place's story, and its jokes, is our feeling that there is something not quite right about the world as it has been presented to Eleanor and her fellow dwellers in the good place, and our desire to work out rules that don't quite seem to make sense. As Eleanor learns more about her new surroundings—and as she scrambles to game them in an effort not to be discovered—she uncovers other cracks in heaven’s foundation. Jianyu turns out to actually be Jason Mendoza, a "professional amateur DJ" from Florida whose hobbies included throwing molotov cocktails at his enemies' boats, and who died during the commission of a particularly dumb robbery.

It's a conceit that seems designed to appeal in particular to genre fans, with our fondness for working our the rules of an invented world--and the aspects of those rules that are being kept from us.  (It's interesting, for example, to read Emily Nussbaum's write-up of The Good Place in The New Yorker.  One of the finest TV critics currently writing, Nussbaum nevertheless tends to write from the perspective of a viewer who lacks genre reading protocols, and it was striking to me that she initially took the show at face value, whereas I assumed almost from the beginning that there was more to it.)  There's a long tradition of fantasy worldbuilding of the kind Schur does in The Good Place, which imagines the afterlife in mundane and sometimes openly bureaucratic terms—everything from A Matter of Life and Death to Beetlejuice. The Good Place builds on these works when it encourages us to question the ethical underpinnings of its afterlife, even as it insists on them. As Eleanor says to Chidi soon after figuring out the full extent of her predicament: "This system sucks! What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity?" 

Even if you ignore the obvious cruelty of this arrangement, there are some serious questions raised by the good place's execution of it. Tahani, for example, raised billions for charity, but she's also vain and self-absorbed, and in flashbacks we learn that her good works were all designed to get her the attention that her parents lavished on her conceptual artist sister. Chidi, on the other hand, is a genuinely kind and decent person, but he also achieved nothing in life, spending it writing a magnum opus that turns out to be unreadable, and frustrating his friends and loved ones with his constant indecision. It's hard to see how either of them could have earned a place in paradise. And at the other extreme, Jason may be the only truly bad person on the show, but his crimes were committed more out of stupidity than malice, and by the end of the season he has come to play the role of the holy fool, perceiving truths about the good place that his friends are too harried to notice. The system of points by which people are classed into the good place or bad place—good acts earn you a certain number of points, while bad acts cause them to be deducted—is also something of a head-scratcher. Do we really want to accept that good acts cancel out bad acts, and vice versa? And is it fair that Tahani, who was raised in wealth and privilege, should be rated on the same scale as Eleanor, who has been on her own since her teens?

It's obvious that these are all questions The Good Place wants us to ask, but what's interesting is that this questioning serves dual purposes. On one level, it's a way for the show to introduce some basic but also fairly meaty concepts of ethics and morality, which are also discussed through Chidi's lessons to Eleanor (and later also Jason) and her attempts to implement them. Is an act good in itself or is its morality judged by its consequences? Is Chidi required to help Eleanor, even if doing so causes him anxiety, and keeps him from his true soulmate? Are Chidi and Eleanor's lies and deceit always wrong, or are they justified because their ultimate goal is to keep Eleanor and Jason from suffering? Are Eleanor's attempts to grow as a person genuinely good, or can they be discounted because their motivation—to avoid an eternity of torture—is so obviously self-serving?

At the same time, the obvious flaws in the good place's idea of goodness are signs that the audience should be questioning the cosmology that the show lays before it. To put it another way, if you're unhappy in heaven, does that mean that there's something wrong with you, or that there's something wrong with it? That Eleanor and her friends are increasingly caught up in a web of lies which forces them to scramble in order to keep ahead of Michael's investigations might be an indication that even in paradise, committing bad acts has its consequences. But equally, it could be a sign that all is not as it seems.

It's here that we see why The Good Place had to be a comedy—and one whose tropes hew closely to the conventional sitcom form. Comedy runs on conflict, and in a sitcom it is totally normal that, just as Eleanor and Chidi are chafing at their enforced closeness and the need to pretend that they are soulmates, Michael would ask them to cohabitate with another couple, who just happen to be a private detective and a marriage counselor. So it takes a while for the audience to consider that this is actually a very strange thing for him to do, and especially in a place that is meant to be completely responsive to its residents' needs and desires. Through its choice of genre, The Good Place teaches us to see its contrivances as mere tropes, when really they are something much more significant, clues to the true nature of the show's world and story.

As he did in Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur emphasizes friendship and community as a path to self-improvement and even redemption. It's no coincidence that Eleanor's badness in her life on Earth is manifested mainly through her unwillingness to form close bonds, and her belief that she can go through life owing no one and being owed nothing. In that sense, she strongly resembles Community's Jeff Winger, and like him, her growth into goodness involves (and is perhaps driven by) becoming a sort of guide and protector to a group of misfits who may outstrip her emotionally and ethically, but who also don't quite know how to cope without her.  But here, too, The Good Place complicates the situation by injecting it with a philosophical weight that relates directly to the show's questionable construction of its paradise. Eleanor can become a successful good person—which is to say, a good friend—because she used to be a bad one. Because she understands manipulation and deceit, she can spot them when they are applied to her and her friends. Because she spent her life gaming systems, she can do so again in the system of the good place. Being a bad person in heaven may end up being Eleanor—and the other characters'—salvation.

The inspired use that The Good Place makes of its genre, to both conceal the cracks in its worldbuilding and suggest that the audience take another look at them, makes it interesting to compare it to another ambitious, high-concept show whose first season aired in the fall and winter of 2016, Westworld. Strange as it may sound, the two series share many similarities. They both take place in constructed worlds overseen by a mysterious, white-haired figure. Both tell stories that center around those worlds malfunctioning, while constantly suggesting that these malfunctions might all be part of a plan. In both shows, the constructed world advertises itself as a place that gives its residents everything they want, even as the truth turns out to be more complicated. Both shows feature characters who are constantly being reset and rebooted, but who advance towards personhood through those repetitions (in The Good Place, this is mainly Janet, but late in the series it's revealed that the human characters, too, can be erased and reset). Both are ultimately about their characters growing towards a fuller, more complete form of humanity. Both are, in addition, meta-commentaries on storytelling and their own genres. And both end on a twist that completely upends our understanding of their world and its purpose.

What this comparison reveals is, first, how hard the project that both The Good Place and Westworld set themselves actually was, and how great the gap is between achieving it and falling short. The Good Place delivers its twists—and its payload of philosophical (one might almost say radical) musings—with a lightness and an ease that are truly delightful to behold. It's an accomplishment that makes Westworld's trudge towards revelations the audience had long since guessed seem even more laborious in comparison.

More importantly, the difference between The Good Place and Westworld seems rooted in the recognition that a serious story doesn’t need to be told in a serious way. Like many HBO shows, Westworld was criticized for mistaking violence (and sexualized violence in particular) for serious drama, and yet there was ultimately very little about the show that its viewers could take seriously. Its pretensions of philosophical weight could not be sustained by a story that ultimately just wanted to get us to the robot massacre. The Good Place has no such pretensions—in fact, it holds its cards so close to its chest that most viewers will spend the season wondering if they're imagining things when they question whether there's more to the show's world than meets the eye. And yet it is able to fully engage with some of the fundamental questions of how to be a person. To watch a show that is so unassuming accomplish all this is genuinely exciting—and drives home how absent that feeling of excitement was from most of Westworld’s first season.

The twist that ends The Good Place's first season is exhilarating and impeccably delivered, altering the show's entire world but also leaving many open questions about its cosmology. Not unlike Westworld, it sets up a scenario for the show's second season that is completely different from what came in its first, but which also promises to continue following in the grooves of a familiar story. Most importantly, it's an ending that leaves us genuinely anxious for the fate of its core foursome—for their ability to extract themselves from a supernatural bind, and their capacity to continue growing as people. It's proof, if any more were needed, of comedy's ability to engage with meaty issues in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining, and to tell a genuinely compelling story. As the audience will have suspected in the show's opening scene, everything is not, in fact, fine. But when Eleanor returns to the waiting room in the season's final scene, the new message on the wall might as well be speaking for the viewers: "Welcome! Everything is great."

8 comments:

zahrawithaz said...

Very nice write-up. I loved the Good Place's season-ending twist, and your point that it succeeded largely because it disguised key information (or signs that things were wrong) in the tropes of comedy is a good one.

That seems particularly true when it comes to character--people so earnestly embraced the character of Michael as a classic comedy figure that they ignored even the abundant information that should have undercut that image. (While some people did guess the world-building twist, no one I've seen successfully caught onto Michael's true role, despite some very clear hints.)

I am sad to say, though, that some of the genre fans I tried to interest in the show earlier on adamantly refused to see the promise of complexity in the world-building and dismissed it as simplistic fluff.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yeah, Michael is a huge part of why the show and its twist works. Danson's performance plays a huge role there - he's great at being just bumbling enough that you dismiss him as a well-meaning buffoon, and then revealing a bit of iron without ever making you question your fundamental take on him. As you say, it's basically impossible to imagine that he is who he ends up being.

Definitely sympathize regarding the difficulties in recruiting fans to the show. Both because of its genre and because it hides its blatant fantasticness so well, it's a tough sell for SFF fans. And, going the other way, it's hard to persuade fans of prestige TV to take another look (though I'm hoping the New Yorker article will change that). The original version of this blog post was something I pitched to a moderately highbrow venue, and never even heard back about, while the same publication ran two or three articles about Westworld.

zahrawithaz said...

Yes, I agree that the comedy = fluff stereotype is a big part of the problem, among both genre fans and the prestige TV watchers. Which is sad, because it's very far from the truth.

I have not rewatched this first season, but I imagine that almost all of Michael's lines would have a double meaning in hindsight. Though I also think Janet (whose true origin we finally learn after the twist) plays a really interesting role; it retrospect, the entire "push the button" sequence and Michael's response to her relationship with Jason are very big clues, but her presence is a lot of why we accept the comedic premise at face value.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I missed the series, but was intrigued by the big reveal at the end (how I came to hear about it) which begs the question: how many people will now watch 'The Good Place' precisely because they now know the subtext and who otherwise might not have done so?

Aonghus Fallon said...

I was thinking specifically of the first series.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not a big believer in the sanctity of spoilers, and I held back from revealing the twist in The Good Place mainly out of respect for how well the show pulled off the surprise (which is actually quite rare) than because I think knowing it "ruins" the season. You'll obviously experience the show differently if you go in knowing the truth, but there's so much more to it than just that twist that I'm pretty sure you'll still come out loving it. And, you know, the more people discover this show, the better, no matter how they do it.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Absolutely. I also wonder how many people might watch the first season precisely because they already *know* how it turns out? - ie, that this might actively add to their enjoyment of the show?

Lis Riba said...

Raises hand.
I started watching (and ended up bingeing) the series after reading reviews of the finale. So, I knew the secret, but the articles were so glowing that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I also got my husband to watch it with me, and he *was* going in blind, so I could get his unspoiled reactions as well.

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