Is it possible for a TV show to make you a better person? The good place, an NBC sitcom from the same team as Parks and recreation and Brooklyn 99, really trying. Comedy with a high concept is ready now (completed, not interrupted) after four seasons, and everything is streaming on Netflix, so it̵7;s time for a retrospective.
Elevator pitch for The good place is: What if someone came to heaven by mistake? But it is much more than that. The show begins as an introductory course to ethics and philosophy, its middle section is an investigation of how to apply these lessons in real life, and it ends as a meditation on the nature of death. And since it’s also entertainment, all of this is set to a fun sitcom beat with a single camera.
Almost perfect comedy performances, an environment that enables new humor and observations and a surprisingly healthy heart The good place one of the best shows of the last ten years. It’s also incredibly timely, even though it probably wasn’t meant to be – the lessons the characters take home are perfect applications for an increasingly angry and fragmented world. Missing this would be a mortal sin.
The Bait: Trouble in Paradise
The Good Place begins with Eleanor (Kristen Bell from Freeze and Veronica Mars) arrives in the afterlife, welcomed by non-technically-an-angel Michael (Ted Danson, Bowl). She has been told that her life of charity and humanitarianism has given her a place in Good Place, a fusion of heavens from different religions that takes the form of an idyllic neighborhood (the often used Little Europe party in Universal Studios).
He tells her that she, as one of the very best people who have ever lived, intends to spend eternity in a perfect paradise, with a hundred or so other wonderful people and a perfectly chosen soulmate. The only problem is that the life he described as living was not hers: she is an “Arizona garbage bag” who spent 30 years abusing her friends and family and generally being a self-absorbed jackass. If there’s a bad place (and there is), she knows she should be there.
Eleanor tries to lie low on Good Place with the help of her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, The electricity company, the breaks), who was suitably a professor of philosophy and ethics in life. Chidi tries to help Eleanor switch from a trash can to a person who is actually good enough for Good Place before anyone finds out.
During the first season, we are also introduced to Tahani (Jameela Jamil in her first acting role), a former British socialite, and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto, Romeo section), which we hear is a monk who observes a vow of silence even in the afterlife. In addition to Michael’s continued presence as a well-meaning but throbbing “heaven” of heaven, we also spend a lot of time with Janet (D’Arcy Carden, Broad City), an almost almighty helper halfway between the Enterprise computer and Navi from Ocarina of Time. (Eleanor calls her “Busty Alexa.”)
The first season is about exploring both Good Place, with its unique structure and rules, and the characters, who are unique but uniformly silly in a way that will be familiar to fans of creator Michael Schumer. Jokes and cultural references come at a furious pace but help to work out both the characters as they are and the lives they lived before they died. Michael and Janet are consistent comedy mines thanks to their extraterrestrial perspectives and abilities. A sequence where the gang has to “restart” Janet, while she sincerely asks for her life as a humanoid “are you sure you want to?” pop-up, is one of the funniest pieces I’ve ever seen.
Season one ends on a shocking rock wall, but one that is so well set that eagle-eyed viewers may have already figured it out. The rest of the series continues to explore the cosmology of the new age after life, as the gang tries to fix profound problems with both life and death.
The switch: There will be a quiz
The first episodes and most of the rest of the series are generally structured around a lesson from basic ethics and moral philosophy. The second season episode that fully explores the famous Trolley Problem, in exhaustive and bloody details, is a highlight. The lessons are basic, usually delivered by Chidi to the characters who are more or less idiots – they are kind of the philosophical equivalent of the old “knowing is half the battle” segments from GI Joe.
Basic as they are, these lessons help round out both the characters and the broader themes of the show: examining what makes a good person good, a bad person bad, and how to change from the latter to the former. I should point out that this ongoing discussion is framed in fairly neutral terms. It is made clear that this is about philosophy, not theology bound by any religion or culture.
Of course, most sitcoms have something like this. The moral game is a constantly evolving structure, and the lessons that Chidi delivered (or sometimes spontaneously learned from Eleanor, Jianyu, Tahani, and eventually Michael) are no different, such as a final monologue. Scrubs. But in the much more immediate context of a real (fictional) heaven and hell, they are framed as immediate, useful to both characters in their current arc and the observer in our daily lives. And thanks to the limited scope – more than 50 episodes over four seasons – the characters really apply these lessons and change from one day to the next.
It is a rather rare comedy that encourages you to think about how its situations can be applied to your own. It’s an even rarer thing that actually makes you do it. And if I do not emphasize this enough: The good place manage to do this while remaining funny.
The Closer: Everybody Dies, You Know
There are many twists to potentially destroy in the latter half of The good place, and it would be a shame to do so. Suffice it to say that the last season is less about learning the lessons of a good life than about accepting an inevitable death. It’s sober and contemplative, in a way that American comedy almost never tries.
As much as the show has explicitly avoided religious themes until then, it’s hard not to see season four as a modern attempt at a fabricated religion. The authors almost say, “We do not believe in a real heaven … but if we did, it is the one we want, and one that we believe would work.” Which is interesting, because media that contain a fictional representation of a life after paradise rarely stop to consider the problems it would create, or the solutions it would need.
The show is not without its low spots. As short as it is, it can be shorter: I think it could have condensed the last two seasons into one without losing any kind. And just like the way comedy is, the characters eventually lean into their own personalities and amplify their strangeness to the point that they border on annoying. It’s good for the smaller parts – Maya Rudolph and Jason Mantzoukas both have memorably many guest appearances – but can wear thin for the lead role.
The good place also has a bad habit of (and here I go over the border to spoilers territory) erasing the progress that some of its characters make in a very literal way. It’s a crutch that the writers lean on more than once to get the plot to a specific place in the show’s very strange universe. Eventually everything is ironed out, because The Good Place basically has straight magic, but watching characters learn essential lessons is no less boring even when there is a story for it.
That said, the ending is amazing. It’s refreshing to see a show tell its story and end, without any desire to do more – another extreme rarity on American television of any genre. When the credits roll on the last episode, I teared up, sorry I was not allowed to spend more time with these characters, but wonderfully happy with the time I did.
It felt a lot like a good funeral, in a way that is completely intentional. The good place did everything it planned to do and leaves the audience better off doing it.