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, absolutely try. The high concept comedy is complete now (finished, not canceled) after four seasons, and everything is streaming on Netflix, so it̵
Elevator pitch for The good place is: What if someone got to heaven by mistake? But there is much more than that. The show starts as an intro class to ethics and philosophy, the middle part is an investigation of how to use these lessons in real life, and it ends as a meditation on the nature of death. And because it’s also entertainment, all this is set to a fun sitcom beat with one camera.
Almost perfect comedy performances, a setting that provides new humor and observations, and a surprisingly healthy heart The good place one of the best performances of the last 10 years. It’s also incredibly timely, even though it probably wasn’t meant to be – the lessons that the characters take home are perfect applications for an increasingly angry and divided world. To miss this would be a mortal sin.
Agnet: Trouble in Paradise
The Good Placstarts with Eleanor (Kristen Bell by Frozen and Veronica Mars) arrives at the afterlife, welcomed by the non-technical angel Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers). She has said that her life of charity and humanitarianism has earned her a place in the good place, a merging of heavens from different religions that take 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, is destined 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 is not hers: She is an “Arizona garbage bag” who spent 30 years abusing her friends and family and generally being a self-absorbed jacket. If it’s a bad place (and it is), she knows she should be there.
Eleanor tries to lie down in Good Place with the help of his assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, The Electric Company, The Breaks), who was practically a professor of philosophy and ethics in life. Chidi tries to help Eleanor change from a garbage bag to a person who is actually good enough for the good place before anyone knows it.
In 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), as we are told is a monk who fulfills a vow of secrecy even in the afterlife. In addition to Michael’s continued presence as a well-meaning but booming “architect” 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, which are unique but evenly clumsy in a way that is familiar to fans of creator Michael Schumer. Jokes and cultural references come at a rapid pace, but help to concretize both the characters as they are and the lives they lived before they died. Michael and Janet are consistent comedies, thanks to their worldwide perspective and abilities. A sequence where the gang has to “start” 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 have ever seen.
Season one ends on a shocking rock trailer, but one that is so well set up that eagle eye viewers may have already figured it out. The rest of the series continues to explore cosmology in the new age of the afterlife, as the gang tries to fix deep-seated problems with both life and death.
The switch: It’s going to 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 sort of the philosophical equivalent of the old “knowing is half the battle” segments from GI Joe.
Basic as they are, these lessons help round off 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 has been made clear that this is about philosophy, not theology bound by any religion or culture.
Of course, most sitcoms have something similar to this. The moral game is an ever-lasting structure, and the lessons that Chidi has delivered (or sometimes spontaneously learned from Eleanor, Jianyu, Tahani and finally Michael), are not so different from, for example, a concluding monologue in Scrubber. But in the much more immediate context of a real (fictional) heaven and hell, they are framed as immediate, actionable for both characters in their current arc and the viewer in our daily lives. And thanks to the limited scope – just over 50 episodes across four seasons – the characters really use these lessons and change from one day to the next.
It’s a pretty rare comedy that obviously asks you to think about how the situations can be used on 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 staying constantly funny.
The Closer: Everybody Dies, You Know
There are many twists and turns to potentially ruin in the last 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 is sober and contemplative, in a way that American comedy almost never tries.
As much as the show has avoided explicit religious themes up to that point, it’s hard not to see season four as a modern attempt at a produced religion. The authors almost say, “We do not believe in a real heaven … but if we did, this is the one we want, and one we believe will actually work.” Which is interesting, as media that include a fictitious representation of a paradise after life rarely stop to assess the problems it would create, or what solutions it would need.
The show is not without its low spots. As short as it is, it can withstand being shorter: I think it could have condensed the last two seasons into one without losing any kind. And as the comedy is, the characters eventually bend into their own personalities and upgrade their peculiarities to the point that they border on annoying. It’s okay for the smaller parts – Maya Rudolph and Jason Mantzoukas both have memorable many guest appearances – but may have thin for the lead role.
The good place also has a bad habit of (and here I go over the border of spoiler territory) and erases the progress that some of its characters do, in a very literal way. It’s a crutch the writers lean on more than once to get the action to a specific place in the show’s very weird universe. In the end, it all gets wiped out, as The Good Place essentially straightens out magic, but watching characters learn important lessons is no less tedious, even when there is a justification for it.
That said, the ending is amazing. It’s refreshing to watch a show tell the story and end, with no desire to do more – another extreme rarity on American television of any genre. When the credits roll on the last episode, I tore up, sad that I did not get to spend more time with these characters, but wonderfully happy with the time I did.
It felt like a good funeral, in a way that is completely intentional. The good place did everything it intended to do, leaving the audience better off doing so.