A fart in the shape of a man: Further thoughts on The Good Place (S1, E9-13, S2, E1-9)

(image courtesy IMP Awards)



When I was first wrote about NBC’s savvy, clever new-ish sitcom The Good Place last October, I remarked on how rare it is to fall head over heels in love with a show on a first viewing.

Most TV shows take most of their first season to really find their voice, to nail that indefinable something that takes their premise from intriguing and flirtatious, and let’s face it, in this age of TV plenty you have to flirt like crazy to catch and hold viewers’ attentions, to the stuff of serious commitment.

But in this day and age of serial random viewing where a new TV show relationship is but a streaming service away, that kind of slow burn can harm a show’s chances of getting the necessary traction needed for viewers to stick around for the long haul.

That’s not a fate that should worry creator Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) who from the get-go, when Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) arrives in the Good Place aka Heaven to find that she and three soon-to-be friends or soulmates are dead, very dead, has crafted a winningly intelligent show that knows what it is and what it wants to accomplish.

And is damn funny doing it, in a way that many modern sitcoms, captive to laugh tracks, obvious dialogues and paper-thin characterisation, simply can’t hope to emulate.

It’s meant that from the start, viewers have flocked to the show which gives a whole new fantastically hilarious slant to the afterlife, where people end up in either the Good Place or the Bad Place by dint of an algorithm that works out where they belong based on how good a life they lived on earth.

Now, if you’re a committed Christian you may take exception to the idea of works, not salvation by grace determining your eternal fate, but for the rest of us, it’s a very funny concept that is ripe with all kinds of comedic and dramatic possibilities.

The good thing is – see even the premise could end up in the Good Place – that the show has absolutely made merry with its founding idea, giving us a show as apt to ponder the philosophical conundrums of self-improvement, working for the benefit of others (are we really being as selfless as we think?) or ethical enrichment as to give its restaurants really silly, pun-heavy names that incite a giggle every time one of the characters wanders through the beatifically gorgeous town square (Fro-Yo anyone? Clam chowder maybe?).

So having fallen in love with a show gifted with robust substantial, even thoughtful, storytelling and dialogue so witty and funny you could slice a guffawing punchline with it, you could be forgiven for wondering  if the show, like most longterm viewing relationships, might be inclined to take everything a little bit for granted.



That would be a great and impressive “NO” from Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett and Drew Goddard who pivot with a grace worthy of a Russian ballerina in the 13th and final episode of The Good Place to reveal, and if you’ve been paying attention, in retrospect, it makes lots of sense, that the Good Place is in fact … * SPOILER ALERT * … really * SPOILER ALERT * … the Bad Place.

Yup! Uh-oh, no shit and oh wow!

It’s a bold and audacious move that pays off in spades.

Rather than killing the narrative golden goose that kept laying superlative first season episode after superlative first season  episode, this turning of the tables results in an even funnier, more meaningful and immensely clever season 2.

Armed now with the knowledge that they have fallen down, not up, and they are in some sort of twisted bold new experiment to torture people psychologically rather than with four-headed bears or impaling – the demons who had been masquerading as fellow Good Placers are not entirely convinced the change in tactics is a winner; yep, demons are just as conservative as the rest of us, people – and that Michael (Ted Danson) is not a benevolent town keeper but an ambitious denizen of “hell”, Eleanor, ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and kindhearted but dumb as a post Jason / Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto) have quite the problem on their hands.

How do they continue to act like they are in the Good Place when they now know they are but pawns in a game of political control between Michael, and the big boss Shawn (played hilariously well and with deadpan excellence by Marc Evan Jackson) who thinks this bold new experiment in eternal torture and misery is a dubious idea at best (as does Michael’s rival, Vicky, played by Tiya Sircar who portrayed the “good” Eleanor in the first season).

That particular dilemma, which perches precariously on what turn out to be actual demons’ horns, is solved, albeit temporarily, when Michael reboots the whole scenario, convincing Shawn that take 2 will be the charm.

But after reboot after reboot fallen by the fire-tinged wayside and the fake Good Place reaches a dizzying take #802, it becomes readily apparent and the source of much episodic hilarity, that there’s no way they can fake being Good Placers whom are actually Bad Placers who think they’re Good Placers nor, it should be added, can Michael pretend that everything is going swimmingly lake-of-fire well when Vicky has blackmailed him into letting her run the blighted show.

It’s a brilliantly reimagining of the show’s original premise but one which very much hews close to the spirit of The Good Place, which has always been a readily-accessible rumination on good vs evil, altruism vs. self-interest and whether the demarcations between these seeming opposites are as clear cut as we like to think.


In fact, one very clever scene in episode 9, season 2, “Leap to Faith” (thank you Søren Kierkegaard; see how clever this brilliant sitcom is? It name drops Danish philosophers) when the four, along with a reformed Michael, who has taken Chidi’s ethics classes and is a changed demon in love with human things like emotions, friendship and stress balls with corporate logos, and AI guide Janet (D’Arcy Carden), are attempting to board a balloon to the actual Good Place, we are given a funny, quite moving lesson in how malleable these self-imposed boundaries are.
As character after character steps on the lit-up lie detector of sorts, only to find the pillars go red (you’re not the best version of yourself) instead of the much-desired green (you are the best version), they each enter the kind of soul-searching that people who have been trying to get ahead of the worst of themselves would quite naturally embrace.
The genius is that this kind of existential angst is taking place, and with witty, thigh-slappingly line after line, in a sitcom, not your typical vessel for rumination on life, the universe and the meaning of life.
These are characters who being quite dead, are fresh out of options – it’s not like they can go to the police as one of them suggests at one point to which Eleanor responds “You do know where you are, don’t you?” – and this is not the stuff of quick, silly trivial punchlines and merry segues to the next scene for them.
It’s pretty serious, meaty stuff, and The Good Place masterfully meshes this sort of high stakes existential rumination with the kind of absurdity and visual gags that would have amused the likes of the Marx Brothers or the Keystone Cops.
The Good Place never puts a foot wrong, either between its pivot between seasons 1 and 2 or the growth and development of its characters who, while heartfelt, are never twee, seamlessly bringing together a taut, cleverly-executed premise, inspirationally good writing and characters who are both flawed and silly and very easy to identify with in a way that marks this as a very relatable sitcom of the highest order.
With everyone now setting off to make their way through the actual Bad Place to get hopefully to an arbiter who can rule on their eligibility for the Good Place – see again clever; we have adventure mixed in with high stakes eternal survival with yet more ethical dilemmas – The Good Place is set for another shake-up.
With most other shows, I’d wonder about its long term survivability since you can’t endlessly shake things up and hope the show will reemerge as engaging as the first day it and we met and fell helplessly in sitcom love; and yet The Good Place, fortified by stellar writing, superlative acting and a delicious sense of the comically absurd, has done, sometimes episode-by-episode so the odds of it not only getting to a third season but making eternally sunshine-y hay with it are extremely good.
So good in fact that if there is an eternal resting place for A-class sitcoms, and history seems to show there is, Mike Schur’s creation should be a shoo-in for inclusion, no further correspondence or Bad Place trickery entered into, thank you very much.


Posted In TV

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