Determinism vs. free will? The Good Place S3 asks the hard questions … and has fun doing it

Determinism? Free will? Or just plain old avoiding the forking issue? (image (c) NBC)

 

  • SPOILERS AHEAD … AND A WHOLE LOT OF FORKING GOOD FUN …

Much as I am a fan of sitcoms, there is a dearth of entries in the genre that manage to be both hilariously funny and immensely clever.

When you think of shows that satisfy both criteria, shows like The Mary Tyler Moore ShowCheers, Frasier, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm what is immediately apparent is that the creators have managed to hold the two seemingly-disparate elements in audience-pleasing tension, proving that it is possible to simultaneously tickle the funny bone and engage the mind.

To this august number, and other besides, you can continue to add The Good Place, a witty, endlessly-malleable exploration of life after death which has entered its third season on NBC (USA) and Netflix (internationally) with its philosophical head held high, its characters are lovably-flawed and yet capable of of surprising change as ever, and its sense of the humourously-absurd firmly in place.

Now, you may not think there’s a great deal about dying and thoughts about the afterlife, of which there are many on your religious or philosophical bent, that would be laugh out loud, brain-pleasing fun but Mike Schur (Community) and his team have not only found a way to elicit much mirth from heaven and hell and that awkward place in-between but to get us thinking about the human condition into the bargain.

It’s quite an achievement, one that has undergone all kinds of changes during the first two seasons where we have scene the four main protagonists – Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) – think they are in the good place, find out they’re actually being tortured in the bad place as part of a demonically-inspired piece of social experimentation, become better people in spite of a system that says once you’re dead that’s it and escape the bad place after which a celestial judge (played with comedic perfection by Maya Rudolph) has returned them back to earth, at the urging of reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) for another crack at accruing the points needed to get into The Good Place for real.

 

It’s all fun and games and romance … until you’re doomed to hell for all eternity by a slip of the tongue (image (c) NBC)

 

If that sounds like a lot of narrative pivoting , then you’d be right.

In the time that most sitcoms would devote to keep the established show on the road exactly as promised in the pilot – very few tinker with the “sit” in the “com” – The Good Place has happily pivoted like crazy, galloping ahead with all kinds of revelatory changes for the characters, and by extension, the audience.

Season 3, of which the first seven episodes has been watched so far, continues that tradition of taking the characters, including Michael’s all-knowing sidekick Janet (D’Arcy Carden), on journeys that are both surprising and very human, mixing the silly with the sublime, the heartfelt with the ridiculous with consummate ease.

With everyone back on earth and alive again, part of an agreement between Michael and the Judge, whose decisions are binding on both Places (though the demons led by Shawn played by Marc Evan Jackson are, as you’d expect, seeking to subvert things left, right and torturously-centre) and blissfully unaware that they must get their second chance at living right or end up back in the Bad Place all over again, the pressure is on Michael and Janet to make their bold, hastily-cobbled together experiment work, and work spectacularly.

The future of the way people are allocated to the Good Place or the Bad Place, essentially heaven or hell though the show is loathe to say that’s what they are preferring a more oblique approach to the afterlife, hinges on how well the oblivious four do on their go-around.

More importantly though, for Michael who has gone from callous demonic architect of the cruel experiment where hell looked like heaven to transformed people-loving demon, the fate of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, who retain none of their memories from the first two seasons, rest on whether they can become, all over again, the good people who left the Bad Place wholly changed.

The Judge forbids Michael and Janet from interfering (save for averting the events that led to their original deaths) but of course, they can’t abide by that, and much of the fun of the first few episodes is watching them try to get around a system where, in theory at least, the Judge is all-seeing and all-knowing (and bingeing NCIS but that’s a whole other story).

 

That’s the way we became the Brainy Bunch (now with extra mischievous demon) (image (c) NBC)

 

The brilliance of the show, though a little diminished in the third season, remains very much in force, with one episode, “A Fractured Inheritance”, where Eleanor, with Michael by her side, has to confront the fact that her once-douchebag mother is now not only not dead but the ideal mother Eleanor always wished her to be, leading to a very funny and very clever back-and-forth discussion about whether its determinism or free will that governs our lives.

As she struggles with the fact that her mother, the subject of an attempt by the intrepid Soul Team of Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason (together with Michael and Janet) to save as many people as possible by helping lead better good point-gathering lives, has got herself onto a better path anyway, Eleanor has to grapple with some fairly weighty emotional issues, the sort of fare that many sitcoms would see as far too weighty and emotionally-intense.

Not so The Good Place which mixes these moments of raw humanity in with Jason’s dopey but in touch with what really matters humanity (and a family that is a joy to watch in their inspired, heart-in-the-right-place idiocy), Tahani’s name-dropping and yoyo-ing self-awareness and Chidi’s epiphanic highs and lows which see him undergo one of the funniest, most heartfelt (and sexiest; those pecs! That tight T-shirt!) of breakdowns ever that instructively reminds us that you should probably avoid mixing chilli and candy.

It’s a sublimely funny brew of the insightful and the insanely funny that manages to be both irreverent and observant of the human condition without one ever cannibalising the other and season 3 illustrates that, even newly-pivoted, The Good Place hasn’t lost its knack of hitting the head, heart and funny bone in equal measure.

Most sitcoms, funny though they are, would struggle with this balance, but not so The Good Place which, replete with supremely-good writing (the amount of throwaway oneliners will have you cackling away near-constantly), brilliantly-realised characters and the ability to morph its premise over and over again without once skipping a beat, remains as funny and clever as ever (despite the abysmal Australian accents), proof positive that you have your sitcom cake and eat it too (preferably with Sting or Bono; unless you’ve deleted their phone numbers, right Tahani?).

 

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