Netflixing: The Good Place
It's nice to see Ted Danson on TV again. It really is.
But that's hardly the best part about The Good Place.
Originality Scores a Point
They say that there are no original stories, especially in our sequel-obsessed and remake-obsessed entertainment landscape.
And they're not wrong, though shows like The Good Place certainly demonstrate that there is a better way. Because this show is like nothing else you've ever seen. The premise is fresh. The writing is tight. The characters are multifaceted. And the humor is sharp.
That so many qualities have come together in a context that is largely unexplored is an achievement worth noting. And it is impossible to talk about The Good Place without lauding its originality and creativity. If you are bored of the same old stories TV has offered in the past, then this is the show for you.
Premises are Made to be Broken
A woman named Eleanor wakes up in a strange new place where everything appears to be perfect. Here she meets Michael, an "architect", who tells her that she has died and is now a resident of the Good Place---a neighborhood where virtuous people live forever in happiness.
Better yet, in the Good Place, everyone finds their true soul mate, and Eleanor finds that her perfect match is a professor named Chidi, who dedicated his entire life to the study of ethics.
With a new house, a caring partner, and all the frozen yogurt she could ever want, Eleanor is ready for an eternal life of bliss and relaxation.
There's just one problem: Eleanor is a fraud.
She's not a civil rights lawyer, as Michael's records claim. In fact, her latest job was as a sales representative selling fake vitamins to old people. On top of that, she's lived a life of debauchery and selfishness. And when the Good Place starts malfunctioning in bizarre ways, Eleanor knows she is to blame.
Luckily, she is now paired with an ethics professor, who can (against his better judgment) teach her how to clean up her act and become a good person. But people don't change overnight, and Eleanor learns the hard way that Heaven is anything but easy.
A Divine Mystery
Above all else, The Good Place is a comic mystery, where the audience comes for the jokes but stays for the story. Seeing a genuine sinner try to bumble her way through Heaven without anyone noticing is entertainment in and of itself, yet all the while you will be haunted by the questions of how she got there in the first place.
And all this is done with the subtlest of approaches. I said before that the show was tightly written, by which I mean that not a single scene is wasted. There is no fluff or filler. Every utterance, including the jokes, are used to either establish character or move the story forward. This results in easy viewing, as every episode is an attention grabber and your mind is not likely to wander during any part of the show.
This also makes The Good Place highly bingeable. Just another reason why good writing trumps all.
One Character in Particular
The cast of The Good Place is a bouquet of televised talent, and every character is worth watching. The best moments in the show come from the frictive interactions these characters make as they try to connect, conceal, deceive, and cherish each other.
Whether it's the budding friendship between Eleanor and Michael, even as she spends every moment trying to keep the truth from him.
Or the teacher-student relationship between Eleanor and Chidi, made all the more complicated by the fact that Eleanor's fraud means that they are not true soul mates, but they still have to learn to live with each other.
Or their relationship with their neighbors, Tahani and Jianyu. She's a philanthropist socialite that can do no wrong, and he's a Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence and communicates nonverbally.
But, by a slam dunk, the best part of the show is Janet.
Janet is a soulless construct that takes the form of a smiling assistant. Her purpose is to fulfill the desires of any resident of the good place and bring them whatever they request. As Heaven's equivalent of Siri, she is all too eager to please, and all to quick to glitch out or misinterpret what people ask of her.
Every moment when she is on screen is a laugh out loud moment. As a parody of modern technology colored with a supernatural lens, Janet is capable of superhuman acts of comedy. She is unforgettable, and on her own would still be worth the price of admission.
Trouble in Paradise
It would be nice to be able to just watch a show---to just watch it, and not think too deeply about the philosophical nuances it presents.
But I would have to say that, if there is one scruple I have with The Good Place, it would have to be with its depiction of the afterlife.
The show does its best to avoid any kind of theological quandaries, as well as any mention of religion. As such, it's approach to the subject of eternal judgment is problematic. In an entirely secular depiction of Heaven, entry to paradise is governed largely by
- The person's humanitarian efforts, and
- The person's adherence to personal manners and decorum.
Though, having watched the entire first season, that may have been an intentional detail.
And counterbalanced against that is the one really good philosophical argument put forth by the show: it exposes the ridiculousness of the notion of a binary afterlife, consisting only of a single Heaven and a single hell. Most religions already reject this concept, but it's nice to see popular television get in on the fun by lampooning such a deadbeat philosophy.
The Good Place is the best thing to come out of NBC since The Big Bang Theory. And it may be the most original thing to come out of American television in many a year.
The key, once again, is the tight writing, which brings all the other good parts together. You will laugh. You will smile. You will love the characters (especially Janet). And you will be intrigued by the many plot twists and tension rises.
This is A+ entertainment. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And, while it has some innuendo, it is likely a good fit for almost the entire family.
Season 1 is now on Netflix. Season 2 arrives on September 20th...on NBC. There's no telling when the second installment will happen for us Netflixers. But keep an eye out for it. It's likely to be awesome.
Previous entries in the Netflixing series: