When NBC’s The Good Place premiered last September, even early fans seemed uncertain of its future. It was, after all, a non-workplace sitcom with an unusually ambitious premise: A woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) dies and finds herself in a non-denominational heaven reserved for only those who led the most selfless and ethical of lives. The problem is she was a terrible person on earth who ended up in the so-called “good place” by mistake, so to avoid being sent to “the bad place,” she hides her identity and tries to become a better person in the afterlife.
My colleague David Sims praised the show’s debut but wondered how the story’s apparent plottiness would work in a genre that tends to be more episodic:
After watching the first episode, it’s hard not to wonder how long a show with this ambitious a plot could really run—sitcoms are usually about reverting to the status quo at the end of every episode, while The Good Place’s storytelling feels more like that of a serialized sci-fi drama.
The show’s first season, which ended Thursday, proved that a half-hour network comedy can, in a way, do both: embrace an ambitious, carefully plotted narrative structure, while recognizing the need to revert, to have things go back to the way they were so they can play out differently the next time around. There are plenty of other current shows blurring the line between comedy and drama. But unlike those hybrids (BoJack Horseman, Atlanta, Insecure, You’re the Worst), The Good Place is, tonally, 100 percent sitcom. It has, however, the spine of a twist-y, reality-questioning show like Lost or Westworld—a fact illuminated most clearly by a two-part finale so wonderfully conceived it would be foolish of NBC not to give the show a second season.
(Spoilers for the entirety of The Good Place ahead.)
For about 95 percent of season one, The Good Place (created by Michael Schur) was simply a delightful comedy. It was dense with jokes and populated by well-defined characters played by great actors. It managed to keep extending its premise in unexpected ways every time the story hit a possible momentum-killer—like Eleanor settling down into her ethics lessons with her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper), or revealing to the neighborhood’s chief architect Michael (Ted Danson) that she belongs in the Bad Place. But a show that initially looked like it would follow a flawed woman’s noble efforts at self-improvement, while riffing on philosophical and spiritual concepts, turned out to be much more.
The “what the fork”-inducing final episodes revealed plenty: the existence of a neutral “Medium Place” of “eternal mediocrity” whose sole inhabitant is a cocaine-and-masturbation-loving corporate lawyer who died in the ’80s. The fact that Eleanor’s neighbor Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) died by suffocating inside a safe during a robbery gone wrong. The peculiar nature of the all-knowing judge “Shawn,” who detests hearing emotional testimony and who uttered the actual sentence, “I’ve ruled the fart inadmissible as evidence.” That one of Eleanor’s crimes on earth was “a brief Instagram flirtation with Kid Rock.”
But the biggest reveal, of course, was that The Good Place is not The Good Place at all. It’s the Bad Place—or a Bad Place, only without the requisite lava monsters or physical agony. It’s an experimental hell designed by Michael to trick Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and their neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil) into torturing each other forever; the four of them were specifically chosen because their unique insecurities and anxieties would ensure that they’d make each other miserable forever. Everyone in “The Good Place” but them (and a Siri-like robot named Janet) is playing a part. It’s a Truman Show/No Exit-style nightmare posing, quite convincingly, as a celestial paradise until Eleanor ruined the plans by doing something Michael didn’t expect her to—confessing.
Even before this final discovery, The Good Place slotted in neatly with other recent metaphysically minded shows. But the sitcom’s massive twist felt distinct (and more satisfying) for a couple of reasons. One, unlike Mr. Robot for instance, The Good Place possessed a regard for rules and consequences when it came to its invented world—the neighborhood had an architect, and when something went wrong, there was an observable cause-and-effect reaction. Eleanor starts behaving badly in the afterlife? Giant shrimp fly out of the sky and Ariana Grande starts blasting. Michael can’t find the cause of the disturbances? He has to go into retirement. As mundane or bureaucratic as The Good Place’s laws seemed, they helped the world feel orderly.
Two, The Good Place’s status as a sitcom—typically more formulaic, circumscribed by genre conventions, including episode length—may have helped it from getting as bloated or messy as some of its peers in the drama category (Westworld, The OA). Humor aside, The Good Place was a far less frustrating exploration of alternate worlds, while still retaining quite a bit of complexity. There’s some clear meta-commentary going on, with Michael emerging as a sort of grand architect-slash-storyteller, akin to Westworld’s Robert Ford. The Good Place also asked questions of how motivation and intent shape moral character, while playing with bigger ideas about social engineering and the vaguely sadistic nature of consuming stories. After all, most viewers thought they were enjoying a quirky comedy all season. The sly joke implied by the finale: What does it say about us that we had such a rollicking time watching four people make each other utterly miserable?
The structural sitcomminess—where the show has to revert to the status quo—of The Good Place also came through in the final moments of season one, albeit in a more surprising way. After Eleanor announces that she figured out that The Good Place is a sham, Michael has a mini tantrum (Danson’s transformation from fidgety nice guy to devious mastermind was incredible to see), and then asks his bosses for a second chance: He wants to erase the memories of Eleanor and her doomed neighbors (even more Westworld vibes) and redesign the “Good Place” so that Eleanor never feels the need to confess, or to figure out the truth about the afterlife.
Which, naturally, sets the foundation for season two. Had the first season not been such a pleasant surprise—consistently funny and smart and engaging—the prospect of a season-two “do-over” might seem automatically stale. (And even if, heaven forfend, the show doesn’t get renewed, the finale would nonetheless have been an appropriate ending.) But The Good Place looks to be setting its sights even higher, and with any luck, it will get to continue its own grand experiment in form and storytelling for at least a couple more years. Which means more torture and emotional conflict and stomachaches and feelings of inadequacy and secret “bud holes” for Eleanor and her friends—but a lot of fun for those of us watching.
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