Saturday, December 12, 2020

TV Review: The Good Place (Series)

 Title card for The Good Place, with "The Good Place" written in white writing on a plain green background

I'll be honest, I have been putting of this review for a long time.  I found it difficult to put into words how I feel about this show.  And The Good Place is a show that has really affected me emotionally.

When the show first premiered, my wife and I began to watch it.  We are huge Veronica Mars fans, so we wanted to watch Kristen Bell's new show.  Also, the show's creator Michael Shur had produced great shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation.

However, we quit the show after the first few episodes.

The Good Place is the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell).  The show begins immediately after she has just died and found herself in a waiting room to meet Michael (Ted Danson) who explains that he is the architect of this neighborhood that will be her afterlife.  He says that when people die they sum total goodness or badness of their actions are calculated and they are assigned to either the "Good Place" or the "Bad Place."  Michael tells her that this is the "Good Place."  The neighborhood is idyllic and overwhelmingly pleasant.  Now one is even allowed to curse, no matter how hard Eleanor tries (hence her catch phrase: "Holy Forking Shirtballs."). Eleanor is then introduced to her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) a professor of moral philosophy.  Eleanor is also introduced to her neighbor in the afterlife, the socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her soul mate (Manny Jacinto).  To help them is an AI helper named Janet (D'arcy Carden) who answers all of their questions and can fetch them nearly anything their heart desires.  Everything seems fine until Eleanor tells Chidi a secret: 

There has been a case of mistaken identity.  They have mistaken her for another Eleanor Shellstrop.  Bell's Eleanor should be in the "Bad Place" and if they find out, she will be sent there.

The premise was so incredibly intriguing, but as I said, my wife and I stopped watching after a few episodes.  There were 2 main reasons:

1. Afterlife Rules.  As a devout Catholic, the portrayal of the afterlife can be a sensitive subject.  If there are people who openly embraced an immoral lifestyle and ended up in the "Good Place" without repentance, that would imply that these sins were morally justified.  And we found this to be the case with several of the residents.  In addition, this "Good Place" still seemed filled with petty jealousies, egotism, and materialism.  The pilot begins by explaining that all religions are only partially correct, which is difficult for someone who believes deeply. 

2.Unlikeable Characters.  Eleanor is a terrible person at the beginning of the show.  Yes, every episode she learns a little bit of a lesson, but it was very difficult to root for her or care about her journey.  This was especially true of Tahani as well.

We quickly lost interest.  The series continued for four seasons.  And all the while, I would always hear buzz about how good the show got and even my students would tell me about it.  One of them finally said that you really have to finish the first season before you make a judgment of the series.

So early in the COVID pandemic, my wife and I decided to give the series a try again.

And I discovered one of the best shows I have ever watched.

Finishing the first season helped alleviate many of my issues with show and recontextualize everything that I had seen up until that point.  We ended up binging the entire rest of the series in just a few weeks.

As I wrote, this show affected me on an emotional level.  I do not know if it will have the same effect on the general audience, but I need explain why.

My deepest fear is going to hell.

When I reflect on my life, I am sometimes overwhelmed by my unworthiness and fear damnation.  I know that if I was holier I would focus more on God's love and mercy than my own fears, but that is just my reality.  When watching The Good Place, the characters are playing with such eternal stakes that touch the core of what I find most terrifying.  There is always danger of damnation and the show does a good job of making this feel like a real possibility.  I never felt like our characters were safe.  One misstep and all was lost forever.  This gave the series an odd tension that I haven't felt since watching a show like 24.

Also, I began watching during the height of the first shut-downs.  Anxiety and fear of death were permeating my daily life.  A show about what happens after death struck a particular emotional chord.  I don't know that I would have had the same reaction if I had watched it at any other time.

What is so odd is that it didn't stop the show from being funny.  In fact, the humor juxtaposed to the emotional horror made for such an engaging story.  

Speaking of the humor, I have never seen a show that did a perfect balancing act between high brow and low brow humor.  Many shows appeal to pure crudity like Married with Children.  Some try to stand on high wit like Frasier.  Some try to not go too broad or too sophisticated.  But The Good Place is a show of two extremes.  

It will build incredibly intelligent jokes based on Aristotelean ethics or Catholic moral principles like Double Effect in the Trolley Problem.  As a philosopher, I cannot tell you how good it is to watch a show that uses Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas as setups and punchlines.  It even has some wonderfully insightful jokes.  For example, the neighborhood in the "Good Place" is filled with frozen yogurt shops.  Michael comments to Eleanor that humans coming up with frozen yogurt in place of ice cream is typical of our species.  He says "There's something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it."  I laughed so hard at that line and spent days thinking about how insightful that is.  In another episode, Eleanor and Chidi end up somewhere called the "Medium Place" where it is neither good nor bad.  Here there is only one movie: Cannonball Run 2.  And I remember think that that movie so exquisitely medium.  It is not awful, but it is no way good.  

But The Good Place is filled with broad, low-brow humor.  There are more fart jokes on this show than any show I have seen, including South Park.  

So. Many. Fart. Jokes.

The show is filled with super-silly sight gags like giraffes in pajamas and dogs getting kicked Into the sun.  The character Jason is particularly a focus of the dumbest humor imaginable.  That isn't necessarily a detriment.  The show revels in its own silliness and when you get to like the characters you begin to enjoy it too.  Admittedly, it does push it a bit too much at times.  Like most modern sitcoms, there are way too many sex jokes.

So this is not a sophisticated show.  It is a silly show dealing with sophisticated ideas in a witty and sometimes very cheesy way.  And yet despite the broadness of the comedy, there are moments that pull at the heartstrings and moments of profundity.  Eleanor at one point explains something that I've never heard articulated but sounds so true: "All humans are aware of death, so we're all a little bit sad.  All the time.  That's the deal."  The relationship between Chidi and Eleanor is the emotional heart of the show and it goes through so many ebbs and flows that you don't know what will happen.  But there is a melancholy that overshadows them.  And for me, one of the most touching moments was when Michael turns to Eleanor and gives his solution to the Trolley Problem.

Again, I have an emotional hook into this show.  Humor being very subjective might result you not having nearly the same reaction.

Objectively, I can say that the story moves at a wonderful pace.  There are exactly 52 chapters.  And unlike a lot of shows, once you leave the first season it feels like the story is going somewhere.  My big complaint with shows like The Walking Dead is that each season starts strong and ends strong, but the middle always feels like its spinning its wheels.  The Good Place feels like something momentous happens each episode that pushes the story in a new direction.  The end of each chapter left me desperate to find out what was going to happen to our characters.

Some of the performances are amazing.  Bell is one of the few actors that can handle drama and comedy perfectly.  She is able to make Eleanor unlikeable and likable at the same time.  Just when you want to write her off, she shows some humanity.  And just when you think she's been redeemed, she falls a step.  I also loved Harper's Chidi.  He wrings every ounce of comedy and drama from a man who is so overly conscientious and scrupulous to the point where his own obsessive morality makes life difficult for everyone around him.  This is also Danson's best work in years.  There are layers to his character that is all hidden with a simplistic veneer.  Special mention should also be given to Carden's Janet.  At first her performance is one-note and bland.  But that is actually in service of her character who is written as one-note and bland.  But as the series progresses, we get to Carden's talent shine.  There is one episode particularly, where she has to place not only several different versions of her own character, but she must perform as all of the main characters at once.  

Not all of the performances are great.  Jamil and Jacinto get better as the series goes on, but never rise to the level of great.  Some actors play the broad comedy well.  Marc Evan Jackson's "Shawn" is a flat character, but he is done with such perfect deadpan that you don't care.  However, Maya Rudolph appears in a few episodes as an important character and she is just awful.  Rudolph is a very talented actress, but her take on her character sucks all of the life and energy from every scene that she is in.

As an exploration of morality and spirituality, I found the overall experience enjoyable.  In ignoring Christianity, The Good Place actually pays it an odd compliment.  Most modern shows would go out of its way to say that the Christian faith is wrong.  Instead, the show tries to side-step the problem, which is good.  The show reminds of the movie Defending Your Life, where the afterlife is a place of judgment only in regards to overcoming fear.  It isn't meant to be a doctrinal statement, but a medium in which to explore human living.  

The Good Place explores many different moral philosophies and incorporates them into the plot.  Particularly, I love how it is ultimately an exploration of virtue ethics.  It explores the rewards and struggles of trying to be moral, even when the external rewards are not present.  Ultimately, the show is a rejection of a Pelagian world-view where our morality is judged on a points system.  If the show does lean towards one religion, it has a very Buddhist outlook.  

The show does not do this well.  As I said, in order for the show to keep a broader appeal it shows characters growing in cardinal, universal virtues, but there really is no sense of holiness.


If you do not want to leave the series on a melancholy note, end the show with two episodes left.  The last two episodes deal with the writers attempt to come up with a perfect afterlife.  Here is where the show's lack of Christian perspective leads to sense of sadness.  If eternity is only a succession of moments and if a perfect heaven is limited by human imagination, then even this heaven would become a hell.  This is where the writers turn to Buddhism for the solution.  But the impermanence of the faith leads to sadness.

I spoke with people who say that the finale ruins the show.  It doesn't ruin it, but it does leave you very sad.  Depending on how you look at it, the finale could be horribly tragic or it could bitter-sweet.  But it leaves just enough mystery to allow the possibility of a happy ending.


The Good Place is a show that holds a special place in my heart.  That place is cemented by the emotional context in which I encountered it.  I don't know if it would have been the same if I had watched it at any other time.  Perhaps you will feel the same.  Perhaps you will not.

But at the very least, the show reminded me that as long as you have real, true love and friendship, you don't have to wait to die to be in the "Good Place."

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