‘The Good Place’ redefines the sitcom with its journey into moral quandaries.
In 2017, 487 original scripted television series aired, according to FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. This is up from 182 series just 15 years earlier, in 2002. Thanks to the emergence of online services like Netflix and Hulu and the growth of original programming in that time by basic cable services like FX, the demand for original ideas is staggeringly high. Somehow in this environment, at old worn-out broadcast network NBC, The Good Place — the most original, unique and surprisingly deep sitcom in years — has emerged. Is it the best? Constrained by the limits of time and space, I haven’t seen all 487 original series produced this past year, but it’s certainly the most bold and fascinating, so I’ll take the leap and say, yes, it’s the best.
Created by Michael Schur, cocreator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place is the best show on television, not because it’s the funniest or the most dynamic but because, of all the 487 original series that were produced in 2017, it’s the one that tries to say the most and does so in a staggeringly original way. It cements Schur as perhaps the finest creator of American television comedy since the golden age of James L. Brooks, the mastermind behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and Cheers.
The premise of The Good Place is a high concept that sounds like one of those gimmicky sitcoms from the ’80s like Small Wonder (which is about a little robot girl and her human family or something, and it’s one of the worst things the human race has ever developed, in case you don’t know). Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a vain, amoral harpie who dies and is accidentally transported to the Good Place, a kind of super-exclusive heaven reserved for the truly moral and good people of the world, such as Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper); professor of moral philosophy Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), a philanthropist who raised an absurd $60 billion for charity; and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist priest who has taken a vow of silence. The Good Place is run by Michael (Ted Danson), a supernatural architect who designs Good Place neighborhoods for these morally upstanding individuals. They are all assisted by Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a kind of ultimate Siri, with all the knowledge of the universe available for Good Place inhabitants.
That’s the premise up front.
Eleanor, realizing she doesn’t belong, confesses this to her appointed soulmate Chidi, who decides to educate her in ethics and moral philosophy in the hopes she can deserve her spot in the Good Place. In what has to be a sitcom first, The Good Place drops the names of philosophers aplenty, including Plato, Aristotle, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Lao Tzu and more. The humor is equally as deep and funny. When Eleanor says, “Who died and made Aristotle boss?” Chidi answers, exasperated, “Plato!” More than just containing funny in-jokes, The Good Place attempts to answer the ultimate question: What makes a good person good?
The Good Place goes further than any TV series in posing these basic questions of humanity and morality. By eschewing any specific religions and creating a kind of bureaucratic methodology behind heaven, Schur and his writers, which include Megan Amram and Jen Statsky, are able to investigate basic moral quandaries.
If you haven’t tried the first season, SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ll try not to spoil too much, and if I do, it’s your own fault for not watching this show yet.
For example, one of the more humorous parts of the show is how Eleanor is attempting to remain in the Good Place by being good. Those who inhabit it have done so because they’ve literally gained points for doing good things. Saving multitudes of orphanages, for example, may net you millions. In the first season Eleanor, seeing she has -3993 points, attempts to do good things for people in order to gain points. However, by the end of the episode, when no points have been gained, she realizes her motivations have been morally corrupt: She’s only doing good things for self-preservation, to keep herself in the Good Place. When you think about it, this sitcom is taking the moral stance that if you’re only doing good things in order to get into heaven, you belong in hell. That’s pretty extraordinary, because it means hell must have a terrible overcrowding problem, which, one would suppose, would make it hell.
The premise is turned upside down in the final episode of the first season, in which (SPOILER) Eleanor realizes she and her three friends are really in the Bad Place, victims of an experiment by Michael, who’s really a kind of evil but playful demon, trying to find innovative ways to torture bad people. Rather than just hitting them with hot pokers, why not let these four people torture each other? At the end of season one, realizing the mistakes he’s made, Michael erases the protagonists’ memories and hits the reset button. Here, the true nature of the series reveals itself. Schur envisioned the series as a five-season journey, and he has said in interviews he consulted with Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof before production began, and Lost veteran Drew Goddard is a producer on the show and directed the pilot episode. Michael being revealed as a kind of one-man demon Dharma Initiative created an even more playful, extraordinary show, as Michael’s continuing mishaps with his experiment get him in trouble with Shawn, the deadpan all-seeing judge played by Marc Evan Jackson, the deadpannest actor of them all.
The second season, which sees Michael ally himself with his human guinea pigs, is about Michael’s journey to understanding humanity and finding the humanity within himself. The show is ostensibly still Eleanor’s and the other three humans’, but it turns more from the questions of what makes a good human to what makes a human at all. Ted Danson shines as he hasn’t shined since the glory days of Cheers as he inhabits the frustrations and joys of an evil demon attempting to understand and embrace humanity. The upcoming third season (Feb. 2019) appears to give Eleanor and her friends the chance to actually relive their lives as if they hadn’t died, to see whether they can be good on their own, without any knowledge of their fates if they don’t embrace a good and moral life.
The Good Place is perhaps the most purely experimental sitcom that has ever aired. Full episodes sometimes take place in a single room with the sole premise being the attempt to unravel a moral quandary. The fact that it airs on one of the three broadcast networks that seem to believe the only way they can survive is resurrecting old sitcoms like Will and Grace, Murphy Brown and Mad About You is extraordinary. In this age of political screaming and the glorification of the greedy and selfish, when a network sitcom poses and attempts to answer the questions of what makes a person good and what is the nature of morality, it’s not only a great television show but perhaps one of the most important ever produced.