Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TV Review - The Good Place

There are few questions in life bigger than what happens when we die. Does heaven exist? Worse, does hell? And if so, where will our actions on earth leave us when we pass away. Not exactly what you would expect the plot of a television sitcom to grapple with, but comes now The Good Place, NBC’s winning new Thursday night comedy. In this rendering of the afterlife, judgment is unremitting and scientific - your earthly deeds tallied based on the amount of positivity or negativity they put into the world. [1] You truly need to be exceptional to gain admittance into the “good place,” which explains why every President but Lincoln, along with Picasso, Mozart, Elvis Presley, and Florence Nightingale are in the “bad place” while ordinary people like ethics professors, marriage counselors, Buddhist monks and a thirty-three year-old telemarketer from Arizona named Eleanor Shellstrop [2] are among the 322 souls who avoided that awful fate and landed in one of the good place’s perfect neighborhoods.

Overseeing the neighborhood is its architect, Michael, an otherworldly being manifested in the body of Ted Danson and Janet, his sidekick cum information repository for every bit of knowledge in the universe. Michael revels in the minutiae of the human condition. He is obsessed with the TV show Friends, finds amusement in the banality of karaoke and other pop culture ephemera like wax lips and Minions stuffed animals. [3] But Michael has little time to admire his handiwork. Shortly after Eleanor’s arrival, things start going horribly wrong, with everything from trash falling from the heavens to flying prawns being eaten by giant frogs and an enormous sink hole threatening to undo his meticulously planned community. We think it is Eleanor’s presence - unwarranted because of her rap sheet of social crimes (lying about whose name was pulled from a hat to determine who would be designated driver at a girl’s night out) and misdemeanors (leaving a dog sitting gig a day early to see Rihanna, which results in the dog overeating and becoming obese) that is to blame, but there is more to this mystery than meets the eye.

Show creator Michael Schur has indicated his writing was influenced by the groundbreaking ABC drama LOST and hints of that show can be seen in The Good Place. Flashbacks are used as a device to fill in the characters’ backstories but also to provide nuance and subtlety. Eleanor’s reluctant partner in crime is Chidi, the “real” Eleanor’s eternal soul mate [4] who, conveniently, was also a professor of ethics and is in a keen position to help “fake” Eleanor become a better person. But Chidi had his own earthly dilemmas. His 3,600 page treatise on ethics went unread [5] and the guilt of telling a minor lie to a co-worker about a pair of red leather boots so tortured Chidi he finally confessed the lie after the co-worker emerged unscathed from surgery for an aneurysm. [6] While Chidi is unquestionably virtuous and hates lying, was it worth the pain he caused his friend for what was essentially a fib in the service of the social contract?  

We also meet Tahani, a slightly pretentious philanthropist, It Girl, and one-time Baz Luhrmann muse [7] and her soulmate Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence. Tahani may seem perfect, but her backstory includes lingering in the shadow of her more talented sibling, never receiving her parents’ approval and then suffering the ultimate humiliation when they die by being left out of their will because they spelled her name wrong. And finally, Jianyu is actually a small-time DJ and drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida named Jason Mendoza who loves jalapeƱo poppers and EDM, but can also illustrate the philosophical tenet of utilitarianism by describing an incident when he framed a friend’s girlfriend for the theft of some boogie boards to keep his break dancing crew together. [8]

At its most general level, the show is invested in considering a simple question: should a “bad” person be given a second chance? Eleanor has inadvertently landed in the good place because of a mishap that occurred when she and a woman with the exact same name died at the exact some moment. The “other” Eleanor was an attorney who helped children in Ukraine and got innocent people off death row while our Eleanor sold fake vitamins to elderly people and generally acted in a selfish way towards everyone in her life. 

At first, the answer seems relatively straight forward. The havoc Eleanor wreaks ebbs when she corrects her behavior, but as the show pivoted toward the back half of its 13-episode run, we learn that the other Eleanor, the “real” Eleanor, is toiling away in the bad place, being tortured on a daily basis by being made to plan a baby shower for a woman she does not know and eating food that tastes like spider webs. [9] The dilemma brings two aspects of the show into sharper relief - the “fake” Eleanor is taking the place of someone who is not only deserving, but being forced to suffer the punishments “fake” Eleanor should be enduring and Chidi is being blocked from eternal bliss with his soul mate. Like LOST, which was overt in its homage to various philosophical tenets, The Good Place ruminates on these bigger questions but in a much more light hearted way.

The casting throughout is spot on. In the title role, Kristin Bell could have played Eleanor as a one note “hot mess,” after all, she dies in a grocery story parking lot after purchasing “Lonely Girl Margarita Mix For One” [10] but Bell’s portrayal is deeper than that. While she may default to chicanery and the easy way out, there is a budding sense of decency beneath the sass and potty mouth. She is capable of feeling guilt and is honest enough to note that being around “good” people makes her uncomfortable because of her own shortcomings. 

Danson is her equal and then some. His Michael is droll, whimsical, and endlessly fascinated by popular culture. Michael basks in the absurdity of life but is also its most pointed observer. The good place is littered with frozen yogurt shops, so when Eleanor asks Michael if he has heard of ice cream, he says he has, but likes frozen yogurt because it shows how humans will take something great and ruin it just a little so they have have more of it. [11] What a perfect description of mankind. Later, when Michael thinks he is to blame for the neighborhood woes and decides to retire, he laments the simple joys he will never experience - like pulling a hamstring or ending a quick conversation by telling someone to “take it sleazy.” [12] 

A late arrival to the show is Michael’s opposite number from the “bad place,” Trevor (a letter perfect Adam Scott in all his unctuous glory) whose jerky behavior includes telling women to “smile” and serving Manhattan clam chowder at room temperature on the train to the bad place. His posse are vain and narcissistic, constantly snapping selfies, mocking their good place opposites and literally snorting time. [13]

The big question, not unlike discovering the inside of the “hatch” on LOST, is, what now? Having pulled off the big reveal that Eleanor is an imposter within the show’s first half-season, where will the show take us? We know there is at least one other neighborhood fraud (Jianyu, who is outed by Tahani after she followed a trail of snack food crumbs and a surreptitious observation of Jianyu tapping a keg for the “bad place” posse to discover his “bud hole,” which is most definitely not a meditation retreat) and a higher being named Sean (a more perfectly anodyne name for a supreme being I do not know) will adjudicate the question of what to do with Real & Fake Eleanor. Might there be other glitches in the system or is this even “the good place” at all, a la the LOST island as a purgatory for those on the way to the great beyond. I can’t wait to find out.

The Good Place returns to NBC on January 5, 2017. 


1. Negative impacts include, among other things, being the commissioner of an american football league (-824.55), using the term “bro-code” (-8.20), using “Facebook” as a verb (-5.55) and oh yeah, committing genocide (-435,288.74). On the other hand, positive impacts include remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns (+53.83), the 94 times you gracefully ended a conversation about the weather (cumulative total +79.80), not discussing your veganism unprompted (+9857.02) and yes, ending slavery (+814, 748.95). Everything Is Fine, Season 1, Episode 1. 
2. Eleanor’s birthdate is October 14, 1982 (although while alive she lied and said it was 1986) and since the show started before her 34th birthday in 2016, her age at death was 33. Most Improved Player, Season 1, Episode 8. 
3. What We Owe To Each Other, Season 1, Episode 6. 
4. In the good place, you are reunited with your actual soul mate. Everything Is Fine, supra.
5. Tahani Al-Jamil, Season 1, Episode 3. 
6. What We Owe To Each Other, supra.
7. Tahani Al-Jamil, supra.
8. Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis, Season 1, Episode 5. See also, Jason Mendoza, Season 1, Episode 3. 
9. Someone Like Me As A Member, Season 1, Episode 9. 
10. Everything Is Fine, supra.
11. What We Owe To Each Other, supra.
12. Here, Michael’s suffering is two-fold. His disappointment at eating his first Saltine (too dry, too salty) is made worse when Tahani tells him to “take it sleazy” to which he moans, YOU got to say it? His retirement is not to some heavenly Palm Beach, but rather, having his essence scooped out of his earthly body and eternal beatings with a sharp object. The Eternal Shriek, Season 1, Episode 7. 

13. Someone Like Me As A Member, supra.

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