rachelmanija: (Default)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2017-04-13 04:12 pm

The Good Place

The Good Place is a half-hour sitcom/serial; it doesn’t have standalone episodes but tells a single continuous story in thirteen episodes. I have no idea if this is now a common format for sitcoms, because I almost always dislike the genre and so don’t usually watch it. It’s not because of humiliation humor, it’s because I almost never find them funny. I also dislike the weird stagy way they deliver dialogue. Also, I generally dislike stories set in the afterlife.

The Good Place is a sitcom with that annoying stagy way of speaking, set in the afterlife. And yet I liked it a lot.

I found it very funny, with likable characters that I got invested in and a compelling storyline. It also did some things with the writing that I have never seen done before in exactly that way. Unfortunately, it’s hugely spoilery what they are, and the show is definitely best enjoyed unspoiled. Every single episode concludes with some kind of twist or revelation or cliffhanger, so even discussing what happens after episode one will spoil some of the enjoyment of episode two. So I will just explain the premise and a little bit of what I enjoyed about it, and put the rest of the entry behind a cut.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies and wakes up in the Good Place, a candy-colored Heaven bearing a suspicious resemblance to American suburbia. She’s immediately greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the angel who designed the Good Place. She has a perfect house made specially for her, and her very own soul mate with whom she can be together forever.

There’s just one problem: she’s the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop. Due to some mix-up, Michael thinks she was a do-gooder who saved starving children in refugee camps. In fact, she’s a selfish, shallow person whose life of misdeeds is shown in hilarious flashbacks. But she’s not stupid, and she definitely doesn’t want to be sent to the Bad Place. So after she’s shown to the house designed for the right Eleanor Shellstrop (decorated with giant paintings of terrifying clowns, because that Eleanor Shellstrop loved clowns), she confides in her assigned soul mate, Chidi, a sweet ethics professor. Can he teach her to be good before she gets found out, so she’ll actually deserve to stay in the Good Place?

The acting is across-the-board stellar, but I especially enjoyed Ted Danson doing a world-class job of a role that’s always fun, the inhuman being who likes but doesn’t really get humans, and Kristen Bell walking the tightrope of making Eleanor likable but not nice.

You can watch the entire thing on the NBC website.

Don’t read past the cut unless you want to be spoiled for literally everything.

The Good Place is a bravura piece of writing designed to be three shows in one. There’s the story we think we’re watching, in which Eleanor learns to be good in a weird, vaguely creepy Heaven. There’s the second story, which we discover only in the final episode, in which she, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are actually in the Bad Place. And there’s a third story, which is a metafictional commentary on sitcoms, in which Michael is the creator, everyone is his characters, and the Good Place is the sitcom. The third story is the most interesting to me (though, impressively, all three stories are very good on their own).

The narrative trick I hadn’t seen before is that the twist is thoroughly foreshadowed, but disguised by means of the audience’s knowledge of genre conventions. All the way through, I kept thinking, “That doesn’t make sense,” and “That seems contrived,” and “But Heaven/good people/Hell wouldn’t be like that.” And every time, I’d tell myself, “Oh, but that’s the joke.”

The real Eleanor Shellstrop is completely untraumatized and cheerfully accepting of being tortured in Hell? The partygoer donated both his kidneys to a random stranger? That’s the joke: they’re that ridiculously good.

Michael, an angel and total sweetheart, kicks a dog into the sun in a moment of frustration? That’s the joke: even angels have moments of absurdly insane rage. (For people who decided to read the spoilers: it’s not realistically depicted at all, and it’s not a real dog, but a simulacrom that couldn’t feel pain or fear. It was like erasing a drawing. Also, he instantly restores the fake dog. There is no actual animal cruelty in the show.)

All the grotesque injustices of Heaven – all the artists being in Hell, the point system of goodness, Chidi and Tahani deserving Heaven when far better people are consigned to Hell, no place for “medium people,” the horric punishment if Michael fails? That’s the joke: people’s conceptions of Heaven and Hell are often absurd and unjust and have nothing to do with real goodness.

The perfectly good people are weirdly insensitive to others’ feelings, like the marriage counseling couple barging in on Chidi and Eleanor or the flying person rubbing it in to earthbound Eleanor that it’s like a billion orgasms? That’s the joke!

Heaven is actually awful, from Eleanor’s clown house to frozen yogurt instead of ice cream? That’s the joke!

What’s so retrospectively delicious about all of this is that it works simultaneously as jokes, as satire on society’s ideas about good and evil, as foreshadowing hidden by the viewers’ knowledge of how jokes work, and as metafiction on sitcoms.

Michael kicks a dog - the most cliched way of demonstrating that a character is evil – but we don’t register it because he instantly explains that it’s not a real dog. We buy it because that’s the joke. But in fact, it was exactly what it seemed: a demonstration that he was the sort of person who would kick a dog: the embodiment of evil. But also, it was never a real dog, because you can’t hurt real animals on TV. It was a simulacrum: a CGI dog.

The “real” (actually fake) Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t traumatized by Hell and wasn’t upset about going back because she’s really a demon pretending to be Eleanor Shellstrop. And also, an actress playing a demon playing Eleanor Shellstrop. She was never in Hell, she was just offstage.

What sort of person would love a house full of terrifying and hideous clown paintings? No one, that's who. They're just there to torture Eleanor. And amuse Michael. And the viewers.

Heaven sucks, some situtions seem contrived, and everyone in it is weirdly too good and not good enough? That’s the joke. But also, Heaven is terrible because it’s really a cleverly disguised Hell. The minor characters are inconsistent because they’re doing what’s required of them to make the main cast miserable, rather than being real people. Situations are contrived because Michael is contriving them.

And also, the entire story and setting is a sitcom, in which Heaven and Hell are always going to work as satire or comedy rather than the writer’s best guess at what they’d really be like, it's a comedy convention that Heaven is bizarre and vaguely creepy, minor characters serve the needs of the main characters and story, and unlikely situations occur because they were written to be funny and illuminate character and serve the plot rather than to be realistic (because the sitcom is not a naturalistic genre). And the man running the whole thing is Michael – Michael Schur, the show’s creator.

Janet begging for her life was an especially brilliant example of multi-level storytelling. Her rapid switches from “Please don’t kill me, I have children!” to “This is a program, it isn’t real, the children are stock photos,” are at once funny and genuinely disturbing. She’s an AI. She doesn't feel emotion, she's just programmed to fake it. The children are stock photos. And yet she really is going to be destroyed, and her pleas sound real. The characters are as unsettled as the viewers. And, of course, she’s an actress doing a star turn of showing emotions she doesn’t truly feel, telling a story that isn’t true, and displaying actual stock photos of children who aren’t hers. The doubling of in-story reality and metafiction creates an exact mirror image, like a bridge over a still lake forming a perfect circle.

And just like Jane telling the characters she's not really frightened doesn't stop them from sympathizing with her, even when Janet tells you it's fake, and you've watched the show all the way through and understand the meta-commentary, it all still works. I've watched that scene repeatedly, and every time, I feel the same emotions: amusement, admiration at the craft of it all, and a sense of disquiet. Revealing the machinery doesn't make the machine stop functioning.

And so we get this perfect commentary on fiction. It's completely made up, and both the writer and the audience know it. But knowing it doesn't mean anyone cares any less.

And there are real children, if you go all the levels down: children who were photographed to get the image. And Jane was never in on the conspiracy, but is exactly what she seems. The unraveling of the Good Place reveals something real: the Bad Place.

Or is it? Is there a reality beyond the big reveal?

When “that’s the joke” didn’t cover something, I decided that it was because the Good Place wasn’t actually Heaven, but Purgatory. My working theory, which covered stuff like supposedly good people not caring that their friends or family or most of humanity had been consigned to Hell, was that none of the characters were actually good, but had been placed in the Good Place to learn to be good from each other. (In fact, very early on I wondered if it actually was the Bad Place, but I then dismissed that idea. I think because it just seemed inconceivable that Michael could be anything but sweet.)

I wonder if there is a God pulling the strings, unbeknownst to Michael. Is the real purpose of the Good Place exactly what I thought? Eleanor really does become a better person. Chidi is pushed to consider actual goodness, not just theories. Jason falls in love. Tahani faces the truth about herself.

Whether my theory is true or not, beneath all the Pirandello-esque layers of fiction and reality, the show really is about being good. The final twist is a Mobius strip, looping back on itself to become no twist at all.
deborahjross: (Default)

[personal profile] deborahjross 2017-04-13 11:37 pm (UTC)(link)
I've heard good things about it, and it's in my Netflix queue. I doubt boomerang-daughter will want to watch it with me, but you never know.
melebeth: (Default)

[personal profile] melebeth 2017-04-14 12:46 am (UTC)(link)
I liked the show the first time I watched it, and I liked it even more the SECOND time I watched it... with my boyfriend the moral philosopher. There is a whole layer of philosophy jokes I missed the first time through, plus I loved watching it with the Eye of Hindsight.
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[personal profile] melebeth 2017-04-14 03:05 pm (UTC)(link)
It really was. Also, he was doing a bang up job of guessing episode focus from the episode titles! Plus, now I can say to him,"this is why no-one likes moral philosophers" whenever he deserves it :)
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[personal profile] melebeth 2017-04-15 04:42 pm (UTC)(link)
PreCISEly :)
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[personal profile] coffeeandink 2017-04-15 08:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't think it was accidental. He started her off with Plato!
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[personal profile] sovay 2017-04-14 12:48 am (UTC)(link)
unbeknownst to Michael. Is the real purpose of the Good Place exactly what I thought?

That would be entirely in keeping with those conceptions of the Devil where he can't really get outside or go against God's plan despite his best efforts. I wasted a bunch of time looking for the citation in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus before I remembered it was Goethe's Faust: Mephistopheles introduces himself as "Ein Teil von jener Kraft, / Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft—"A part of that power / Which always wills evil and always works good."
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[personal profile] sovay 2017-04-14 01:35 am (UTC)(link)
It feels like a universe where the Devil isn't actually in control.

Nice! We get enough of the opposite.

[edit] The show as you describe it reminds me of this parable (which I first heard in the form of a folktale where the people cannot bend their arms) and also as though it is perhaps deliberately refuting the idea that hell is other people.
Edited (overquoted plus afterthought) 2017-04-14 04:36 (UTC)
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[personal profile] sovay 2017-04-14 04:45 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, it's clearly a riff on that story. They're supposed to be in a "Hell is other people" hell/story, but the entire thing falls apart when they bond with each other instead.

Sweet. I learned that story from one of the most important teachers of my life, so I have a great deal of affection for it. Also I feel it's often relevant.

I am glad someone is running a fantasy show that may be twisty, but is not grimdark.
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[personal profile] gaudior 2017-04-14 11:11 am (UTC)(link)
I will be so fascinated to see what they do with Season Two. I like and agree with the idea of this being Purgatory, with a God outside of it who's setting Michael up to teach the main characters to grow and change through their relationships with each other. But portraying genuine goodness-- especially on a divine level-- is so hard. The show does a beautiful job of showing sitcom-Hell type creepy "Heaven"-- but it feels like the ultimate twist would have to get them out of that to show real Heaven, and how do you do that on a sitcom?

If the show manages that, I will be madly impressed. I'm expecting a "walk into a door of white light to end the show" sort of thing, but I would love to be wrong.
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[personal profile] sovay 2017-04-14 06:21 pm (UTC)(link)
If the show manages that, I will be madly impressed. I'm expecting a "walk into a door of white light to end the show" sort of thing, but I would love to be wrong.

Have you ever seen a convincing Heaven done on TV?
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[personal profile] lilacsigil 2017-04-14 01:02 am (UTC)(link)
I enjoyed this show so much, and I really enjoyed your review explicating the third level of the show. Right from the start I kept saying that real Eleanor must be evil because she loved clown paintings, and yet I totally accepted it as sitcom fake Heaven where everything is meant to be a bit off. And poor Janet really was Good Janet all along, kidnapped in order to provide the structure of the supposed actual Good Place.

You're so right - Michael literally *kicked a dog*! And they kept bringing it up again in the context of the fake owner acting that she was upset that it was a fake dog and its fake emotions were entirely replaceable. And then the main group's memories were wiped and their emotions became reset in the same way.
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[personal profile] cloudsinvenice 2017-04-14 01:35 am (UTC)(link)
Ooh, I might watch this! The idea of a sitcom as a serialised story is interesting; I'm trying to think if I've seen that done before... maaaaaybe Love Soup, but that's more comedy-drama I suppose...
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[personal profile] kate_nepveu 2017-04-14 01:41 am (UTC)(link)
The season finale aired on January 19 and it made me happy in a way I didn't think possible for the next 36-ish hours.

I love it a lot. In addition to the layers you mention, I also love that the soulmates thing gets exploded, and that Eleanor is canonically bi.
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[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-04-14 04:02 am (UTC)(link)
I actually *won't* read beyond the cut for once, because this sounds fun, and it sounds like it's fun unspoiled. And hurray for being able to watch it on the NBC website! I'll check it out.
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[personal profile] laleia 2017-04-14 04:23 am (UTC)(link)
I love this review! I was watching the show and lowkey enjoying it (I happen to really like sitcoms), but like everyone else, the season finale blew my mind and recontextualized everything. I didn't appreciate the third meta narrative you raise, but now that you mention it, that makes everything so much better!
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[personal profile] enemyofperfect 2017-04-14 05:59 am (UTC)(link)
Whether my theory is true or not, beneath all the Pirandello-esque layers of fiction and reality, the show really is about being good. The final twist is a Mobius strip, looping back on itself to become no twist at all.

That is the best summary of this show. Despite the cleverness of the final twist -- which I increasingly appreciate the more I read about its metafictional level, so thank you for that! -- I felt vaguely frustrated by the finale, because I'd gotten invested in the idea of the show contrasting the fake quantified goodness of the Good Place with the real goodness that could only be found in human (or AI, or Architect) experience, and suddenly they flipped the game board I'd had so much fun playing on. But whatever twists they throw at us, the central concern of the show remains the same, which is a pretty neat trick to manage while turning literally everything else about their premise upside down.

[personal profile] helen_keeble 2017-04-14 09:12 am (UTC)(link)
Damnit, I wish this would come to the UK. My usual tricks for watching American shows are getting thwarted by the NBC app.

We got Jane the Virgin a year after it first aired, so I will hold out hope this will eventually make it to our shores too!
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[personal profile] laurashapiro 2017-04-14 02:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Your write-up is a revelation to me, because I never twigged to the third level, the meta-commentary.

Now I like the show even more.

I was very unhappy about the final twist, and I still am. But somehow I feel forgiving, because the whole thing was so well done.
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[personal profile] jorriespencer 2017-04-14 03:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Squinting past this, because you've said enough to pique my interest and I want to watch it! And I'm usually not drawn to sitcoms.
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[personal profile] yhlee 2017-04-14 06:51 pm (UTC)(link)
The only sitcom I watched much of was Big Bang Theory, so a meta level to The Good Place never even occurred to me! Thank you for this post.

Hilariously, Joe and I both figured out pretty early (around ep. 3 or so?) that The Good Place was a hell, and Joe figured out fairly early that Michael was either a devil or the devil. (I kept arguing that he was probably a middle manager getting manipulated from on high.)
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[personal profile] ravens_quill 2017-04-14 10:33 pm (UTC)(link)
I am also not a huge fan of afterlife shows, but the premise was intriguing enough that I watch the first episode and really enjoyed it. I can't wait to see season 2.

Fair warning for possible spoilery comments comments below:



I love how they developed the layers you mention, and whole-heartedly agree about it working best being viewed without spoilers.

I love how it makes me change the way I think about the whole of the season--it's a bit like finding out how a magic trick works. For me, I get the wonder of seeing the magic in the first place, but then seeing how it's done makes me appreciate the skill that goes into making it seem like magic.
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[personal profile] umadoshi 2017-04-17 02:38 am (UTC)(link)
What a marvelous review of a marvelous show. *^^* I'm excited to see what they do next season.
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[personal profile] alias_sqbr 2017-04-17 03:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, interesting! I had only really thought about stories one and two.
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[personal profile] jenett 2017-04-19 12:36 pm (UTC)(link)
I maybe inhaled this over the weekend, and found it fascinating - as you say, the three layers of story telling, and spotting little "Wait, can that be right?" moments.

(The dog. Michael's nosiness about things in a manipulative way. The creepiness of the neighborhood. The stories you hear from the other people as you hear them.)

I'm really looking forward to season 2, and seeing what they do with it.
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[personal profile] oyceter 2017-04-28 07:14 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, for some reason I never thought about the metatextual commentary on sitcoms! I loved that they use the viewer's acceptance of tropes to signal that the Good Place isn't the Good Place at all. When I was first watching it, those little niggling things annoyed me so much, so the twist was very appreciated.

I think one of my favorite moments is Michael knocking the plant off the table in a snitfit. It is so like a cat!
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[personal profile] radiotelescope 2017-05-02 01:49 am (UTC)(link)
I have finished binge-watching this, and this post isn't too old...

A delightful show. I am most delighted that it is *legitimately* a debate about ethics and moral philosophy.

My initial reaction was that they can't possibly carry off a second season, but of course they can -- they just have to do something completely different. And the show has demonstrated that it can do different things each episode. It is not a sitcom in the strict sense of static characters responding to the situation-of-the-week. No reset button.

(Of course, as soon as I say that, I realize that there *is* a blatant reset button at the *season-by-season* level. So is it a sitcom after all? Ha, I run rings around myself logically...)

Anyhow, we still have an unresolved tension between consequentialism and, er, whatever the term is for "corrupt intentions count against you". (Chidi probably told us in one of those scenes, but I have forgotten it!) And the unresolved question of what Michael could learn, and whether "the boss" has unrevealed motives. So there's room for a second season; we just have to hope it holds up.

> Michael kicks a dog - the most cliched way of demonstrating that a character is evil – but we don’t register it because he instantly explains that it’s not a real dog.

There's also some lovely pacing to it. Michael kicks the puppy early on, when his character is more of an affable alien; we have not yet seen him struggle with the group's problems. By the end, we have (we think!) a clearer picture of Michael as more human, compassionate, "part of the team". It's easy to dismiss the dog thing as a mistake or aberration or maybe something he's grown away from.

Finally: I want a full-size poster of Michael's original Neighborhood blueprint to hang next to my full-size poster of the Time Bandits Map of Time.