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.

From: [personal profile] helen_keeble

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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