A Meditation on The Good Place

The Good Place was on the periphery of my cultural radar. Two people had mentioned it in passing, but one of them also loves the Kardashians. Can you blame me for not rushing to follow that person’s recommendations?

After watching the first episode of The Good Place, I felt pretty smug about my choice to put off the show for as long as I had. The writing presented as a cruel and pointless interpretation of the most punitive elements of the Christian/Catholic afterlife. Officious, hypocritical, and opaque power structures are why I left the church at ten. The notion of an afterlife where one only gets into “the good place” as opposed to “the bad place” if one has achieved a quantitatively-derived good person score is a bridge too far for me. Particularly when there’s no fixed good person threshold attached to the karmic score. It’s essentially the LSATs: a person can be 90% good but if the cut-off point for statistical goodness is 91% then there is effectively no difference between being 0% good and 90.999999% good. That means the 90.999999% good person gets tortured with red hot pokers up the ass all the same as the 0.9% good person who actually deserves some sort of cosmic retribution.

Combining karmic systems theory with the premise of the show being a bad person is accidentally accepted into “the good place” due to a case of mistaken identity, left me to believe that this literal morality play is predicated on a system that is as morally bankrupt as it is brutally incompetent. There was no sign of satire. No evidence of deconstruction. Everything is genuine and earnest. Thus snarked Adam.

And yet, I was wrong.

I was wrong to think that The Good Place was just another sitcom. I was wrong to think its writing was juvenile and haphazard, evoking so many first-year philosophy students who think they are the arbiters of all morality after a semester of studying the Greeks. I was wrong to take my typical TV approach of giving a series three episodes to impress me.

On first principles, it’s wrong to call The Good Place a sitcom. It’s a comedy, certainly, but it’s also long-form storytelling. The subtle signal that something different is afoot only makes itself known at the start of episode 2, where after cutting to the title card the words, “Chapter 2” are superimposed on the screen.

Chapter 2? I should have picked up on the intentional word choice. Sitcoms don’t have chapters. With rare exception sitcoms avoid any sense of chronology – Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Bojack Horseman being the only exceptions that readily come to mind. Outside of HBO, many one-hour dramas avoid chronology because of the perceived need to make each episode something that stands on its own.

The Good Place is closer to a novel in its structure. Because of that, it requires a little more patience from its audience than one might otherwise be inclined to offer a network comedy. And if there’s a fault to the writing, it’s that it does nothing to ask its audience for that patience beyond the third shot of the first scene of the first episode: the very image I used at the top of this post.

Everything is fine. It’s a message directed to both the series’ protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, masterfully played by Kristen Bell, and to the audience. The message is so soft spoken for the latter that it is easy to entirely miss. To that end, someone approaching The Good Place sight unseen, absent reviews or friends offering words of encouragement, should remember that there’s a larger story afoot. Put aside typical expectations and trust that there’s a plan – even if doing so might seem a little deterministic.

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