How The Good Place Lost its Way

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SPOILERS for seasons 1-3 of The Good Place

I remember how I felt after the end of The Good Place’s amazing season 1 finale. It was that rare storytelling twist that was both surprising and the only outcome that made any sense. Of course the lead characters were in hell I thought, where else could they be? The angelic neighborhood architect played by Ted Danson was actually a malevolent demon this whole time, torturing our four main characters by simply setting them loose against each other. Eleanor’s dirtbag behaviour, Chidi’s indecisiveness, Tahani’s narcissism, and Jason’s… Jason’s being an idiot (there’s no nice way to put this), were perfectly suited to torture each other. This was done by thrusting them into familiar sit-com episode set-ups artificially created by Michael in an elaborate attempt to make them miserable without them ever realizing it. For an NBC network sitcom, this was without exaggeration, a genius conceit. It suggested that all a sitcom amounted to was a writer torturing their characters with the stresses of mundanity and the toxic combination of their wacky personalities. This was a brilliant direction for a show, it would take a lot to ruin it all. Unfortunately, they did.

Perhaps the greatest thing about the season 1 twist wasn’t its cleverness or how hard it was to catch, but like all great twists, the best aspect of it is where it left our characters. The worst possible thing that could possibly have happened, has happened to them. They died and went to hell, and now they all know it. There wasn’t a goofy, cosmic mistake that left Eleanor and Jason in paradise, and despite all of Chidi and Tahani’s pretensions towards “goodness”, they were fundamentally broken people that were judged for it and were condemned to eternal damnation as a result. As fun and light as the show was, there was a real gravity to this. These were four characters we grew to love, who were put in the worst position imaginable, and according to the rules of the universe, deserved it. What made the finale truly exciting though, was Eleanor, who was the most nakedly terrible person of the main characters, and her determination to challenge her fate. The universe deemed her and her friends unworthy and she was willing to stand up to it and find a path to eternal salvation. Michael, the evil and uncaring demon, snapped his fingers and wiped her memory, but the fight was on.

The first three episodes of the second season are the peak of the show I feel. It’s Eleanor and all her flawed humanity, thwarting the machinations of an ancient demon’s deceptions over and over again. For as awful as they were in life, our main characters never really stood a chance at being “good”. Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason had awful parents, and Chidi had to have had some kind of anxiety disorder, but in their deaths and against the plans of the higher beings toying with them, they managed to grow through the bonds they shared with each other. Maybe the ‘powers that be’ believe they deserve eternal torment, but the viewers could plainly see how cruel a punishment that would be for these flawed and damaged people. What gave the light Schur comedy any weight at all was the clash between the idea that even these flawed people deserved better, and a cruel and unfeeling authority that demanded more purity than was reasonable. This tension and drive all falls apart though, when that authority starts to agree with our heroes, and that’s where the show really lost its way, through Michael’s Heel-Face turn.

Michael started the show as a kind, blubbering, and sensitive old man who just loved humans so dang much, but often inadvertently got them into trouble. In a way, he was a familiar sitcom trope, the well-meaning, but out of touch old man who constantly caused headaches for the more relatable younger characters. This was of course, a fake persona. It was a total cliché, and that’s part of what made the fact that it was a fake persona so insidious. It was something that was so familiar twisted into something used to torture people. The truth was, Michael was a sadistic demon whose greatest ambition was to find a more creative way to make human beings miserable. When the show decided to undo all of that, to set Michael on a path to becoming exactly who he was pretending he was, that’s when the show lost its edge, and it all began with the fourth episode of the second season. When Michael joined the humans, it was the beginning of the end. The show stopped being about four flawed people challenging their fate, it just became another Schur sitcom about great people doing great things and being great together. It lost sight of what it meant that our main four were condemned to hell, it just became about them finding one dumb thing to do after another. Sure, Michael’s whole plan was to smuggle them into actual paradise, but it didn’t have the effect it had before. Something was missing, and I didn’t realize it until Season 3’s key revelation about the after-life, which ironically served as something of a death knell for the show’s potential.

It turns out, literally every human, no matter how virtuous, is condemned to hell these days. The show morphed into a story about saving all of humanity, which sounds interesting on paper, but really isn’t when you think about it. The thing about larger stakes is that they don’t make a show’s central conflict more interesting, they just make the individual character arcs feel smaller. The fate of all of humanity isn’t as interesting as the fate of the four humans we followed to this point. Their desperate escape from hell should have remained the focus, but that was never going to happen when a godlike demon joined their party. It was never going to be just a story about escaping hell when Michael joined, and that’s why his turn to their side is what really killed the show, and not the revelation about humanity’s fate (which was just the show’s time of death, not the fatal blow). Much has been written about what it says about modern society that no one could possibly get into heaven, that modern living under capitalism necessitates exploitation in everything we consume, but as I said before, the story they’re telling now about human society was nowhere near as interesting as the story they were telling at the end of season one.

The Good Place morphed into the show it was fooling us into thinking it was in season 1. Right now, we’re left with an intrepid group of good humans and their kind, blubbering, and sensitive human loving guardian trying to appeal to the authority of a judge to change the rules of the afterlife. The difference now is that it feels even more weightless because the actual judge is a fun loving Maya Rudolph who basically already likes our heroes. The story could have gone in two directions after season one it seems, one was a comedic but weighty journey of four ‘bad’ people trying to escape hell in a universe that sees them as evil that deserves to be treated like trash, and the other is an exercise in liberal guilt as our heroes try to convince a naïve but ultimately well-meaning bureaucracy that the human race deserves to not be unilaterally tortured after death. The deepest themes the latter ever musters is “Ehhh, what if everything we do is bad because of pollution and the environment and stuff”. Who cares, these are the themes this show was never equipped to tackle. Anti-capitalism? From Schur, the guy who co-created the show about the fun cops? I’m sorry, but stay in your lane bucko. There are no novel insights to be gleamed from this creative team beyond neurotic fretting. They should have kept it smaller and more singularly focused on philosophy and ethics driving the four humans. Speaking of which, it should also be said that a show about four selfish humans banding together through a common interest to escape hell feels like much richer ground to discuss the philosophical themes the show was ultimately just pretending to be interested in.

                The Good Place ended season 1 as an original, and self-reflective series about the nature of sitcoms and a subversion of the Mike Schur formula. It began season 4 as a grotesque parody of the Schur formula that is utterly unaware that this is what it’s become. It isn’t a “bad” show exactly, but it’s a show that walked right up to genuine greatness, turned away from it with a glib joke about how doing something different is “for ding-dongs”, and falls backwards into merely being “Okay”. It’s as weightless and empty as Parks and Recreation’s final episode was, but somehow smugger, and self-satisfied with itself in a way that suggests it didn’t systematically remove all the nuance and intrigue they created in that amazing season one finale. Sorry, The Good Place,  but YA BASIC!

Random aside: IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE THAT PEOPLE CAN’T SWEAR IN THE ACTUAL GOOD PLACE. The idea that swearing in paradise was forbidden seemed like a subtle clue that the “Good Place” we were presented with was a cruel facsimile of one constructed by demons. The idea that no one can actually swear in ACTUAL paradise is asinine and thoughtless in a way that is emblematic of larger problems with this show.

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