I just got through watching season one of The Good Place on Neflix. There were enough .gifs and video clips on the internet that I knew the general beats, but even knowing most of the twists, I was really impressed with this show.
It’s a network sitcom. It’s got all of the characteristics of a network sitcom: bright colors, characters who kind of like each other and kinda don’t, and Ted Danson.
The premise is that our main characters–Elanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jianyu are dead. They and 318 other dead people go to a personalized neighborhood in The Good Place to enjoy eternal happiness.
The kink in that plan–at least initially–is that Elanor doesn’t belong in The Good Place. A clerical error gave her the points (karma, basically) of another person. And if she’s found out, she goes to The Bad Place.
Elanor isn’t evil; she’s just a bad person who’s embrace an life aggressive immorality and selfishness. When disasters that reflect Elanor’s shitty behavior beset the neighborhood, Elanor has to learn to become a good person before the neighborhood’s all-powerful architect, Michael, can connect her to the disasters.
In true sitcom style, the ring of conspirators in Elanor’s misplaced status widens and the situations get wilder, but the tension never releases: the season’s penultimate moment is an emotional roulette wheel of characters arguing over trips to The Bad Place to save each other.
It’s clever. The premise–the Very Good Premise–takes the sitcom to its logical conclusion. No one has a job. Why? Because it’s The Good Place. Our main character learns an important lesson in each episode. Why? Because belonging in The Good Place is key to staying there. Characters pair off for no reason. Why? Because they’re universe-approved soul mates.
It’s so perfect it feels like it’s mocking the genre, and it is–spoilers:
The neighborhood is actually in The Bad Place, and it’s designed to make our four principals torture each other. The Week put it perfectly, “Michael is more than a demon; he’s a TV writer.” There are plenty of articles talking about how clever The Good Place is for how it plays with the genre, so I’ll put down the links and move on.
Paste: The Good Place Is the Perfect Metaphor for the Sitcom Genre Itself (kinda short)
I do want to gush about Ted Danson, but here’s a Vulture article that’s already done it for me.
“But what’s this about it being science fiction?”
The Good Place features Michae, a kind of an angel/demon guy who can rewrite reality on a very broad basis, Janet, a non-robotic, non-human being who can access all data in the universe, and moral lessons that are deeper than feel-good compassion, you-can-do-it positivity, and meaningless warnings away from extremist attitudes.
My platonic form of all science fiction is something which envisions technologies and futures which have failed to account for the changes wrought by both technology and the inevitable passing of time.
Even my beau ideal, Star Trek, falls a bit short. Their morality tales stipped of famliar context by technobabble and forehead prosthetics falls a bit short of grappling with good questions about technology and the future. It’s good drama and asks pressing, timeless questions in a science fiction milieu, but doesn’t quite fulfill the full requirements.
Star Wars lacks any science and ships and lightsabers magically work. Their metallic casings imply some kind of future technology, a manufactured–and therefore ‘legitimate’–force behind them.
Hard sci-fi loves its math, but seems to favor throwing a blanket of attainable railguns and orbital equations on top of the same dreary, geopolitical shapes we have today. It’s like if Tom Clancy couldn’t reach orgasm unless he was putting a physics degree to good use.
The Good Place has zero physics, but it delves deep into softer sciences like philosophy, morality, and sociology (Elanor’s behavior is clearly affected by her environment). The extra-normal elements don’t need to have Levar Burton recite technobabble over them to sanctify them up to the same level as The Matrix’s machine civilization run on human battery power. They’re there though; Janet’s murder switch, the giant viewscreens, the lie detector and its Apple-esque design are all technical housings concealing magic in the same form of Star Wars.
But intuitively, it doesn’t feel like science fiction. I think that’s due in part to alpha-nerd-driven preferences for hard sciences over soft sciences in the genre. Is a future with precisely described forging for space alloys still good if it has zero understanding–or interest in understanding–how humans or societies operate?
I hold it next to Quantum Leap a lot, even though there’s almost no single element the two shows have in common.
On the other hand, maybe quibbling over labels is stupid.
I enjoy the show. It’s a compelling idea, that ethics and morality–the implications of our actions, now— can be something that a show explains in a real, mature way–that moral philosophy, however briefly touched on–could be a recurring theme to a nationally televised sitcom is–it’s –it makes my heart happy.