The second season of The Good Place has come to an end and I want to, no I need, to write about how amazing this show is. Despite being only two seasons long so far The Good Place has become one of my absolute favorite shows and one that I know I’m going to watch over and over again until the day I die and probably go the The Bad Place. Most of my review will be spoiler heavy, like most of my reviews, but I want to start with a small non-spoiler review first:
The Good Place will make you feel amazing.
It’s one of those shows that’s not just well written; it’s not just enjoyable; it’s good for the soul. It’s about people, and how even the worst of us can become better people, no matter how old and set in our ways we may be. Even in its darkest moments it will make you smile and leave a lingering sense of warmth and happiness long after you’ve watched it. It truly is one of the most remarkable shows I’ve ever watched.
You know that feeling you get when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’ll feel watching The Good Place.
So what specifically makes The Good Place so good? Well I’m glad you asked.
The Goodness of The Good Place
A Storytelling Review
I honestly have no idea how The Good Place came into existence. I mean imagine this pitch:
A woman dies and goes to heaven by mistake, but tries to fit in by taking ethics lessons from a professor of ethics and moral philosophy.
A show about ethics and moral philosophy? Marketed at the notoriously short attention spanned audience of television viewers? How did any shortsighted executive okay this? I would put it down to Fremulon probably having a better pitch than me (I’m notoriously bad at that) and the fact that they’ve had such a long history of amazing shows.
Fremulon is the production company behind Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now The Good Place which were/are absolutely amazing shows. Which makes me suspect that Michael Schur may be some kind of advanced alien life form come here to evolve humanity by giving us amazing television shows about how amazing humanity could be. You know, if we like, tried a little harder.
In the words of Eleanor, to our whole species, well:
It’s A Story About People Improving
Eleanor is a self-centered and toxic person who, like most selfish people, doesn’t even realize how awful she is. When she arrives in The Good Place she doesn’t even realize she’s not supposed to be there until she sees the memories of the person who is supposed to be there. Stuck in a place where she doesn’t belong she turns to Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, to teach her to be a better person and earn her place.
The first season of The Good Place has so much potential and material that most shows would have stretched it out over their entire run, milked it absolutely dry, but not this show. No, they keep the story going at a brisk pace, never allowing themselves to drag things out for the sake of padding the story. Every episode, every line of dialogue, and, somehow, even every joke propels the story forward. It’s a remarkable feat of just brilliant writing.
The reason the story of The Good Place never gets bogged down in its plot is because it’s an entirely character driven story. The entire plot is driven by the character’s actions and reactions to other character’s actions. From Michael’s elaborate deception to Chidi deciding to teach Eleanor ethics, every action has made the story move forward. Which makes perfect sense because The Good Place is a story about how people change, and it relies on the strength of its characters.
The best characters are the ones that change and evolve during the story, and the brilliance of The Good Place is that the characters are guaranteed to change because that’s the whole point of the show. The first season I watched Eleanor go from a profoundly selfish and destructive person to a self-aware and compassionate human being. And in the second season I watched Michael turn from evil demon determined to torture Eleanor and friends for all eternity to sacrificing himself to save them.
I will admit The Good Place isn’t perfect in this regard, Jason Mendoza is made out to be too stupid to improve as a person. Jason is great for comic relief, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere to go with such a profoundly stupid character. Tahani also hasn’t made much progress in the past two seasons. She’s had some moments, my favorite being her confronting her parents in this latest season, but overall hasn’t enjoyed the same growth as Chidi, Eleanor, and Michael. Still we’re only in season 2 and given the quality of the rest of the writing, I have faith that The Good Place will address these problems in future seasons.
I also have absolutely no idea what future seasons of The Good Place will bring because I can’t predict what crazy direction it will go next.
The Good Place is Never Predictable
At the conclusion of the first season Eleanor figures out that they’re all really in The Bad Place. I admit, I suspected that something wasn’t right when Eleanor arrived. The unfair grading system used by the afterlife; the amount of things going wrong that Michael couldn’t explain; all the frozen yogurt that’s just ice cream but worse; it all pointed to something being terribly wrong. By the end I was convinced, but I never expected them to reveal that in their first season! Most shows would have stretched that out over the entire run, or at least the first two or three seasons. The Good Place doesn’t waste time though, and more importantly, doesn’t cripple its character development by making the characters run through this hamster wheel of repetition that most shows do.
After Eleanor finds out his plan Michael decides to restart the experiment and literally resets the characters. They forget everything they’ve learned, all the wonderful character development that had made The Good Place such a treat to watch was gone in a moment. On the one hand, I loved this twist and how much sense it made, but on the other I was afraid it had blown all its good ideas in a single season.
One of the traps that TV shows often fall into is resetting their story after each season only to repeat the same character arc each time. Years ago in a review of Breaking Bad I wrote about how House did this with its main character after a season of profound character development. The final season of House was a mess as a result of this reset, and after the first season of The Good Place I was afraid they were making the same mistake.
I’ve never been more wrong.
Instead Michael’s reset pushed the story forward in new and totally unexpected ways.The reset itself is dealt with in the first episode as Michael hilariously goes through 800+ variations of his neighborhood, but the characters always figure out they’re in the bad place, including, in what is without a doubt Michael’s worst failure, Jason. When one of Michael’s fellow demons blackmails him, threatening to tell Michael’s boss about his failures, the story takes on a whole new dimension as Michael allies himself with the very people he’s supposed to torture.
There were various ways for the story to progress, but I wouldn’t have anticipated this because it was such a risk. After all the obvious love and talent that went into designing The Good Place‘s set, they literally burn it all to the ground in order to move the story forward.
Yet the move in location was in keeping with the character’s actions. The Good Place manages to feel completely unpredictable while still feeling organic because every twist is a result of a character’s actions. So when Eleanor and her friends are sneaking through The Bad Place its a natural progression of events. Well, as natural as can be in a show set in the afterlife. In fact the main twist of the first season, that they’re actually in the bad place, comes about as a response to Chidi’s actions. Never in a thousand years, and I mean that quite literally, would Michael have assumed that Chidi’s lessons would actually work.
His entire reality is founded on the principle that people don’t change, that we can’t become better people. The fact that Eleanor learns from Chidi and eventually turns herself into Michael, volunteering to go to the bad place, is what upends his entire plan. It’s easily one of the most beautiful messages in The Good Place, it’s never too late to become a better person. It’s also this realization that drives Michael’s actions in the the second season, he’s seen that people can become better. The afterlife, The Good Place and the Bad Place, are all built on a faulty premise. This is the core argument of his case to the judge for allowing Eleanor and her friends to go to The Good Place.
Her rebuttal of course is… so what? Eleanor only began to improve as a person because she was terrified of going to The Bad Place. If the only reason you’re a good person is because you’re afraid of cosmic consequences… are you really a good person?
It’s So Good That You Don’t Realize It’s…Educational
I took a philosophy class in college once and it was one of the most challenging and dense subjects I’ve ever encountered. Yet somehow The Good Place has taken this incredibly complex subject and made it accessible. Not just accessible, but hilariously entertaining. I didn’t even realize how much I was learning from The Good Place until I was watching it again to write this article. I didn’t even know who Emmanuel Kant was before (my class didn’t get beyond the basics) and now I want to go out and read his book.
Watching The Good Place the first time I didn’t even realize how much time is spent on just discussing philosophy. Chidi literally lectures on this subject multiple times, but it’s written in such a clever and entertaining way that I never realized they were lectures. Like all the best teachers, The Good Place makes it so fun to learn that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. More than just teaching you the basics though, it also teaches you how to apply it.
It encourages you stop and think about your own actions and motivations. Am I really a good person? Or do I just pretend to be because I’m afraid some kind of cosmic karma system is grading me?
Do people become bad because of how people perceive them? Or is that how they’re perceived because they do bad things?
A existentialist philosopher named Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play called No Exit about what is essentially the same premise as the first season of The Good Place. Three people end up in Hell, arguing among themselves as to why they arrived there and waiting for the torturer to arrive. At the close of the play, when they realize no one is coming to torture them because they themselves are doing it by simply being there together, one of the characters remarks:
Hell is other people.
– Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit
You’ve probably heard or seen this phrase a lot, it’s his most quotable line. It’s also his most misunderstood, it doesn’t mean that just being around people is hell (though for introverts like me it sometimes is) but that how people perceive us and the way that makes us feel can be hell. If you’re stuck in a room with someone who thinks you’re worthless, who hates you, who feels you’re a disappointment, or any of the petty judgments we make about people (often complete strangers)… you can’t help but take those observations onto yourself. Suddenly you feel that’s exactly what you are and that is indeed Hell.
Yet the other side of that coin, and the one The Good Place is exploring, is that heaven is other people too. When you’re around people that support you, believe in you, and love you… that’s heaven. For those who have been exceptionally lucky, we have special people in our lives that make us strive to be better people, for me it’s my best friend Hali, and for Eleanor it’s Chidi.
We think of heaven, or The Good Place, as a place where we no longer have to work at being good. It’s our earned reward, we can relax now, but I think if there is a heaven… we will always have to work at becoming better. Nothing happens in a vacuum, even a star doesn’t shine until crushing gravitational forces have caused it to begin fusing its constituent elements. That’s what The Good Place encourages us to find, our drive to improve and grow as people.
I could go on and on about this show, but really the thing I keep coming back to is this: The Good Place just makes you feel good. It’s all at once whimsical, heartfelt, educational, well written, charming, and original. Yet the most valuable thing of all is just how much a positive impact is has on me personally, and hopefully many others. I smile from the beginning of The Good Place until the very end and leaves me feeling so good I sometimes wonder if The Good Place has addictive qualities.
Who cares though, because if I’m going to be addicted to a show, I’m glad it’s The Good Place.