Contains major spoilers for The Good Place.
How does one take the template of an American ensemble comedy series and apply it to the type of serialised, long-form storytelling made popular by something like Lost? The answer would be The Good Place.
Debuting in 2016 and Michael Schur’s first solo credit, The Good Place arrived like it was going to be something typical of Schur’s NBC output; an ensemble cast, crazy humour, maybe something to say about the world at large, only this time in an afterlife setting that would allow the humour to go into surreal places in a very deliberate way.
By the end of the first season, it would throw in one of the most genuine game-changers for a television series in a very long time and also reveal itself to be one of the very subversive series on television, unafraid to unravel itself with plot twists just to see what would happen.
That Schur actually consulted with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof says a lot about the intention behind the afterlife comedy that became an instant success and proved that network television can still create a culturally defining hit in an era when streaming giants such as Netflix and the cable behemoth of HBO were producing the current generation of television classics.
In fact, the series pulled the rug out from under the feet of the audience pretty much right away with a reveal that lead character Eleanor (Kristen Bell) was not meant to be in the good place of the show’s title and was there due to an afterlife clerical error, while later on Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto), a Taiwanese Monk who had taken a vow of silence, was actually Jason, a drug dealer and wannabe DJ, and was also there by mistake.
If one were to pay attention closely to the traits of the characters and their backstories (like Lost, flashbacks were utilised at various points), one would see that something was off; Chidi (William Jackson Harper in what should hopefully be a star-making role) was incredibly indecisive to the point that it made his life very difficult, while Tahani (Jameela Jamil) was somewhat shallow, constantly worrying about her popularity compared to her sister, while frequently name dropping celebrities she hung out with.
For the majority of that first season, the series did its afterlife comedy set-up very well, but it was in the finale that it laid down its biggest twist of all, creating an iconic line delivery from Bell that would come to be used when describing the state of the world post-2016.
Previous Schur series were very much products of their time, albeit in a way that has also helped them age incredibly well. Parks and Recreation was the perfect, optimistic Obama-era comedy series that played with themes of politics, the ability to create change (or not) in a political climate, as well as being a love letter to the possibilities of kindness and friendship. Meanwhile Brooklyn Nine-Nine held a mirror up to American law enforcement at a time it was under deservedly intense public scrutiny but also portrayed it in a way that we wished that it would work in real life, while also being populated by a gifted comedic ensemble, witty one-liners, and moments that were just born to be made into memes and gifs.
With one key piece of plot information and the manner in which Bell’s Eleanor delivered her line, The Good Place not only proved that there was more to it than just being another brilliant, NBC/Michael Schur creation, it would come to inadvertently sum up how many would feel about the world at large.
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Jokes have abounded on social media of rebooting the universe, and yet here is a comedy that makes this a fundamental part of the series, and yet it never gets bogged down into too many political statements, instead allowing the audience to enjoy the increasing silliness, surreal moments, philosophical underpinning, and rich character development. We’ve seen most of the characters rebooted several times and yet they are still allowed to develop and change, and the same goes for characters who started off as antagonistic figures.
Ted Danson is practically royalty when it comes to American television comedy thanks to the iconic Cheers, but here his character of Michael is revealed to be a duplicitous villain at the end of the first season, but then develops into a more sympathetic presence, helping our heroes outsmart the bad place, represented by Shawn (played by frequent Schur regular Marc Evan Jackson) while Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who began the series as a programmed guide and artificial being, has become ever more human with each passing episode, eventually culminating in what might already be one of the all-time classic television episodes of the decade in Janet(s) when a glitch causes all the characters to look like her and meaning that D’Arcy Carden is essentially playing every character over the course of the twenty-minute run time.
Like so much television nowadays, The Good Place’s run has been short. At the time of writing the series has not yet finished, but it is in the home stretch of its fourth and final season, and yet such a short run is perhaps the best. There is only so much mileage that a show like this could get with its plethora of twists and turns. Each season runs for a shorter duration of thirteen episodes, and yet every year of the show has delivered moments that are as imaginative as the genre has gotten.
There are shades of Lost, The Prisoner, and the works of any philosophy writer you’d care to name, and yet it’s never lost sight of the humanity and warmth that is the stock in trade of Schur’s work. These are characters to care for, whose journeys to wherever it is the series will eventually lead has once again shown that there is still life left in the world of network television comedy (although it should be pointed out that the international success of the series could be put down to it being broadcast by Netflix).
Even if the series does a Lost and delivers a finale that is greeted with a mixed reaction, nothing will change the fact that up until then, this has been one the most unique and imaginative series to grace television in a long time.