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Television

Good, Bad Place: Season One of 'The Good Place' Upended Expectations

Danson's bow-tie wearing architect isn’t what he seems (Photo credit: NBC/Justin Lubin)

Michael Schur's sinister community design used the ideals of the American Dream to fool its characters and its audience; what sort of critique will be built into season two?


The Good Place

Airtime: Thursdays, 8:30pm
Cast: Ted Danson, Kristen Bell
Subtitle: Season 1
Network: NBC
Amazon
This review contains spoilers for season one of The Good Place

If you have time before season two of The Good Place begins on NBC on 20 September, you might want to re-watch season one. Now available on Netflix, the 13 episodes' narrative moves faster and faster as the season hurtles to the big reveal in the finalé: the discovery that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place.

The first time through, the fun of the show rested on not knowing that crucial twist, and watching Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) grapple with the fact that she's mistakenly been sent to the Good Place in her afterlife. A subsequent re-watch offers new rewards, as every action the neighborhood’s architect, Michael (Ted Danson), takes throughout the season creates only stress and fear for Eleanor and her friends. Danson, one of the greatest likable television protagonists, is perfectly cast as antagonist; if the finalé is any indication, he's going to have a lot of fun playing evil Michael in season two. Bell is equally excellent making Eleanor somehow likable despite the flashbacks revealing her sins. She's no monster, just a bad person in all-too familiar way in this narcissistic age.

A repeat viewing also offers a chance to appreciate the real architect of The Good Place: creator Michael Schur. Having given Danson's character his name, Schur invites audiences to think about the show on a meta-narrative level, positioning Danson's smiling, bow-tied Michael as the Virgil guiding both Eleanor and the audience around Schur’s inferno.

Before speculating on season two, a quick tour of the neighborhood sold to characters and viewers as the Good Place in season one is in order. Schur uses a simple camouflage to trick the audience: he builds the fake Good Place around the 21st-century clichés of the American dream: single family homes, pedestrian-friendly commercial zones, and manicured green spaces. Everyone gets to live with a perfect soulmate, and everything they could ever want is a short walk away. They even have access to all knowledge through Janet, a walking Wikipedia played by scene-stealing D'Arcy Carden.

In retrospect, the frozen yogurt was the biggest tip off. In episode six, Eleanor notices there are plenty of yogurt shops in town, but no ice cream. Michael dodges the question by praising the way humans are always "taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it". Downtown Good Place looks like a hip, gentrified urban space, with wide, twisting paths leading to various things to eat, drink, and do. While the class-related problems of gentrification are no issue in the afterlife, The Good Place reveal another negative effect, through the aforementioned yogurt problem. When wealthier classes move into a neighborhood and start to "fix" its problems, the yogurt chains follow their money. In other words, comfort and design can be the enemy of beauty and vibe.

Building on that, Schur makes The Good Place's downtown too well-planned, its green spaces too antiseptic, its neighborhoods too clean safe. Its closest equivalent is Disney World/Epcot Center; an American imagining the aesthetics of a typical European city. Aesthetically, this is what we think we want, but in practice the rough edges of a place like Springfield in The Simpsons might be a much nicer place to spend eternity.

Even as America's cities have seen a rebirth in recent decades, the single-family suburban home remains the American ideal. Arriving at a Good Place, residents get the house of their dreams, a perfect place to live happily in the ever after with their one and only soul mate. Eleanor's house -- supposedly designed for the "real" Eleanor who was mistakenly sent to the Bad Place -- is a cozy cottage, positioned next to a giant mansion occupied by Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (a.k.a. Jianyu Li) (Manny Jacinto). The juxtaposition spurs Eleanor into a quintessentially American feud with Tahani. After all, coveting thy neighbor's possessions is as American stealing an apple pie off a window sill.

More devastatingly, the suburban isolation of the single-family home undermines the neighborhood community Michael is supposedly hoping to foster. Eleanor’s home is her refuge, and it does force her to be honest with her would-be soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper). The depths of that relationship is one reason Michael's evil design unravels, but the home itself isolates Eleanor and Chidi from the rest of the community. Preoccupied with their own secret problems, they fail to build relationships with their neighbors.

One other American ideal is completely absent in The Good Place: the nuclear family. Having children appear in a comedy about the afterlife would certainly be problematic, and Schur, a veteran of workplace sitcoms, has always been more interested in the modern relationships that form between unrelated adults. Still, Americans typically expect to reunite with their beloved family members in the afterlife. Any armchair anthropologist who has listened to enough funeral eulogies can attest to this belief. In Schur's Good Place, characters are paired with complete strangers for eternity, with no family members in sight, glorifying the myth of true love at the expense of the many other intimate relationships.

Now that the audience is in on the reality of the show, what kind of place will Schur construct to entertain viewers even while they watch the characters suffer? We know Michael has separated Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, and their new single-family homes will further exacerbate that separation. The dynamics of a sitcom seem to demand that the show’s stars interact with one another; however, interacting is different from actually getting to know someone. It’s possible, and potentially interesting, to have Eleanor encounter Chidi, Eleanor, and Jason for several episodes before they even begin to rediscover the bonds they formed by the end of season one.

As for another big twist, Schur has dismissed the suggestion that he might be pulling off a double-cross on his audience; such a reverse would risk undermining the audience’s faith in the show. Still, I could envision him ending season two with a reveal that shows the audience the wider cosmic situation that Michael and his fellow Bad Place workers are involved in.

With the season one finalé, Schur gave himself a unique opportunity as a television showrunner: he can completely reboot the world of his main characters. Having clued the audience in on the characters’ true dilemma, he and the show’s writers have a heavy load of dramatic irony to play with. Now that we know we’re looking at the Bad Place, Schur’s critique of America’s ideals of home and community may become more openly satirical, pressing viewers to ask themselves if the good place where they live is really as good as they think.

8

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