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

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.