Steve Taylor-Bryant delves into his Netflix and finds a show he loves. With MASSIVE SPOILERS here are his thoughts on The Good Place...
Very often I discover things by accident. Friends recommend shows or films to me but, much like social media, you find yourself in a bubble of likeminded folk so the recommendations you get are pretty similar. There is no one on my Facebook for example who thought to tell me about the Netflix comedy The Good Place, I just noticed that an episode was only about 20 some minutes long and thought it could be a quick way of consuming something when time is tight. I pressed play on episode 1 and the next thing I knew it was the next day, I hadn’t slept, and I was angry with Netflix as now I have to wait a week for another episode. I consumed the entire show in a day. But does that make it good? That is a tricky question, one I’ll try but probably fail to answer here, but The Good Place is certainly highly watchable.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the reception of The Good Place to be confronted with the realisation that a freak accident in a supermarket parking lot has led to a truck advertising impotency medication has killed her. The very calming Michael (Ted Danson) is there to reassure her that she has earned through her actions on earth, saving children in war-torn lands, all her charity work and the like, a home in the idyllic afterlife known as The Good Place. As the angelic architect of The Good Place Michael has built a neighbourhood of only the finest people, with frozen yogurt shops on every corner and niceness for as far as the eye can see. Except there has been a mistake, the neighbourhood should have been welcoming a different Eleanor as this one was a drunk, rude, selfish dirt bag of a woman who cared for no one and nothing. The problem is that if Eleanor points out that there has been an administration error she will certainly be sent to The Bad Place to be tortured in the fires of hell for eternity, so she does what she did on earth… She lied. Thinking if she can pretend to be good she will be able to stay in this beautiful afterlife she needs but doesn’t in any way deserve. After a welcome party thrown by the humanitarian philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) Eleanor finds herself drunk, abusive and stealing all the giant shrimp so no one else could have any, this causes problems the next day when The Good Place is attacked by giant shrimp and other nightmarish creations that seem to be based on Eleanor’s actions the previous night. Her eternal soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an academic who specialises in morals and ethics, reluctantly agrees to try and teach Eleanor to be a good person so she can stay, a ruse that also eventually involves Tahini and her Buddhist Monk soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). Things don’t go well though and sinkholes begin to appear in The Good Place all seemingly caused by Eleanor’s behaviour in both life and the afterlife, although Jianyu is also not what he seems and was staying silent as a monk as really he is a gangster DJ with a very low intelligence level who likes gaming and Molotov cocktails.
Eventually you discover that The Good Place is in fact a torture in itself designed by Michael who is in fact evil and the four humans have been torturing each other as in fact none of them deserved a nice eternity. Michael keeps rebooting The Good Place and starting again but in every scenario Eleanor still meets Chidi and her pals and works out what is going on. When Michael’s boss finds out that The Good Place is no longer working he demands that Michael wraps up the idea and transfers the humans to The Bad Place leaving Michael as a failure who will be retired, a torture specifically for the demons. Michael doesn’t want to be tortured, he wants self-preservation like everyone else, and during the course of his time spent with the humans he has also began to learn ethics and morals. He vows to help the humans avoid The Bad Place and get to a point where they will be safe from torture.
Even as I wrote that synopsis of what I watched I realised how ridiculous it sounds but what creator Michael Schur (Parks and Recreations) has actually accomplished is a twisted, almost over the top bravado way of looking at society and its failings. You can make as many films and television shows as you like about how human beings are evil, or criminal in their intent but very rarely can you get normal people to look at their own actions and something as simple as being slightly rude to the guy pouring your coffee can have a devastating effect in the long run. We as a species don’t want to be confronted with our own morality tale, we certainly wouldn’t flock to watch normal human issues of kindness not happening on our screens. So how do you get people to look within themselves and make the small changes of maybe politeness, or patience, which can improve the world we all live in? Make it funny. We will watch funny no matter what the subject matter, and the more torture and showing of mean people the better. We are gluttons in our need to see people worse than us, we want to laugh at their failure of humanity whilst feeling slightly better at our own position within society. To make it funny you need to take risks, you need to push the boundaries of what has come before, and you have to cast perfectly. You can hire the best actor in the world but if they aren’t natural comedic performers then they can’t get work to a point where they are comfortably going too far. In The Good Place whomever cast the stars in the parts they are in needs every award in known world, it is some of the most perfect casting in television comedy history.
Kristen Bell is very watchable as the supposed horrible human, but takes situations that we have maybe all been in and just exaggerates them slightly which is what makes her portrayal of Eleanor so compelling, she is basically you and me just magnified a bit. The serious moral and ethical Chidi played by William Jackson Harper is the part of us that is undecided. Morally and ethically it is virtually impossible to make a decision in a split second, something we all do naturally, so to see Harper Jackson tying himself in knots because every action needs serious philosophical thought, leading to everyone pretty much hating him, is incredibly humorous. Jameela Jamil as the name dropping egotistical Tahini, and Jacinto as Jianyu are more than just back up, their characters are as flawed as most of us and Jacinto gets some lines that performed but a lesser actor just wouldn’t work; “Oranges are confusing” is hilarious in the scene he plays the line, but that line doesn’t work in any other situation (yes, I’ve tried). As an ensemble this team of actors bring a freshness to some older television tropes, they deliver some incredible one liners, and they take what could have been just another sitcom to a level rarely seen in comedic television. None of their hard work, none of the ridiculous writing, seriously these guys are throwing every stupid and irrational thought they have ever had at scripts that border on insane, but back to my point… None of this works if you don’t have Ted Danson.
Ted Danson is a great actor and a funny guy, he is the harmless side of Hollywood that has never offended anyone. You have all seen Ted Danson in projects and I guarantee you that you have never hated him in anything. He is the good guy we all feel safe with. Not anymore. Danson pulls off a performance I genuinely didn’t see coming, from the nice friendly Michael, to the supposed upset because his neighbourhood isn’t working Michael (honestly, seeing Ted Danson balled up on the floor wearing a hoody and moaning about the later seasons of Friends is worth your monthly Netflix fee), the realisation of he is evil Michael, the ever changing demonic to nice Michael, all these versions of Michael take some doing. There is so many different types of performance needed that it shows just how talented Danson is, it shows how much we as an audience regard Danson so highly that when the twist comes we actually horrified, and much like a parent in a kids birthday party he just seems to stay in the middle and keep some semblance of control over something that in lesser hands would just be chaos.
Netflix are throwing so much money and time at new creations and not all of it will work but when something unexpectedly slips in that verges on genius, you just have to stand and applaud.
Image - IMDb.