TV: The Good Place [season 1]
The Good Place [season 1]
This is the first season of The Good Place, a sitcom about a terrible person who, finding herself mistakenly sent to a heavenly afterlife, scrambles to avoid being 'caught' and condemned to eternal torment.
[Note: this will be full of spoilers for season 1. And please, gentle readers, do not spoil *me* for any of season 2.]
When LOST ended, a couple of my favorite TV critics asked for questions to discuss on their podcast. So I suggested this: "What do you hope future showrunners learn from this show?" Their answer largely matched my own: I hoped that other shows would take bold chances like LOST did. I said that it almost didn't make sense to talk about "the next LOST" -- it was like speculating about "the next Twin Peaks". Its real inheritor would be something else unprecedented and strange.
What we got, instead, was a bunch of shows that took the superficial and flashy elements from that show -- The Event, and Flash Forward, and Invasion, and Heroes -- show after show that figured if they just created a ton of logic-beggaring mysteries, made them all as ponderous and melodramatic as possible, and dropped episodic storytelling in favor of season-long arcs, *surely* that would create worthwhile, moving stories.
They were all awful.
The last thing I expected was that, six years later, a major broadcast network would say, "Hey, let's do LOST, but as a sitcom."
And that somehow, it would work.
Let's be clear: The Good Place is LOST to an almost shocking degree.
You've got a diverse, international cast of characters from widely varying walks of life that are mysteriously dropped into an alternate universe that doesn't quite follow round-earth logic. They do flashback stories from each character's previous life, and they even use the same goddamn "whoosh" sound to cut into and out of those flashback scenes. Each features a basically terrible protagonist that the show carefully sets us up to root for. Each show opens with an extreme close-up of that protagonist's eye (or eyes). They both show that something's really not right about their settings by having non-native megafauna trample through during the pilot episode.
The writers must have been laughing their asses off at giving Eleanor the line "We have to go back!" at the end of the season.
Apparently Michael Schur, the showrunner/creator, did check in with Damon Lindelof early in the development process. Well, of course he did. That conversation must have been like: "Uh, I'm kinda writing a sitcom riff on LOST. Is that okay? And am I insane?"
(It wasn't, but, hey: head-canon!)
And what fascinates me is that they've taken that basic engine, looked back at LOST, and made very useful adjustments.
Most significantly: the show handles secrets differently.
Okay, I need to invent a few definitions to say what I want to say. Specifically, I'll define "secrets", "mysteries", and "surprises" for purposes of this discussion:
- A "secret" is something one character knows that another does not -- but the audience is aware of the whole situation. So: Eleanor knows she's not supposed to be in the Good Place, but it is a secret from Tahani. From about five minutes in, the audience knows all about this.
- A "mystery" is when the show pushes a big question with no obvious answer -- until that answer is provided, the audience has to try to puzzle out a solution on their own. "Where are we?" from the end of the LOST pilot is an obvious example.
- A "surprise" is when information unknown to the audience is revealed. There was never a *question* in play, but the surprise still forces the audience to reassess what they saw before. The twist at the end of season 1 of The Good Place is an obvious example of this.
One sharp difference between LOST and The Good Place is this: LOST trafficked heavily in mysteries. The Good Place focuses instead on secrets and (much more rarely) surprises.
In season one, the closest that The Good Place comes to a mystery is "Why was Eleanor sent here?" That question is intrinsic to the premise of the series, so you can't help at least idly wondering about it. But -- and this is key -- the show never *pushes* that question as a mystery that the audience should be thinking about. None of the characters -- not even Eleanor -- are interested in the question. IIRC, nobody even asks it. It's given an ostensible answer in episode nine(-ish), and it's not like the audience heaves a sigh of relief: "AT LAST THE MYSTERY IS SOLVED."
So now that we've split up "unknown information" into these three concepts, we can ask a question: how hard is it to deploy secrets, surprises, and mysteries in storytelling?
And it's pretty simple to answer.
- Secrets are dead-simple to deploy in a dramatic, satisfying way. It is literally just "have one character know something that another one doesn't." Really, the only caveats are that it should be something that the uninformed character cares about, and that there should actually be some reason for keeping the secret. Ergo, this is the bread-and-butter of drama. Romeo doesn't know that Juliet is alive. Oedipus doesn't know his mother is his wife. Judas doesn't mention betraying Jesus. Bing-bang-boom.
- Surprises are hard to do well. To do them well, you have to create a piece of information that really *does* recontextualize everything in the story, and patiently keep it hidden for a long, long time. Ideally, you want to plant hints, but they have to walk a fine line: not obvious enough to blow the secret, but nudge-y enough to make the audience kick themselves for not seeing it earlier. Regardless, you kind of have to write it backwards, figuring out the ending reveal first, and then planting the earlier hints afterwards.
To do surprises *badly*, on the other hand, is easy. We see this all the time with soap operas -- in nearly every episode, somebody has some shocking reveal, and it's usually something forced and arbitrary. It doesn't recontextualize earlier material because it was clearly invented on the spot. Eventually, the surprises don't really function as surprises -- they don't function as "aha" moments of "holy crap, everything is different" -- instead, the steady stream of ersatz reversals is about tone. It's about setting a tone of constant, overdramatic, capital-D DRAMA. It's about how that moment of the reveal is acted, rather than its structural effect.
- Finally, there are mysteries. And doing mysteries well is fucking impossible. To do a mystery well presents all of the challenges of the surprise, with the added fun that the audience is on to you. They know what the question is, and they are gunning to figure it out. Any show with a procedural element will agonize over this: how do we set up a whodunit that has an answer that the audience won't suss out in three minutes? And Dan Harmon has bemoaned that the Internet is a "render farm" that calculates answers to season-arc mysteries with brutal efficiency.
And like with surprises, mysteries are much easier to do poorly. It's easy to set up a bizarre situation: somebody dead is ACTUALLY ALIVE OMG. And then it's easy to just jury-rig an explanation: uh, yeah, actually the dude had a twin brother. And you never saw him. Uh, ta-da? Many of LOST's detractors argue that it was nothing but unsatisfying mysteries, hoping to distract its audience from the unsatisfactory (or nonexistent) resolution of mystery #1 with the oncoming wave of mystery #2.
Okay, I'm going to sidebar for a second and talk about improv -- specifically longform narrative improv, or "the art of improvising plays".
In practice, improv uses these techniques in the exact reverse order. Improvisors love setting up mysteries. This is especially endemic in sci-fi, where improvisors will set up a bunch of weird things going on, trusting that the explanations will come later. And in fact, lots of improv gaffes naturally fall into the "mystery" bin -- "Wait, if his name is 'Harold', why does that one guy keep calling him 'Harvey'?" The explanations, if they happen, are unsatisfying.
Improvised plays rather less frequently use surprises, but they're around. Usually when improvised stories go dramatic, they lean on surprises -- a story rumbles along and then someone tearfully reveals that they're dying, or secretly adopted, or having an affair. And the audience kinda shrugs and accepts it -- sometimes it doesn't really match what's happened before, but it feels dramatic, and it feels like how plays operate.
And secrets, in improvised plays, rarely come up. This is frankly bizarre, since secrets are absolutely vital to so-called "naïve games" -- short parlor-game-ish setups like "Party Quirks", where one player has an obscure secret, the audience knows it, and the other player has to guess it. And the Hideout has a whole short-form show devoted to secrets. I suspect it's hard for performers to compartmentalize: "okay, I know <x>, but my *character* doesn't know <x>, so my character is likely guessing <y> instead". In any case, secrets -- things that one character knows, the other character doesn't, and the audience knows the whole time -- work like gangbusters. They're just very rarely deployed.
This is all in spite of the fact that the degree of difficulty goes the opposite way. It's what we listed for scripted work: secrets are easier than surprises, which are easier than mysteries. Except it's an even more extreme 'difficulty gradient' for improv, because, again, to write a surprise (or, god forbid, a mystery) effectively, you kind of have to go backwards: figure out the conclusion, then back-set the clues. So to improvise (say) a satisfying surprise, you either have to collude with your cast without the audience catching on, or you have to instantly put together lots of hints from the show you were in into one coherent, simple explanation.
Yet, here we are.
Okay, now back to TV.
TV now is a far different 'beast' than TV in 2004. And in fact, people in the TV biz often refer to a show as "The Beast", because it has to get fed stories, week after week, mercilessly and forever. The Beast is never satiated. The Beast always needs more scripts. And TV in the early 2000s was especially ravenous -- we still had 22-episode orders, with maybe a midseason break if you were lucky.
(Relevant David Mamet quote: "Making a movie is like running a marathon. Making a TV show is like running until you die.")
But The Good Place has a thirteen-episode first season, and it benefits greatly from this. And it's thirteen half-hour episodes. That's more manageable -- it's about a *quarter* of the material LOST had to churn out in season one. That's less likely to go off the rails in production. With thirteen episodes, you can plan. You can set up a certain number of secrets you want to 'fuel' the season-one plot, and you can set those off, episode by episode, like little fireworks. You're not stuck with, like LOST was, in a desperate "FEED THE BEAST" mode, as they kept writing themselves into logically-paradoxical corners and retconning handwavey explanations to get out of them.
So what does that advantage buy The Good Place?
Well, they implement only one "oh shiiiit" secret in season one, but it's one for the ages. It's executed as well as anything this side of The Usual Suspects. And this is what you can do if you aren't piling up unexplained mysteries -- which, in turn, comes from frantic improvising -- which in turn, comes from an inability to really plan out a monstrous 22-episode season of hourlong episodes. You can *try* (and showrunners claim they *do*) to intricately plan out full, 2004-length seasons of an hourlong show, but I think only J. Michael Strazynski has really pulled off that feat. TV production is a chaos monster, and, given sufficiently large scope, it will go spiraling away from you. The Good Place, with its manageable season, is able to set up one really big secret at the core of the story, dance around it beautifully for thirteen episodes, and pay it off perfectly.
It's more precise, and more deliberate and calculated, but it's very, very entertaining.
And this carefully 'constructed' feeling extends to other aspects of the show. The number of gags they fit into the background sometimes hits Arrested Development levels. I was especially fond of the massive list of "good" and "bad" rated activities in their "introduction video", or the Michael's desk's steadily-increasing supply of cacti during the Janet reboot.
And, because they're carefully building this, they can actually do quite well with their special effects. TV special effects can be fast, cheap, or good -- choose two. They have a decent but (surely) limited budget, as one of the comedies NBC was throwing at the wall with the 2016 season. And the obvious special effects are very respectable, even when they go overboard with the giraffes etc. in the pilot. So I conclude that they gave themselves a ton of lead time, and had their scripts -- or at least their main special-effect asks -- written well ahead of post-production.
I feel like I've been sort of talking around the show a lot, veering off into structural and production details, instead of talking about the show itself.
But frankly, there's less to say about the normal nuts-and-bolts of The Good Place. Everything's done very well. The cast is stellar. The location scout has picked, like, a dozen places out of the Huntington Gardens, so that's great. The jokes work -- I especially like how much mileage they get out of having their "straight man/woman" characters respond somewhat realistically, usually just by stating, in disbelief, what the other person is doing. (So often you see the lazier move of having the straight character respond with some kind of limp put-down.)
I love that the show is using this delightful romp to be *about* something -- at least in this first season, they're hammering on "what does it mean to be good?" And they're explicitly bringing philosophers into that conversation. And frankly, if a philosophical point about ethics is the center of your episode, then that generates your story right there -- you're bound to have characters disagreeing about the right thing to do, acting at cross-purposes, and generating little plot paths like characters are supposed to do. It's great that they attach this light, fizzy show to something deep and heavy with meaning.
Not everything's perfect. I'm not sure the flashback sequences really serve that theme of "What does it mean to be good?" They were vital to LOST, which at its core was asking "Is it possible to start all over?" In LOST, it made perfect sense to compare who the characters were before to who they were trying to be on the island. Here, the use of flashbacks feels more muddled. Plus, it's a 19-minute sitcom, so those flashback scenes are practically blipvert length, with barely enough time to establish platform before they're over.
I thought the romantic plots at the end of the season -- with both Tahani and Eleanor falling for Chidi -- felt forced. I wasn't seeing a lot of chemistry there. There were just too many moving pieces to attend to in that season to really have room to set up those romantic subplots. And you kind of felt like all three of them had more important and pressing things to do than to fall in love. (Plus, let's be real: the only real romantic chemistry they'd set up was between Eleanor and Tahani.)
But these are minor complaints. Generally, this season is a home run, a hilarious, heartfelt, bravura piece of world-building that has a riveting plot to boot. Well worth your valuable time.
For next week: I'm watching Atlanta, and I just finished reading a terrifying biography of Vladimir Putin. On audio, I'm listening to an audiocourse about the history of food.
 Or, perhaps more accurately, it would let them grab some quick ratings before the fickle zeitgest decided "LOST-like" shows weren't cool any more.
 In any artistic field, if somebody invents their own special terms for things, I'm, like, 90% sure they're full of crap. So: please bear with me here.
 Note that, for purposes of this discussion, getting the audience to ask, "How will this turn out?" does not constitute a mystery. (It's just good writing.)
 Otherwise, you fall into "The Idiot Plot", a sitcom-y plot that would fizzle if people would just share information that they have no reason to keep to themselves.
 Not me, though -- I watch most stuff in blithe ignorance of how mysteries might turn out. It probably means I'm less engaged and having less fun, as a viewer/reader.
 I'd argue that that was part of the fun of LOST -- the exhilaration of this constant onslaught of terrifying, brain-bending paradoxes -- but LOST also ruined the public for any similar high-wire acts in the future. If a future show tries to build up many, many exciting mysteries, we'll all just assume it's bullshit.
 There may be other special effects -- with digital backgrounds, etc. -- that I'm not really noticing because they're, well, good.
 This is the massive botanical garden in San Marino that would be a fine candidate for an idyllic afterlife.