TV: The Good Place (Season Three)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Neshi Coates
This is Mr. Coates's 2015 nonfiction book about the role of race, and racism, and particularly racist violence, in American history and culture. The book is framed as an extended later to his son, making the book reminiscent of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.
I'm not qualified to discuss this book in any detail, so I'll keep my comments short.
The book is concise and poetic. It takes a lot of facts we all know about the oppression of African-Americans and grounds them in lived experience. You know the stats; the book nudges a reader like me a little closer to understanding how it feels. He tells his own story against this context, and tells a story about a friend of his who got shot by the police.
I've read that, in a way, the book is a reaction against Obama's rhetoric of hope and change. The way this book sees it, there is little cause for hope. The systems in place are deeply entrenched and egregiously immoral. They won't change, and no one with authority or power has any incentive to change them. The best you do with this world is to, for a while, survive it.
And that's more or less what I have to say about the book. It presents harrowing material gracefully, and it left me unsure of what to do with what I'd learned. But a book doesn't need a call to action. Often just getting a brief, clear view, a little while where you can see a thing for what it is, is valuable enough.
Exit, Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan
This is the 2018 comic miniseries that re-imagines the classic Hanna-Barbera character as a gay playwright in the 1950s who runs afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
So yes, just let that sink in for several seconds.
This is part of a crazy run of Hanna-Barbera comic adaptations, most notably the blistering satire of Mr. Russell's take on The Flintstones, where indie writers are allowed to run roughshod with thoughtful takes on old, shallow characters.
And this Snagglepuss miniseries is just gorgeous. In many ways, Snaglepuss is patterned off of Tennessee Williams — a gay playwright from the deep south who found unequalled success on Broaday — and their Tennessee Williams pastiches are gorgeously on-point.
And beyond that, the theatrics of The Heart is a Kennel of Thieves sets the tone for the overall piece. This is a melodrama, in the Williams or Douglas Sirk mold, with repression, and vendettas, and doomed love tearing these people apart.
It's interesting to wonder if this would have worked as just a story about playwrights in the 1950s — if the Snagglepuss of it all really accomplishes anything. And oddly, I don't think it would work nearly as well if it were just people. I think the relentless audacity of this — "holy shit, they are telling a hard-hitting social-commentary melodrama about a forgettable cartoon lion from the fucking Yogi Bear Show" — puts you off-balance. It makes you let your guard down, and roll with story moves that otherwise might seem dated or over-the-top.
They get a similar effect from doing a story with anthropomorphized animals. Like with BoJack Horseman, it puts just enough absurdist distance between you and the story that, again, your guard falls a little bit. You're watching something wonderful, or something terrible, happen to a bright pink lion, so you recoil less from the page.
It's a great, riveting comic, taking on the Red Scare, and gay rights, and the birth of television. But deep down, it's about the crippling conformity of the 1950s, which all feels queasily relevant today.
The Good Place (season three)
This is the third season of the NBC half-hour comedy¹ about Eleanor Shellstrop, a morally terrible person who winds up mis-assigned to heaven upon her death. It is considerably difficult to discuss this show without talking about specific plot points, so: spoilers ahoy. (yarr.)
So season one was about learning how to be good while getting by in a vaguely Orwellian world of militant happiness. Season two literally blew that away, and turned this into a show that was still *about* moral philosophy, but focused more on world-building, and exploring this fictional cosmos around Neighborhood #12358W.
Now we're at season three. Season three feels like Fiasco played with a Paradise Lost playset. You have characters backed against a wall, making terrible decisions, wreaking unimaginable destruction. It's like watching a car skid out of control, somehow causing accidents all along the way, for 13 episodes. Put another way: if season two was carefully building out this afterlife cosmology, season three is gleefully setting it all on fire.
And that's exactly where I wanted the show to go. With a "mythology show" like this², your instinct is to keep expanding the frame with each subsequent season. And yes, one way to do this is to *physically* expand things out: go out beyond the Neighborhood, and see all other parts of the TGP-verse. But also, you can expand the frame *morally*. You can take a step back from the original premise: does it really make any sense to assess people's lives on this point system?
What are all the reasons that this setup is wrong?
And given that it's wrong, what can you do about it?
Season two knocked out the focus on one small neighborhood. Season three knocks out the pins holding up the whole thing.
Nominally, season three is "the season on earth". That's mostly true, and it does present the writers with new challenges. But on a deeper level, this is the season where you find out this whole cosmology flat-out doesn't work. The system is unfair. Every authority who should be backstopping the system is either blinkered to the possibility of error (the Accountant), bureaucratically ineffectual (the Committee), or taking active delight in the suffering the system inflicts (Shawn).
And meanwhile, our heroes are steadily sending it all screeching into oblivion, sending Earth's timeline haywire ("... and somehow, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a *GOOD TEAM*" / "That's impossible!"), blowing up the Good Place's mailroom, opening all sorts of illicit entry points from the afterlife into Earth, and stealing all the data on Dougs from the Accounting Department.
I loved that overall narrative direction. There were smaller choices I really enjoyed, too. I loved blurring the resets — one of the fan criticisms of the show has been that we keep resetting these characters, and that means that we don't really have a character arc. But they keep finding ways to remind the four humans about what they've been through in their eight hundred and two reboots.
And they're also letting them respond in human ways to this overwhelming chaos. Reintroducing Eleanor to her previous resets has a profound impact on her — it catches the viewer up short, as you realize that, right, none of this "really happened" to this iteration of the humans, and finding out that you did stuff for literally centuries and never knew about any of it has *got* to be crazy-making. The "Jeremy Bearimy" episode tells the four humans exactly how this universe works, and the knowledge basically breaks them. You get the sense throughout that they're just dog-paddling frantically and trying to keep their heads above water.
(More or less like everyone else.)
The guest stars on this show are insane. They bring back Maya Rudolph and Adam Scott for their recurring roles.³ They bring in Flula Borg to deliver three lines. Andy Daly comes in for an episode, as does Stephen Merchant, as does Michael fucking McKean. Mike O'Malley hops in for a recurring role. It's comedy royalty throughout.
And I love *how* they do cliffhangers in this show. As far as I can remember, they never pull a 'question' cliffhanger. It's never somebody appearing just out of frame and someone onscreen saying "MY GOD! IT'S *YOU*!" and then trusting us to tune in next week to suss out who "YOU" is. Instead, they set the table for a scene we really really want to see, and end things there. Yes, I absolutely want to come back and see what happens when Michael accidentally reveals the afterlife to the humans. Yes, I *do* want to know what happens when the humans get murdered and sent away to "Janet's void". And so on.
It takes so much ingenuity to come *up* with those "enticement cliffhangers" rather than "question cliffhangers", but it means you jump into the next episode eagerly instead of grudgingly muttering, "welp, guess I gotta figure out what *that* thing is."
I just saw a few weak points in the season. I never really got into Simone's character. I loved, structurally, what they were trying to do: introduce a scientific perspective on morality, with a smart character whose energy is entirely different from Chidi's. But practically, she mostly winds up being a straight man to Team Cockroach's zaniness, and that's kind of a thankless role. I trust that, as we learn more about her in season four, we'll learn that she has foibles of her own.
I never really got into the "Soul Squad" stretch of the show. From a philosophical perspective, it was kind of beautiful: the four people who know, with 100% certainty, that they are going to Hell, are spending the time they have left looking after the people they love.⁴ But for this show, it felt like stasis: just doing the same thing, over and over again. That may be good enough for most other shows, but I heaved a sigh of relief when season three dumped that premise to move on to Doug Forcett.
And the close of season three included some pat, "just try to be nice" sentiments that felt like they were trying to sum up the show's mission statement in case they got canceled. However season four concludes, I hope it's not a monolog explaining what we learned in this show.
And lastly, I have some trouble buying into the romantic relationship between Chidi and Eleanor. I am 1000% on board with their platonic friendship, I just never see them as smoldering, get-each-other-alone-and-make-out types. Mostly I just feel disappointed that other fans get to very strongly appreciate the show on that level, deeply invested in "will they or won't they?", and I don't.
But these are all minor quibbles. Overall this season was a delight, and I'm ecstatic to see this show continue on, as fearless, and restless, and philosophical, and full of puns as ever.
For next week: The Road to El Dorado is my current DVD. (I've seen so many GIFs of it, I want to sit down and finally watch the movie.) I'm watching Good Omens, reading a book about UBI, and listening to an audiocourse about botany.
¹ God it's weird writing that — both that The Good Place is somehow a network comedy, and that it's somehow lasted three seasons.
² I continue to swear up and down that The Good Place is the true inheritor of everything good about LOST. Everyone else that tried to imitate that latter show just picked all the wrong elements to run with.
³ It kills me a little bit that they get rid of Adam Scott's character *just* before an episode with fake celebrity caterers. #partydown #arewehavingfunyet
⁴ Recall the old (and almost certainly apocryphal) Dr. Johnson quote: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."