Spoilers, AND I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW SPOILED THIS WILL BE SO GO WATCH IT IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY, for seasons 1 – 3 of The Good Place (television series).
My partner and I have very different tastes in television: I like comedy, especially satire, panel games, and some documentaries whereas he prefers police dramas or, as he corrected me when I ran this paragraph past him, ‘procedural crime thrillers about catching serial killers, the darker and more twisted the better’.
This means that it is very difficult for us to find something we both want to watch. We tried watching Breaking Bad a few years ago and I found it so stressful, especially in the later seasons, that I could only watch half an hour at a time some evenings, and always had to be done by 19:30 so that I could start relaxing.
The eagle-eyed may have spotted that relaxing – rather than, say, anxious cardiac palpitation – is part of the draw of television, and those people would be right, but apparently I just have a low tolerance for brutal psychological horror. This is not to say that Breaking Bad was bad television. On the contrary, it was excellent, it was just too unrelentingly bleak and terrifying for me to cope with it on a Friday evening.
The Good Place (created by Michael Schur), on the other hand, has just the right mix of narrative subversion, good humour, good acting, and existential angst to keep us both hooked. This is unsurprising because it is, in essence, the best parts of The Prisoner and Lost mixed up with an entire corner shop’s worth of penny sweets and painted onto canvas. We somehow forgot about season 3 partway through and are now revisiting it in preparation for the final season which has just been released, but that is probably on us rather than the programme.
It is not perfect: like Good Omens there is a tendency to explain jokes or engage in expo-speak, sometimes to the extent that Character A will explain to Character B what Character B explained to Character A just one scene ago. Unlike Good Omens however, The Good Place is not just a spoof of ethical and metaphysical problems, but is actively interested in considering them which, considering the format (20 – 25 minute episodes) and the target audience (those chilling in one or more senses whilst Netflixing), is impressive. Indeed, the episode dealing with the infamous train/trolley problem – made famous by Philippa Foot, Judith Thomson and others who seemed oddly united by the premise of framing philosophy in terms of ‘how many men to kill’ – won a Hugo Award, and is probably my second favourite source of trolley comedy. My first is a Facebook meme page because I am a Very Serious Person.
But what The Good Place does well is not only its clever script and good execution, the retina-scarringly twee setting, or the acting; where The Good Place wins out over Good Omens is in the world-building.
One of the dangers in writing a spoof or satire of real things is that it requires a great deal of research which writers may be unable or unwilling to do for a wide range of sensible and not so sensible reasons: time, money, ability, specialist knowledge, interest, human decency, and so on.
The Good Place straddles the line between side-stepping the issue and embracing it. On the one hand, it gleefully throws itself behind a very pop-culture notion of the afterlife, in which those whose good deeds outweigh the bad go to the eponymous Good Place and those whose bad deeds outweigh the good go to the Bad Place. Good? All right.
The series leans on this shallow repristination of the Ancient Egyptian afterlife well throughout the course of the first series and doubles down when Eleanor realizes/Michael reveals that this awful, candyfloss-flavoured world was the Bad Place all along, causing all those little narrative niggles to click into place, but this is at once both the biggest success in the programme and its biggest failure.
The premise is simple: do good, go to the Good Place. There are immortal and largely disinterested beings who adjudicate who goes where, and then (in the Bad Place, at least) those beings throw themselves into their jobs, whether they be infernal tormentors or cosmic accountants. All religions are, essentially, wrong, except for the bits about eternal bliss or torture. A strong, uncomplicated premise. However, this all goes somewhat awry when Chidi (William Harper) tries to teach Eleanor how to be good.
The goal of becoming good becomes personal to each of the main characters in a different way as a result of this teacher-student relationship. Yet, having established that doing good is the goal, an essentially utilitarian approach to ethics, the series then throws a spanner in the works by maintaining that doing the right thing for the wrong reason is still immoral: Eleanor, it is strongly implied and later confirmed, does not gain points by doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Ergo the universe’s own rules reject a utilitarian ethical construct almost immediately, which is foolish because in the first instance it makes all subsequent discussion of utilitarian morality pointless, and secondly because it hampers the semi-serious discussion that is raised in the process. Sometimes, leaving something vague or deliberately unanswered is the strongest form of world-building. In a discussion of what makes something good or evil, if the author is undecided, it is best not to invent something like “goodness points”, and a terrible idea to reveal those scores to anyone over the course of the narrative unless it is at the climax or a bait-and-switch. That said, given that the series is built on those, I would not be surprised if the points were indeed a red herring.
This is a fundamental world-building maxim. Do not contradict yourself. If something is an exception it must either have an iron-clad explanation for it or it should be the foreshadowing of a twist. Take, for example, the necessity of wands for magic in the Harry Potter series. Wizards need wands or specialized implements like broomsticks in order to do magic, and even the greatest wizard can be rendered largely harmless if disarmed. Except when it would be more dramatic for that not to be the case, of course. These instances thus require (in some contexts) extra-canonical material to explain and weaken the narrative by damaging one of the fundamental assumptions required of the reader in order to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. In Harry Potter it is that
school can be fun most magic needs a wand. In The Good Place it is the indecision between whether goodness is in the outcome not the intention or vice versa.
After all, if it is intention and not effect which determines whether or not someone gets points to enter The Good Place, Chidi should be in the clear: Eleanor does good things for bad reasons and so gets no points. Chidi does “bad” things for good reasons (i.e. agonizes over the ethical minutiae of his life to the point that he becomes an impotent ball of neuroses) and… still gets no points? Likewise, Jason (Manny Jacinto) is, like a child, almost incapable of self-reflection and so should in theory be innocent. Indeed, of the four “main” human characters, three of them (Eleanor, Jason and Tahani (Jameela Jamil)) are simply selfish in different ways, so the moral message is further confused because the learning curve does not show them growing in goodness so much as generosity, which is not necessarily the same thing as goodness. To top it all off, does that mean that the legendary Doug, who worked out 95% of the afterlife in a drug-fuelled haze, is damned? No-one seems to think so, which is even more confusing.
Now, there are two responses to this: firstly, that therefore to get into the Good Place both the actions and intentions must be good. Maybe. Secondly, that once again I am taking a comedy too seriously, to which I say ‘HOW DARE YOU, SIR!?’ and storm off in a huff.
The problem is that the world-building and the writing are both at their strongest when embracing simplicity and complexity respectively:
Our actions are weighed by a surreal, bureaucratic assembly of incredibly powerful beings after we die and then we go (with one exception) to the Good or Bad Place. Here is a story about a rogue demon (‘Hell’ is too religious but we can say ‘demon’? All right…) who tries to improve upon the Bad Place but accidentally begins to improve himself.
Excellent stuff, and with just the right cadence in the final phrase, the nauseatingly twee afterlife’s inspiration is teased out for all to see. There is no need for points or, if there is, we can wait until the final episode. Perhaps they were fictitious all along for the demon’s benefit? Out I am not ruling it.
Speaking of the demons, their dialogue is atrocious.
*quirky music sting*
Perhaps their collective lust for suffering extends beyond the fourth wall. WhoooOOOoooooOOooo! Spooky.
Like in Good Omens, there is a general sense that demons like doing bad things. For them, badness is its own reward, although whether or not that results in some kind of pleasure (arguably a moral good) is skirted around, even when the series teeters on the brink of discussing Robert Nozick’s utility monster, a popular criticism of utilitarian ethics.
Why this is forgivable, in my opinion, is that the objectives of The Good Place and Good Omens are, insofar as it can be discerned, different. The Good Place wants to talk about morality and the philosophy of ethics in an entertaining setting. The world-building serves not the ethical debates but the comic narrative which holds the viewer’s interest enough to persuade them to be invested in the programme’s intellectual ambitions. Good Omens, on the other hand, is trying simultaneously to be profound and farcical, to comment on the mysteries of life without needing to look too closely at them. Where The Good Place could be viewed as a series of ethical lessons strung together by comic scenes, Good Omens, to paraphrase another Pratchett work, wants to kick out all the pillars in the name of fun and replace them with pillars of the authors’ devising. Unfortunately, insofar as they knock down any pillars, they are the wrong ones.
The Good Place is not particularly interested in knocking anyone down and even the swipes at specific people and places are quite tame. Indeed, that is in many ways one of the core themes: in discovering what it means to be good, we have the capacity to help others do the same. It is a fundamentally optimistic, even Aristotelian, take on humanity’s capacity for goodness. Not bad for a programme set in Hell.
When building your own worlds, consider how much needs to be explained and why. As I have argued multiple times, if a writer wants to criticize something he must research and understand that thing first. If that is a metaphysical system, he must know how metaphysical systems work. If, however, what is being discussed only uses metaphysical trappings for a different discussion (demons, of a sort, to facilitate a story about the notions of good and evil) then the focus of research needs to be on the philosophical, not the world-building aspect.
There is no shame in leaving things relatively undefined: cosmic horror thrives on allusion to the unknown and the utter insignificance of mankind and, as such, the Chzo Mythos games actually become less compelling over time as things are explained. Likewise, in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis fleshes out just enough of the demons’ lives for the purposes for the framing device (the demons) to support the central premise of the book, a discussion of vice and sin: he is interested in Christian apologetics, not making claims about demons’ social lives. The Good Place does much the same: the inner life of the demons and the other mystic forces are framing devices for a different discussion. Schur is not actually trying to say something about metaphysical evil despite the premise, but rather about philosophical good.
There is a sense, as a viewer, that the writers want the viewers to take seriously the ideas which are raised in each episode, to go away and think or even read about the people and ideas mentioned by the characters. This could be considered pretentious, and it might well be, but comedy is often a reaction against particular cultural forces. Might it not be the case that Schur has identified, in an age in which almost all public icons – celebrities, institutions, political philosophies – are losing moral credibility a need for us to take seriously the need to apply ourselves to goodness? In an age in which politicians, responsible for the greater good, are viewed, correctly or not, almost universally with contempt for corruption and deceit whilst teenagers, traditionally feckless and irresponsible, are taking responsibility for fixing global ills not of their making and, perhaps, beyond their ability to address, has that bleak prophecy of The Simpsons come to pass? Are we now so dependent upon media to form our views that only a comedy can make us sit up and think about the meaning of good and evil?
I hope not. I hope, instead, that like Futurama’s love of science, The Good Place is the product of a man’s fascination with philosophy and a desire to share it with people.
That said, if the series ends with a ‘We have to make our own Good Place on Earth’ spiel I will never trust wealthy television executives again!