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Should You Be Watching: The Good Place

Now's the best time to get into The Good Place.

Cultured Vultures spoilers

If you haven’t heard about this quirky little show then right now is the time to give it a shot. We’re only a few episodes into season 2 and it’s showing that not only can it present an interesting premise to revolve jokes around, it can evolve far beyond that into a strong contender for having the best setup in all of comedy. We’re going to bring viewers up to speed on Season 1 so we can discuss why you can jump on board now in season 2 and not feel left behind.

The premise of The Good Place is that Eleanor (Kristen Bell) was a promiscuous, lying party girl whose consistently bad decisions ended up with her dying. Arriving in the titular ‘Good Place’, the designer assigned to her neighbourhood, Michael (Ted Danson), lets her know that she has made it in and can relax for eternity among the other residents. If Eleanor has any questions, she can ask the helpful humanoid assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden) for anything her heart desires. Eleanor quickly realises that her past shouldn’t have let her see such a cushy position in this non-denominational afterlife, so she is compelled to keep her secret as long as she can.

The only problem is her natural tendencies soon see her unbalancing the precarious utopia around her, with each new misdeed resulting in more and more calamitous consequences for her and the other residents, leading Michael to wonder how his perfectly designed system has failed. Soon, Eleanor ropes in her afterlife appointed ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor who died before being able to make any significant decisions in life, to either help her change for the better or at the very least help her hide that she doesn’t belong there. All of this is delightfully wrapped in the comedy trappings that are enforced upon them by being in The Good Place. Swearing is impossible (which is forking bullshirt), the little town they exist in is largely a frozen yogurt dominated economy, and Eleanor’s slacker tendencies work wonderfully off of Chidi’s earnest ethical dilemmas and Michael’s flustered exasperation over each new catastrophe.

The Good Place - Season 1
(Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)

At this point, you might think the show has played all its cards, but it’s only just getting started. Soon, a stoic, silent monk named Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) is revealed to be another mistake, instead being a terminally simple DJ named Jason who just wants to hang out with Janet and have her bring him things he likes. Furthermore, the resident stuffy socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who is similarly soulmate-stuck with Jason/Jianyu, gets pulled into the chaos and the four of them together have to deal with half of them clearly not meant to be there and the other two conflicted by ethical dilemmas and consequences of the whole ordeal.

Between the hiding of Eleanor, keeping Jason’s stupidity in line, Chidi’s analysis-paralysis and Tahani’s insufferable pretensions, there are big laughs from their chemistry. It’s all enhanced by the situation and from Michael constantly hovering about trying to figure out the compounding problems of his now critically wounded construct. Suffice to say that at this point the show has plenty of fodder to work with, and it continues to evolve the premise as the problems redouble upon themselves, keeping everything fresh. Eleanor sees her influence causing such problems for everyone else just trying to enjoy their lives (deaths?), and, feeling bad about it, she decides to give herself up. This leads to the denizens of The Bad Place led by Trevor (Adam Scott) coming up to claim their property, but not only that they also have the real Eleanor that should’ve originally gone to The Good Place.

Michael tries to organise a swap instead or to see if Fake Eleanor has perhaps earned her chance to stay through her selfless confession, but ultimately they all can’t agree and squabbling and arguments ensue. It’s at this point they drop such a fantastic turn of events that it revolutionises a show that is still young enough to truly take advantage of such a monumental shift. If what has been written so far whets your appetite enough to be curious for the entire ride, stop reading now and just go enjoy the first season so you can catch up quick. If you’re sticking around, let’s press on.

Our Eleanor sees the bickering, the arguing, the unsatisfied and unfulfilled promises that have been all around them for this entire ordeal, and she figures it all out.

This isn’t The Good Place at all. They’re in The Bad Place.

The moment where Michael turns from the bumbling but well-natured designer into a machiavellian, scheming manipulator is such a fantastic moment, not only because it turns the show’s premise and indeed the actual title on its head, but because it reframes everything that has come before it. The leering, devilish smile that Eleanor’s proclamation produces from Michael breaks everything the show has set up, but in such a way that all the established pieces can be put together in new fun ways all over again like comedy Lego.

In short order, the first season hurtles towards its end with this revelation and Michael reveals that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are in his experimental version of a torturous afterlife, so close to perfect but fundamentally skewed in order to deliver indirect and unassailable torment. Forever. There most certainly is a more ‘traditional’ version of The Bad Place, but the four of them are his playthings, and once he resets their memories he’ll simply try again with a few tweaks to keep them in line. Eleanor manages to take the chance before the reset to scribble a short note and hide it in Janet to give back to her afterward, reminding herself to find Chidi so they can puzzle out their problem all over again, and that is where season one ends.

A season that continually improved until its fantastic ending, with the best kind of twist because you simply weren’t expecting there to be one (or at least I wasn’t). Now we can delve a bit into season 2, and see why newcomers are highly likely to enjoy jumping on the ride despite missing the first go around. From here, there are no spoilers so read on with impunity.

The second season has the advantage of essentially starting at the very beginning, retreading a lot of familiar beats but with the added context of our new dynamic simmering and tweaking each interaction. Where Eleanor went through natural progressions in the first season, this time her nudge of information back to herself propels meetings and consequences much faster, keeping the audience firmly off balance in trying to predict where the show is going, which is a great quality.

The three other subjects of Michael’s experiment have now had plenty of time to establish themselves, and we get to see more of their early experiences instead of primarily being with Eleanor. This is all very enjoyable, particularly with the dimwitted but naive and oddly innocent Jason, so even when everyone is in dire straits he always has some upbeat gibberish to lighten the mood.

Michael is simply delightful with his new evil veneer, completely changed from the first season and with problems mounting of his own as he pursues his vision for The Bad Place, he often takes out that frustration in fun but futile acts of meanness. Janet has evolved as well, almost literally, over the course of the show and her position as a reprogrammed assistant Michael stole from The Good Place for this experiment sees her flitting between both sides as a constant source of humour. She literally pops in and out of existence for comedic gold.

Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC

The Good Place now stands in an oddly accessible moment, where old fans have all the benefits of context that that brings to proceedings, while newcomers can quickly realise the scenario for what it is and follow without much hand-holding. Due to the fluctuating reality within the story, each episode so far has offered a perspective beginning chronologically near the beginning or with exposition enough to lead everyone along. It’s surprisingly efficient and whether intended or not allows The Good Place to acclimatise new viewers to its world, as fluid as it may be.

The Good Place has taken an above average concept for comedy and reworked itself within its own universe until it is a constantly surprising and engaging bit of fun. A lot of the laughs from the concept and supporting cast are genuinely big ones, while the eternally likable Kristen Bell as Eleanor and the simultaneously endearing and curmudgeonly Ted Danson as Michael consistently deliver big laughs. Sometimes they had me pausing the show for fear of missing another big moment. The Good Place has been on a consistently upward trajectory since it began, in ideas both traditional and meta for its conceit, to the point it is unpredictable but nevertheless reliably one of the funniest shows currently going.

With all that squared away, here’s the quick ‘n’ dirty breakdown.

Who is likely to enjoy The Good Place?
– People who like their comedy with distinctly good vibes
– People who like humour in a mix of flavours, from the inspired silly to the wordplay and innuendos
– People who like their comedy to evolve and not stay static

Who won’t like The Good Place?
– If you like comedy with healthy helpings of cynicism
– If you need that foul language to flick your funny switch

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