I’ve written, more than once, that I am not a binge-watcher of television shows.
The Kris Kristofferson song “The Pilgrim” contains the following lyrics: He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.
Yeah, that about sums me up, I’d say. The word “hypocrite” may actually apply as well, since there’s no term more precise than “binge-watching” that describes what I did with the first season of The Good Place. After finishing off all the Star Trek series I’ve been watching for nearly two years, I had some time on my hands. I filled some of that time with this show, and knocked it out in short order.
I never planned to watch this series. I can’t really explain why. I like Kristen Bell, who was Veronica Mars, after all. And, I like Ted Danson. I knew that the premise of the series concerned the Afterlife, which is a subject I often enjoy. Who doesn’t enjoy thinking about what happens after we’re dead?
Okay, I know some people don’t enjoy that, but I’ve given the topic considerable thought, and, with the wisdom of my years, I’ve decided that, after death, there’s either nothing at all (which is not a completely terrible thought, in my opinion) or there’s something (which could easily go either way). Nothingness has a certain appeal to me, but the idea of Somethingness is more fun, at least from an entertainment perspective.
The topic has been tackled before. From Beetlejuice to What Dreams May Come, in film (yes, I know the Robin Williams movie was based on a 1978 Richard Matheson novel: I never read it). In TV series, I understand that Dead Like Me concerns this topic, but I never watched that one. Pushing Daisies (which I loved), the short-lived Reaper, and AMC’s Preacher each deal with the topic in their own ways. In written fiction, both Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett deal, from their unique perspectives, with the topic of death and the Afterlife.
Myself, I once wrote a short story called “The Waystation” (don’t look for it: never saw print) that, in hindsight, wasn’t so much a story as it was a long scene, which postulates that, upon dying, we first believe we’re waking up in our own beds before some dead relative calls and introduces himself as our sponsor in the Afterlife. Yeah, I wrote that.
So, I wasn’t against the premise. At the time it was premiering, I just thought it seemed like more light-hearted, whimsical fare than I wanted to get into at the time. A young woman who doesn’t belong in Heaven goes there anyway. Big whoop. Plus, I was boldly going where no one had gone before for several hours a week. I didn’t have time.
But, there it was, on “My List” on Netflix. So I watched it.
I’M WRITING THIS PART IN BOLD-FACED CAPS BECAUSE I’M GOING TO SPOIL THE FORKING SHIRT OUT OF SEASON ONE AFTER THIS POINT.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED, BENCHES!
The preceding was a bit of an inside joke. You see, in The Good Place, on the series, you aren’t able to curse, which leads to Kristen Bell’s less-than-good character saying things like “fork,” “shirt,” and “bench,” instead of the other words that might easily crop up on cable television. I liked this, and didn’t even notice it much after the first episode, much in the same way the word “frak” was used in Battlestar Galactica (yes, I prefer the four-letter spelling over “frack,” which just makes me think of natural gas).
The first season begins with a young woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) discovering that she has died and now lives in a nondenominational Heaven—called, naturally, The Good Place—which is reserved for only the cream of the crop among the living. The problem is, they’ve got the wrong person. Eleanor herself knows she was a terrible person and that she’s in the Good Place by mistake. She’s still a terrible-enough person to pretend to be the good Eleanor to stay, but she is going to try to become a better person while she’s there.
Half-hour sitcoms are usually episodic in nature, with the characters never really changing and the status quo returning at the end of each episode. Right off the bat, The Good Place was attempting something a bit more ambitious. It is serialized, and we’re on board to see how Eleanor’s story arc ends up.
Personally, I was sure that the series would run out of steam because the premise was unsustainable. More on that in a bit . . .
Eleanor is introduced to her “soul-mate,” Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who was an ethics professor in life. Eleanor quickly enlists his help in her becoming a better person. There’s a lot of discussion about Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle and others (I admit that, like Eleanor, my brain tends to fog over when the discussion gets too brainy). We’re also introduced to Eleanor’s neighbors, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). Along with Good Place Architect Michael (Ted Danson), and an all-knowing holographic Siri named Janet (D’Arcy Carden), these are our main cast of the series.
At first, it seems that most of the comedy would be based on Eleanor Shellstrop‘s presence wreaking havoc in the Good Place neighborhood. Then, we quickly find out that Jianyu doesn’t belong there either. Instead of a Taiwanese monk who took a vow of silence that he intends to honor even after death, he’s actually a wannabe DJ from Jacksonville, Florida, named Jason Mendoza. He’s as dumb as a box of doorknobs, and he definitely doesn’t belong in the Good Place either.
It also turns out that there is a Medium Place as well. Our cast met its lone inhabitant, Mindy St. Clair, a cocaine-and-masturbation enthusiast who died in the ’80s. I’m sure she’ll figure into future episodes somehow.
There are only 13 episodes in the first season. This is a good thing. The show moves quickly, each episode ending on a cliffhanger, with the plot moving forward rapidly to the season finale.
This is where the creative minds behind the series cemented my continued viewership. The finale completely turns the entire premise of the show on its ear. Please remember that I issued spoiler warnings earlier. As it turns out, our little gang of quirky characters aren’t in the Good Place at all. They are in the Bad Place, and the events of this season have been the torture that Michael, who is a demon, devised for them. But, Eleanor is a sharp cookie and she figured it all out. This changes the entire structure of the show for the second season. A complete reinvention. Absolute genius.
I like the absurd nature of this series. I also like that it’s avoiding giving too much religious context to the Afterlife. It doesn’t focus on any one religion, and our cast is diverse. Tahani could be Muslim. Jason, at least as Jianyu, was a Buddhist. Chidi, of course, is probably a secular humanist. Eleanor is clearly a heathen. This show is an equal-opportunity offender.
I enjoyed this season. I probably wouldn’t have if it were longer than thirteen episodes. My original doubts about the sustainability of the premise turned out to be warranted. The premise has suddenly been changed. Do I have my doubts about the new premise? Sure. But, I’ll continue to watch to see what happens. Which was the idea, I think.
I like The Good Place. I’ve giving the first season a solid A-.