Storytelling in television presents some different challenges than in standalone books or movies. Most TV show creators would be happy if their show got picked up for multiple seasons, but they rarely have a storyline planned out that far, at least not in detail. So when a series does get renewed, it can be a mixed blessing in terms of the show’s quality. We get more episodes, but if the writers are starting to run out of fresh ideas, those episodes will decrease in quality, becoming repetitive, predictable and contrived. How can that be avoided?
One partial solution is to eschew the serialized storytelling entirely and focus on self-contained, single-episode stories. This was the case for most TV shows before the Internet/binge-watching era, with each episode presenting a standalone story that had little connection to other episodes aside from shared characters and setting. At the end of the 22 or 44 minute story, the conflicts were resolved and everything was much as it was at the start. And you weren’t required to watch the entire season to understand what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of storytelling. Most of the celebrated classic TV shows were almost purely episodic, like I Love Lucy, the original Star Trek, or MASH. A well-constructed episode can play out like a mini-movie, complete with exciting twists and a satisfying resolution.
But episodic television is becoming less and less common nowadays. With the ability to watch an entire season all at once, we’ve come to expect that there will be an overarching storyline to follow, even if each episode might have its own mini-story. We expect serialized storytelling. And sometimes, if the showrunners didn’t anticipate their show running as long as it does, they end up having to make up a lot of the story as they go. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee bad stories, but it’s not the most reliable formula for great, or consistent, storytelling.
The point of all of this lead-up is to say that The Good Place is a superb example of serialized TV that gets it right from the very beginning. Granted, the show isn’t over yet, but the first two seasons have given us every assurance that the writers know exactly where the story is headed, and they have a plan to get there.
This is exciting for any show, but particularly for a comedy. Long, complicated arcs are usually reserved for dramas. Sitcoms got their name for a reason — a situation is established, and comedy ensues within its constraints. Once the initial premise is established, you expect it will stay largely the same, with some small changes as characters embark on romances or perhaps grow just a little bit. The predictability is comforting. Keeping the audience constantly guessing — that’s the stuff of drama, right?
Not for The Good Place. It is definitely a comedy, no doubt about it, but it is also a surreal exploration of morality and philosophy, as well as a sly meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling itself. It toys constantly with the audience’s expectations and pushes the boundaries on every convention we’ve come to expect.
The initial premise is already a step beyond the average workplace or family comedy. Our main protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, learns she has died and entered the afterlife, which is essentially comprised of “The Good Place” and “The Bad Place.” She is relieved when the affable, supernatural being Micheal informs her that she has made it to the former. But just a few scenes later she’s confiding in her “soulmate” that she doesn’t actually belong here, that she didn’t lead the altruistic life Michael believes she did, and there’s been a terrible mistake.
Okay, pretty weird, but we can work with this. We’ll follow Eleanor as she tries to hide her secret from Michael and this community of do-gooders, and hilarity will ensue, right? Sure…except that each new episode brings a fresh twist to complicate the premise. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, something else changes. Until the end of season 1, which brings a revelation that fundamentally alters the trajectory of the show.
And season 2 follows that new trajectory for all of two episodes before bringing in a completely new complication! Obviously I’m keeping it vague so as not to spoil it. Now, as previously discussed, I’m leery of stories that keeping throwing in new twists. They can feel gimmicky, as if the writers worry no one will keep watching without constantly hooking viewers in with some fresh mystery. But then the answer to the mystery is inevitably a letdown. Not so with The Good Place. The revelations bear up under re-watches, so you realize the writers knew what was coming even though we didn’t. The showrunner, Michael Schur, has had the long view from the beginning.
Meanwhile, twists or not, each episode is so much fun. We learn more about the other central characters — the “soulmate,” Chidi, an ethics professor who reluctantly agrees to help Eleanor try to become a better person so she won’t get discovered. (With his stomach-aches over moral quandaries, he’s definitely the character I relate to the most). And Tahani, the philanthropic socialite who seemed to know every famous person on Earth while she was alive (and makes sure you know it, namedropping left and right). Her soulmate, the silent monk Jianyu who might have ulterior motives for staying silent. Janet, the helpful AI construct who cheerfully reminds characters that she is “not a robot” and “not a girl.” And Michael himself, who quickly moves beyond the perpetually-beaming caricature he appears to be at first. It hardly seems a coincidence that he shares a name with the showrunner. Like the creator of a TV show, he too is running scenarios designed to create a certain effect…with varying degrees of success. All the actors are giving top-notch performances, and it’s a treat to watch them play off each other. It’s refreshing as well to see a multicultural cast with nary a caricatured racial-stereotype (in spite of what you might initially think about Jianyu).
It’s also, thanks to Chidi’s ethics lessons, a sort of crash course in moral philosophy. How many other comedies contain regular references to Plato, Kierkegaard, and Kant? How often do you get a glorious assortment of goofy puns and visual gags alongside an in-depth exploration of moral improvement and what it means to be human? It’s a tricky balance to maintain, but somehow they pull it off.
I’m well aware that after all this praise, I could be in for a big disappointment if the subsequent seasons don’t pay off their promises the way the first two have. But I’m fairly confident they will, for a few reasons. First of all, the showrunner has proven himself highly capable of creating clever and well-constructed TV shows before with The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Second, he has made it clear that he started this show with a deliberate plan for where it was ultimately headed. He’s made the rather unusual request of shorter seasons, only twelve or thirteen episodes, to keep the story from getting bloated with unnecessary padding. He doesn’t seem inclined to make more episodes just to keep the story stretching on and on — when it reaches its natural conclusion, it will end. I will actually be quite happy if the series finishes after four seasons, as long as that’s where it was intended to finish. I’ve seen too many TV shows get weaker and weaker as they go on past when they should have ended. This is perhaps a rare opinion, but I’d rather a show stop while it’s still popular — because it’s still high-quality.
Like Chidi, I’ve just used a lot of words to say what is essentially a very simple concept, so I’ll sum it up more succinctly. The Good Place is great TV. Watch it!