Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Good Place vs. "The Good Place"

What follows is a bunch of things I've kinda put together following the end of The Good Place season finale. If you've not watched The Good Place to the end, you've done yourself a terrible disservice and should fix that. Anyway, spoilers.

It occurs to me that the big twist of The Good Place is not just a major shift in the relationship of the characters to the universe, but a shift in the show's relationship with TV. Its greatest achievement is introducing the meta-narrative of what the show is about metaphorically.

At the beginning of the show, we are introduced to Eleanor as the weird part of this world. She's the unique character, the one driving the narrative. Michael (ostensibly named after the Biblical archangel) is introduced as a pure, naive angel-type excited to hang out with humans in his very first Good Place neighborhood. What follows is Eleanor's perspective navigating her situation versus various sitcom tropes adding drama and making her afterlife more difficult: having to hide the truth while simultaneously being the person looking for the truth, getting caught up in love triangles, dealing with dead weight who can blow the whole thing. Things that happen constantly in TV shows to add dramatic twists.

With the reveal that "The Good Place" is actually a special hell- everything about that perspective shifts. In fact, Eleanor was never special. She was just as bad as anyone else, just particularly aware of it. Michael is, and always was, the special one. He designed this place as a sort of high-concept hell where the people who make The Bad Place can have fun watching and interacting with the damned as they torment each other. All of those convenient sitcom tropes were, from the very start, planned and intentional by someone, just to mess with these people.

And so it becomes obvious that Michael is not named after the angel. He's named after his creator- Michael Schur. Schur created, in The Good Place, a high-concept sitcom-as-hell idea, where he made his own self-insert character who uses the trappings of a sitcom to torment his characters, that maybe all sitcoms are just excuses for their writers to throw crap at characters people love just for entertainment. Michael the character and Michael the creator are the same architect, working off the same idea, for the same purpose.

Which brings us to why Eleanor is the unlikely hero. On one level, she thwarts Michael the character by being an okay-but-not-great person who he expects to instead be truly awful. Ont he next level, she thwarts Michael the sitcom writer by approaching these dramatic turns like an actual complex real person instead of a sitcom character. She shuts down love triangles and disregards dramatic irony. She is more than her character traits.

Which finally brings me to what I love the most: she does all of this without being Genre Savvy. She's not aware she's in a sitcom. The show never winks at all. In the last decade or so, winking at the audience has gone from clever to a crutch. Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Community all did it to diminishing returns. Instead, The Good Place has decided that if you take the show at face value- it's still a really good, strong show and they don't need to acknowledge to fourth wall for cheap laughs or to add anything more. It just works on multiple levels and if you see that, that's cool, if not, it's still a good show. It's lovely and refreshing.

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