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Why I’ve decided to spoil ‘The Good Place’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-09-2017 Raja Sen

For the last year, I’ve been trying—unsuccessfully—to talk people into watching The Good Place, a delightful and meticulously high-concept NBC comedy, now available in India on Netflix. Created by Michael Schur, the man behind Parks And Recreation (which I love) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which I skip), The Good Place is his most ambitious storytelling effort and an example of how a sitcom can be the best-plotted show on television. This show pulls the rug out from under our expectations better than Westworld, better than Stranger Things, better than Lost. It is the cleverest comedy in years, and I implore you to binge on the delicious first season right now, in time to keep up with the new season which began on 19 September.

The premise is elegant. The afterlife (which all religions and theosophers got only about 5% right, we’re told) is divided into a Good Place and a Bad Place, with most people (presidents, musicians) denied entry into The Good Place, based on a plus and minus system ranking all important things you did in your life, such as ending slavery (plus), telling a woman to smile (minus), helping mom with her printer (plus) and showing a nine-year-old The Shining (minus). Eleanor, a far from exemplary person, makes it into The Good Place through a clerical error and struggles to actually become (or appear) good enough to not be booted out. This deeply flawed human is played by the spry Kristen Bell, and Michael, the archangel responsible for the error, is played with gorgeous goofiness by Ted Danson, crown prince of the sitcom. If this is enough to sell you on the show—and I do hope it is—I would strongly urge you to not read ahead in this column and go watch The Good Place immediately.

In my book, intentionally spoiling a fine and fiendishly clever show would dock someone an awful lot of points, and therefore I have struggled—like Eleanor’s accidental soulmate, Chidi, played by the superbly hapless William Jackson Harper—with the moral dilemma behind this column. Yes, I have warned you in the headline and in the paragraph above, but I still hesitate to peel back the sleeves and give away the sleight. This is because, dear reader, this is a sitcom not just with a cunning premise but also a show that turns itself inside-out with a jaw-dropping twist in the season finale that is smarter and truer than anything M. Night Shyamalan could dream up. Alfred Hitchcock would approve. It is a twist so exquisite that it made me go back and, even in this age overflowing with sensational television, watch the entire first season again, marvelling at its plotting and brilliance.

What The Good Place does is tease our expectations, layering wisecracks over questions (and even plot developments) straight out of Sartre. Is Eleanor being in The Good Place evidence that the afterlife is as inefficient as we are, or that there is room for forgiveness and anomalies (or miracles) in a point-based world? Is it more ethical for her soulmate to help her or to squeal on her? What about Tahini, her sophisticated and statuesque neighbour who was once Baz Luhrmann’s muse and raised billions for charity, but is insufferably smug and, even in the afterlife, chooses to keep her posh accent? Should we cheer on Eleanor, our protagonist, at the expense of the real Eleanor who, through no fault of her own, finds herself outside The Good Place? And, perhaps most importantly, is the divine, all-powerful version of Siri any better than ours?

This is a hilarious show, but its one-line premise is a concern for a series that plans to run longer than a film. Is this show limited to Eleanor’s Pygmalion/My Name Is Earl type of reformation? How, then, is there room to grow? Fortunately, it is not. Schur masterfully hints and hides (often in plain sight) the truth of what The Good Place is as a place and what The Good Place is as a show, with constant narrative shocks and cliffhangers. Danson, in particular, as the “architect” who accidentally kicks a small dog into a sun, personifies the ingenuity of the show. At one point he describes frozen yogurt as humanity in a nutshell—“It’s so human to take something that’s great and ruin it a little bit so they can have more of it”—and, while he starts out as a sunny optimist, we see that he, like the humans he wants to emulate, is actually a little bit of everything.

As is The Good Place. After much wicked misdirection, the big reveal at the end of the first season is that it is all too good to be true—or, indeed, vice versa. What we know as The Good Place is not that thing at all, and an Eternal Sunshine-y reset sets up massively thrilling stakes for the second season. That’s as much as I can bring myself to say. One character grins—this is a television moment in itself, I assure you—and it made me gasp. It feels terrific to be had by a smart magician. This upends everything we know about the series. All has changed in a show built on constant surprise, save for one fact. You should be watching this show.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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