On 26 September, much to the sadness of many viewers, NBC and Netflix’s The Good Place began its fourth and final season. Calling itself a ‘fantasy comedy’, The Good Place was released three years ago in September 2016 to an enthusiastic audience and received, overall, relatively positive reviews. Along the way, it has picked up nominations from Primetime Emmy Awards and The Golden Globe Awards, commending its original concept, sharp wit and nonsensical theories of the cosmos. I remember watching the show every Friday morning in my first year, after it had come out late the night before, and discussion around it seemed to creep into conversations, introductions and anecdotes with pretty much everyone around me. But why does it captivate people so much and why is it so effortlessly good?
To start with, I must emphasise that if you have not watched The Good Place then it may be best not to read this article in order to avoid spoilers. The Good Place is set in the afterlife, when Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up after her death, in what seems to be Heaven: the Good Place. Other residents in this utopian neighbourhood, all of whom weirdly seem to be the same age, include Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) who name-drops like there is no tomorrow, the frustratingly ethical philosophy professor, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and the ditsy DJ Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) disguised as silent Buddhist monk Jianyu Li. They are also joined by neighbourhood architect Michael (Ted Danson) and his ‘assistant’ Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a woman who can provide an infinite cornucopia of objects to the residents and in her free time returns to her void. The show is full of satisfying, contemporary references, interesting philosophy lessons and perfectly combines realism in its portrayal of modern-day people and total absurdism in its circumstance and plot. It is, however, the notorious and insanely intelligent plot twist at the end of Season One which I feel may have hooked people to this series most effectively: namely, that the Good Place was in fact the Bad Place all along, and that these four deceased humans had been sent there to torture each other.
A reason why this show is so successful is the way it dares to depict a setting which so few TV shows and films before have done. The afterlife is perhaps a difficult subject to approach without seeming to adhere to a particular belief system, but The Good Place manages to abstain from religious attachment with Michael citing at the beginning of the series – in response to being asked which religion was “right” about the afterlife – that “every religion guessed about 5%”. The writers and creators of the show can dictate and invent their own rules and theories surrounding the universe and the afterlife, so that the limits to the plot within the series are essentially non-existent. Furthermore, whilst many of the rules are rapidly broken, the show is able to answer its own, and other people’s, questions with complete nonsense: for example, the concept of time is explained by the way “Jeremy Bearemy” looks when written out, and the person solving all the universe’s ethical and moral dilemmas is a sassy entity named Gen. This basically ensures that the show can never be criticised for being implausible. It could be argued that the only limit in place is humanity, but the series pushes a convincing argument that humanity should not be constrained into limited definitions like good, bad and medium, because in reality it is a simultaneously toxic and healthy mixture of all three.
The creator of the show, Michael Schur, admitted that he was struggling with how to pitch “dead people who read moral philosophy” to popular TV networks, so when he went to advertise the show he narrated the entire first season and they were sold. He said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that he realises he fails “to be a moral person” every day, even though he tries his hardest to be. The Good Place emphasises the complexities surrounding what it means to be a good person in this crazy and materialistic world where our actions can have unforeseeable negative consequences. And, at the same time, it underlines the simplicity of being a kind person.
Nevertheless, this absurdist sitcom has managed to produce four seasons of humorous and refreshing content, with each season set in a different place under different circumstances, full of new hilariously topical references and touching relationships, and packed with the moral and ethical dilemmas and philosophical teachings surrounding what it means to be a good person. It goes without saying but I am definitely looking forward to the season ahead.