The Good Place: A Good Deed in a Weary World

by David Ottlinger

We, here at the Agora, are not big fans of Justin Weinberg. He has been wrong about freedom of expression in academia. He has been wrong about whether people should able to make anonymous accusations against public figures. He has been wrong about whether public figures when criticized deserve a right of reply. But his latest take may be his greatest outrage against that little bit of our culture that is still pure and innocent. I hesitate to repeat it, for fear of offending, but his most recent post argues that the sitcom The Good Place is not that great. [1] This I will not endure.

NBC’s The Good Place shines like a good deed in a weary world. I was immediately enraptured by its sweet, light loveliness and that feeling never left me through its three brilliantly accomplished seasons (a fourth and final season will start airing soon). It is intelligent, thoughtful and philosophical but these are far from its most important qualities. More essential are certain features which make it feel out of its time and even somehow quaint. These include its placid cheerfulness, its unabashed desire to charm and entertain, and its willingness to eschew the kind of realism and psychological complexity that have been the hallmarks of “prestige” television for the last twenty years.

The Good Place is a much needed corrective to the near total hegemony of a certain style of comedy that began to dominate with the original version of The Office, and which was brought to America in Louis CK’s Louie and imitated many times thereafter. The bright world of Seinfeld slowly gave way to the darker and grittier world of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the minds of critics it was increasingly just assumed that a comedy without a dark emotional tone and real world situations could not be “serious”. Audiences often followed suite. According to IMDB the most popular comedy of the past twenty years was the deeply cynical Always Sunny in Philadelphia. [2] Most of the more old-fashioned shows, like the utterly unwatchable Big Bang Theory, had rocks for brains. 30 Rock and the shallow, maudlin, and deeply Americanized remake of The Office were the only significant exceptions to the dominant way of doing things. SNL even commented on the trend with a great fake trailer for a fictional new CBS comedy. [3] The trailer features depressed and neurotic characters arguing in a drab house while an incongruously cheerful voiceover insists, against all evidence, that is was a hilarious new comedy. It didn’t seem very comic. But really that was comedy in 2017: emotional, introspective and depressing.

How welcome then was The Good Place. The lighting was updated from the days of Seinfeld. The show tends to prefer natural light wherever possible, whereas older sitcoms were shot on sets and lit artificially.  But even so it might be the closest thing on TV now to the bright, even TV lighting of the nineties, like Jerry’s apartment, the main Friends sets and Star Trek The Next Generation’s Enterprise D. And the physical brightness is matched by the brightness of the narrative. It re-familiarized us with the idea that stories did not always need to follow alienating anti-heroes; that it was also possible to tell a story with characters who were charming and likable. What is more, these characters are played not with a dash but with a heaping helping of shtick—oh how I have missed shtick! Those characteristic gestures and cadences which make characters feel familiar and reassuring exactly because they do what is expected. These features blend together to give the show that now-rare quality in a television series: accessibility. Savoring these elements of The Good Place I felt something I haven’t felt in a very long time. An easy sense of being relaxed and engaged, carried away on the waves of a good story.

So much of our entertainment and culture has been exhaustingly depressing, even when it’s good. Perhaps especially then. It often seemed to me that the more I liked a film, the worse it made me feel. Moonlight was a deeply studied and accomplished film. The director had obviously been deeply engaged with the films of Terrence Mallick and Jim Jarmusch. It was also a film about a closeted gay man in black America who could only make his life livable by turning to crime. Bladerunner 2049 was also one of the best films of recent years. It was, if anything, even bleaker. The protagonist lives a life of profound alienation in which his only companion is a holographic artificial intelligence in the guise of a beautiful woman. He purchases this companion from an evil corporation which is seen to immiserate the world and then sell artificial company as a palliative to the society it creates. In one scene in the film, during the film’s “low point”, our hero stands on a bridge apparently contemplating suicide. As he does so, a holograph of the same artificial intelligence that he lives with addresses him. She is projected from a billboard as part an advertisement made the by company that sells these artificial intelligences. The implication, I believe, is that the company is knowingly advertising to isolated people in their last moments before they choose to end it all. Overall the film was compelling but not exactly uplifting.

Even our superheroes are now depressed.  This was perfectly appropriate in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as Batman has always been a dark and gothic character. (Yes, I know about Adam West, but the premise of Batman was fundamentally dark and the stories borrowed gothic elements from Zorro.) But the gloom has spread outward into places it doesn’t belong. Zack Snyder inexplicably conjured up a moody Superman who violently kills people and seems to find saving people an unwelcome burden. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci took Leonard Nimoy’s wry and detached Mr. Spock and made him into a psychopath who screams in rage as he repeatedly punches Kahn the face. [4]

Even the comparatively light-hearted Marvel films slowly succumbed to this mood. Captain America looks on betrayed as his beloved country is infiltrated and corrupted by shadowy organizations. The best Iron Man film focuses on the anxious alcoholic inside the suit who is anything but invincible. The climatic Infinity War film, the result of twenty years of planning, was basically an anxiety dream about the end of American exceptionalism. Our heroes band together to fight for freedom and justice and lose. In the last moment they slump to the ground and stare in blank shock at their own defeat. All the life is drained out of them and they realize they have been unable to save anyone. This circumstance is, unsurprisingly, rectified in the next film, but even that film manages to end on a funeral with all our characters reflecting on how much has been lost.

This omnipresent depression has been a personal nightmare for me. When I get depressed, which is often, I tend to go to the movies. But so many times I have been scrolling through showtimes, realizing that every film I might consider seeing is a brutal, pessimistic downer. Television is no better, with every show about failure, drug addiction or serial killers (or maybe all three). In the same space of time I have seen Donald Trump elected President, observed the idiots who serve as liberal thought leaders actively sabotage any effective resistance to Trump, and watched all the major health insurance providers pull out of Ohio. I really don’t need more anxiety.

I do not mean to imply that The Good Place is escapist. On the contrary, it is very often engaged in social commentary, especially as the seasons go on. It depicts a deeply troubled world in which people are increasingly isolated just as they face social problems of increasing complexity. But it is distinctive in that it treats the people navigating this troubled world humanely, recognizing their basic goodness and evincing a faith in humankind’s ability to adapt and reform when the right circumstances are provided. I happen to believe that this affirming outlook is not only the most moral but also the most reasonable and intelligent. Being cynical, as we all know, can make one seem intelligent and elevated. Cynics shake their heads knowingly at the benighted fools who actually believe in causes and values. Objecting to everything gives cynics a fake appearance of intellectual superiority, as if their standards were so high that no argument can convince them. They wish, as Graciano put it, to be reputed wise by saying nothing. There is something of the same attitude infecting culture and politics today. Political commentators on all sides of the spectrum reject idealism and often basic moral standards in order to project worldliness and to preempt any possible charges of naivete, a charge which all deeply fear as dangerous to their reputations. In the same way it often taken for granted that only dark and cynical art can be serious and convincing. Anything hopeful and uplifting must be based on some cherished illusion or self-deception.

The Good Place is an invigorating challenge to this aesthetic. I don’t know what it says about our culture that the most cheerful and reassuring thing on television is about damned people in hell, but The Good Place is, characteristically, uninterested in the irony. Even as it depicts people who are deeply flawed and often fail on moral terms, it exudes a quiet faith in humanity in general. This idea is thematized in later seasons. The story begins to explore how our protagonists’ moral success is deeply dependent on their contact to each other. Individually they fail but when united by friendship, love and all the ties that bind, they often succeed. This is very often the idea that comes to the fore when the series it its most moving. Like all successful art it does not merely apprehend an idea, it captures how it feels. And The Good Place repeatedly captures the intimacy of ethical life. The trustful feeling of resting in another.

But such sublimity is not good enough for Weinberg. He must have something more “serious”. He prefers BoJack Horseman.

BoJack is an admittedly brilliant show that I stopped watching. If The Good Place is a show against its own time, BoJack could not be more of its time. Even thinking of phrases to describe it, I feel a certain heaviness come over me. It follows a narcissistic, alcoholic, washed-up actor as he tries fitfully to improve his life and just as often self-sabotages. (Note the way the last sentence is clotted with misery.) Weinberg calls it unrealistic but this is not true. BoJack features many anthropomorphized animals as characters. The titular BoJack is indeed a horse-man. Such things are not real. At one point a character also starts dating a man that she is implausibly unaware is actually three children in a trench coat. But these are matters of surface level.

In actuality BoJack is performed in a fairly realist style. This becomes clear if we compare BoJack and The Good Place for their speech rhythms. Characters in The Good Place speak in the clipped rhythms of a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawkes film. The actors are projecting and their voices always sound trained. The characters in BoJack speak very naturally, very much as contemporary Americans do, especially when the show is being emotional. Being an animated series, it is recorded with all the actors right in front of their mics (whereas The Good Place has to record live sound). This brings a natural kind of intimacy to the actors’ speech. They often speak very quietly, knowing we will hear them. In one key speech, BoJack leaves a penitent voicemail for an important friend whom he has wronged. He speaks very softly, plaintively, into his phone. This kind of intimate delivery underscores the vulnerable emotions of the scene.

This same contrast continues into character writing. The characters in The Good Place are wonderfully exaggerated. Jason is not merely dumb, but shattering, catastrophically dumb. Tahani is a shallow status obsessed socialite to make Oscar Wilde blush. And so on. There is some of this in BoJack but it is always limited to the minor characters. The mains are just realistic modern people. They are not allowed anything as “scripty” as a defining characteristic. They are just people: complex and nuanced, with faults and strengths. Despite its fantastic flourishes BoJack is again realistic where it really counts.

Weinberg appreciates BoJack for exactly the reasons I stopped watching. It is, again, a brilliant show, but it’s brilliant in a dark and emotionally distressing sort of way. What is interesting is the way that Weinberg unconsciously conflates the fact that BoJack is emotionally resonant with the fact that it is emotionally resonant in this way. He writes, “BoJack Horseman wants its audience to not just be amused but moved, and to do that it gives us not just absurdity and layers of jokes but also moments of gut-punching despair and recognizable personal struggle experienced by interesting characters.” He speaks almost as though a show could only “move” by means of “gut-punching despair” and “struggle”. He also unconsciously slips in the word “recognizable”, which reflects his expectation that anything that “moves” will be in a realist style. His understanding of comedy is completely molded by the reigning paradigm.

This comes in again when he tries to explain what he finds uncompelling about The Good Place by comparing it to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan was of course self-consciously slight, an unpretentious and simple show loved by audiences and disdained by critics. Weinberg offers us the idea that, and here one can only shake one’s head, The Good Place is like Gilligan’s Island but with emotions shoe-horned in. But he has a very interesting tell. In imagining an alternate Earth Gilligan’s Island, one which was still a silly comedy but with emotional content incongruously added, he asks us to “imagine if the writers of Gilligan’s Island attempted to explain Skipper’s constant berating of Gilligan with flashbacks to Skipper being yelled at as a kid…” Really, Weinberg is asking us only to imagine a Gilligan’s Island with emotional content. It could be any emotional content. But he immediately centers on tragic and traumatic emotions. Here again his expectations are manifested. If the writer of Gilligan’s Island wanted to add emotions, what other emotions would they add? It is as if no others existed. Emotional comedy is always already dark and realistic comedy.

The problem is of course that there are other emotions. For every Hamlet or Crime and Punishment, there is a Bleak House or a Twelfth Night. One of the great teachers I failed to appreciate as an undergrad, Ted Cohen used to tell stories about his annoyance at an old tennis buddy who always wanted to argue that tragedy was more profound than comedy. This idea offended him deeply, as it should us. He indignantly rattled off all the great cheerful works of high art. I suggest we take the same attitude toward our comedies.  There is a reason that the reigning paradigm in comedy is the reigning paradigm: it has produced much brilliant television. But there should be room in our culture for other things. Specially things as effervescently lovely as The Good Place.

But, as always, I am on the losing side of the argument. The Emmy’s were not long ago. When I heard that there was a new show, sexy and sophisticated, worldly and knowing, shot with a single camera and lit in the shadowy fashion of serious dramas, I knew my beloved Good Place was doomed. Sure enough, Fleabag brought home the trophy. I have not watched the series so I can make no direct comparison, but it hardly matters. I doubt that the details of the two series really mattered. It was a victory for Weinbergian “seriousness” over The Good Place’s moral and ethical seriousness. God help us all.

Notes

[1] https://dailynous.com/good-bad-good-place/

[2] https://www.imdb.com/list/ls005771434/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMpRJwP5y9Q

[4] The best skewering of these bizarre films was provided Youtubers of Red Letter Media:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4u-HLm8maE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWLGH0VHUVs

I’m somewhat indebted to them in what I say here.

13 Comments »

  1. David,
    I haven’t watched the two main sit-coms you write about; actually, I don’t watch any television directly. But I do try to keep up, and occasionally buy a TV series season or two on DVD rom the bargain bins or at the Salvation Army. I did sit through several episodes of the Office (American version), for instance, and thought it was just part spoof on Reality TV, part soap-opera with jokes.Non-offensive but not terribly interesting.

    As counterpart to your remarks on it, I chose not to follow Seinfeld because I thought it too cynical. It’s interesting that you remark it brighter than the current comedic standards.

    A bit of history: Until 1971, American situation comedies on TV were targeted to the family as a whole; consequently, they were cluttered with cheerful suburban families, hard-working urban families, silly families, and fantasy elements that children could respond to – genies (with no belly-button), good witches, talking cars…. They were generally scheduled earlier in the evening; more adult-oriented comedy appeared on variety shows scheduled later. Then in 1971, Norman Lear brought All in the Family to television, and it was basically a game-changing earth-quake. , followed a year later by M*A*S*H*, which was based on an R-rated hit film. Neither show had anything to offer the kiddies. Between them, these two shows re-wrote the bible of American sit0coms, and their influence remains powerful today. M*A*S*H* eventually transmuted into a ‘dramedy” with pretentious, emotionally charged takes on the psychology of its characters and their war-time situations. This had profound influence on sit-coms that wanted to establish touchy-feely liberal cred.

    Interviews with Lear late in his life reveal that he never did understand what he accomplished with All in the Family. The show had two audiences – those who read it as a satire on the working-class Right (which was Lear’s intention), and those who were enamored of Archie and cheered him on as ‘one of us,’ delighting in his ethnic slurs and overly-nationalistic patriotism. The problem was that Archie was written and performed too well; he was not a satirical caricature. For those who read the show as a satire, this seemed to sharpen the satire; but the fact remained that he was speaking for a certain segment of the society at the time, and in their language. It was this double audience that not only made the show a hit, but also led to decades of increasingly cynical social commentary.

    Both M*A*S*H* and All in the Family were – when at their best – well-written, well-performed, and well-produced and directed. Also, of course, they could be very funny. Should we blame them for their influence on American sit-coms that effectively generate some of the problems of which you complain? I suspect that both shows spoke to an American audience left disillusioned and increasing cynical after the ’60. Perhaps the most important aspect of the ’60, that rarely gets discussed, is that by the end of all that turmoil absolutely nobody, no individual, no group involved, actually got what they wanted or had struggled for. Patchwork, piece-meal changes, the occasional ‘big event’ or legal innovation not with-standing, the ’60s basically left America a nation of ‘walking wounded,’ with open wounds that have not completely healed since.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Seinfeld and the Good Place are good examples of shows that fall right in the middle of silliness and seriousness that makes them great. Bojack (which I do also enjoy bit you are right, you come away feeling sort of depressed after watching it) slides to the serious side, it’s practically drama. Always Sunny is silly, but it’s also very dark. It’s like if you took the Seinfeld crew and made them even more narcissistic and a little dangerous.

      The Good Place reminds me of two other comedies that I loved, one recent and one older. The more recent example is Parks and Recreation. Until the Good Place came along, I would have brought up Parks and Rec as the example of putting the “heart” in comedy. It dealt with some serious issues now and then, politics in particular, but overall, Parks and Rec was about hope. It was about coming together despite differences and believing there were good people in our government institutions who still have a damn about their neighbors.

      The other example I often thing of, is probably only because of the Ted Danson connection, but Cheers was one of the first shows I ever remember that began to insert seriousness into their wacky hijinx each week. We really started to care about these people when Sam Malone’s beloved buddy Coach died and instead of glossing over it, it became a plot point on the show. I think a lot of my favorite comedies owe their DNA in some way to Cheers, and the Good Place is definitely one of them.

      I enjoy comedy of all types. Always Sunny is great, Bojack is great, Archer is great, Community was great… But you are certainly right, The Good Place is a treasure and I look forward to finding the next show that offers brightness during dark times after is goes.

      Like

  2. Unusually for me, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read EJ’s commment. Most of it sounded right, though from the perspective of another continent. We had been though our own war, but instead went willingly, indeed enthusiastically.

    I suspect that both shows spoke to an American audience left disillusioned and increasing cynical after the ’60. Perhaps the most important aspect of the ’60, that rarely gets discussed, is that by the end of all that turmoil absolutely nobody, no individual, no group involved, actually got what they wanted or had struggled for. Patchwork, piece-meal changes, the occasional ‘big event’ or legal innovation not with-standing, the ’60s basically left America a nation of ‘walking wounded,’ with open wounds that have not completely healed since.

    But I find myself disagreeing with the concluding statement – “absolutely nobody, no individual, no group involved, actually got what they wanted or had struggled for“. That is true, but implicit in the statement is the belief that this is possible in life, that we struggle to overcome problems and, having solved them, we live the good life.

    I have a different view of life, best described by Macbeth’s Three Witches.

    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and caldron bubble.

    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

    I am saying that life is “powerful trouble, [that] Like a hell-broth [doth] boil and bubble“, and given this, nobody can reasonably expect to get what they wanted or struggled for. Put simply, these are unreasonable expectations. We are simply too small and ineffectual to change the boiling cauldron that we live in. And that is because the fire that keeps the cauldron boiling is our own nature.

    As EJ said, we are the “‘walking wounded,’ with open wounds that have not completely healed“, but this has always been true and is a natural consequence of human life. We are not the exceptions. This is why Pope Francis said “I see the church as a field hospital after battle“. He is asking that we turn to our neighbours, forge bonds with them, recognise their injured state and tend to their wounds. This is the better life.

    Of course there are the fat-cat tenured, the well to do middle class, the wealthy and powerful, who have concentrated resources in their own hands. They won’t recognise the world I describe because they are insulated by comfort and indifference. They have never been in the front lines of combat, poverty, suffering or oppression. They are the exceptions who take refuge in the delusion that their world is the normal. It is a comforting delusion because it does not require any action other than attending gay pride marches, or perhaps writing a cheque.

    Like

  3. Terrific piece, David. That said, I think comedies today are relatively weak stuff. Indeed, I even think Seinfeld is quite overrated.

    The best comedies are from the 50’s through the 70’s. (More, this is the best period of American television overall.) If one honestly considers the great shows from this period in light of contemporary fare, one can only conclude that we are talking entirely different categories of greatness. There is no Seinfeld episode, for example, that can come close to the best work one finds on The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy or even Mary Tyler Moore. And if you go beyond sitcoms to shows like Sid Caeser’s, “Your Show of Shows,” the gap is even wider.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The view I expressed in my comment can be construed as a dark and pessimistic one but I consider realism an important virtue. David has characterised today’s comedy as reflecting a “darker, grittier world“, a “weary world“, “dark emotional tone“, “deeply cynical“, “emotional, introspective and depressing“, “exhaustingly depressing“.

    He welcomes “The Good Place” for its brighter lighting and brighter narrative with charming, likeable characters, that are familiar and reassuring. He said that it gave him “An easy sense of being relaxed and engaged, carried away on the waves of a good story.

    I agree with his characterisations and think they are accurate. He presents his findings but does not try to interpret them, presumably because he hopes the commentariat will be stimulated to enlarge on this. EJ is the first to take up the challenge. He gives a plausible explanation based on the turmoil of the ’60s, which he says failed to realise the hopes of those times, leaving us as the “walking wounded” still with “open wounds“. Today’s art reflects this dark state is his conclusion.

    I agreed but countered with the “boiling cauldron” analogy, saying that life had always been like this, with society in a continual state of turbulent conflict and maintained that it was our inherent nature that fuelled the turbulence. This is a state that will continue for as long as we are us.

    But need it continue like this? Built into the human psyche is the concept of a better future. The hope that it can be better is what liberates us. The strength of that hope is reflected by the degree of control we can exercise in our immediate environment. For much of recorded history we lived in the iron grip of necessity multiplied by the iron grip of leaders. In such an environment hope flickered dimly. It might have died entirely had not religion fed the flames of hope. But hope was kept alive and slowly the cumulative forces of hope, like yeast in bread, transformed society. The iron grip of necessity was loosened and the harsh control of leadership was relaxed, giving us unprecedented control over our lives. Hope flourished in this liberated environment.

    But we have misread the world because it contains forces we still do not know how to control. These are the forces of greed. They have always been with us. The able and competent discovered that monopolisation of resources is the most reliable path to wealth and power while the rest of us believed that honest work is the answer. Monopolisation trumps work, every time. Human history is the story of how the able and competent have monopolised resources to acquire wealth and power. The industrial revolution diluted this monopoly giving the rest of us a greater share in the resources and ultimately a greater say in the way we are governed. Hope was no longer a dimly flickering flame. It had become a bright light.

    But greed remained a powerful force. The able and the competent have redoubled their efforts at monopolising resources. Their motivation is even greater because the rewards today are far richer. Step by step they have invented means to pervert the mechanisms intended to restrain them. They have done this with astonishing success. They are the tumour feeding on the body of society, exploiting it and weakening it. David expresses this reality with his phrases “profound alienation” and “evil corporation.

    Art reflects reality, presages reality and expresses repressed fears of the future. It is today the unconscious reflection of the pain inflicted by the suffocating embrace of the monopolists, which is ironic because it is financed by monopolists.

    The Salt Lake Tribune comments that The Good Place is the theology of millenialism. It is religion in another guise, but serves the same purpose, to keep alive the flame of hope, the possibility of redemption and the punishment of oppressors that we so earnestly desire.

    Like

  5. Dan, thank you for the kind words. Also I’m now picturing all our x-er’s and boomers rocking back and forth on the porch talking about the good old days.

    And Peter you graced me with a comment that encompasses all history and the fate of humanity. I feel I’m less far seeing. I don’t know what the future holds. But if greed and economic consolidation are powerful forces so are generosity and political resistance. I still think hopefulness is reasonable. TGP does not shy away from harsh realities but it finds space for hope and kindness. That is the greater part of why I love it.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Enjoyed reading, we seem to have similar tastes. It took me a few episodes to recognize and decide I liked TGP’s positive message, and I also gave up on BoJack.

    Like