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.  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.  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.  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. 
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.
 The best skewering of these bizarre films was provided Youtubers of Red Letter Media:
I’m somewhat indebted to them in what I say here.