The Good Place
“The writers of The Good Place prove that you can create ridiculous, exaggerated characters without ever having to reach for flat characterizations or stereotype.”
Title: The Good Place
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Michael Schur 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Michael Schur 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Megan Amram 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Jen Statsky 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (8 ♂, 1 ♀, 4 POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
11/10/2017: Updated Gender and LGBTQ categories
Fantastic, feel-good show that consistently earns laugh-out-loud moments, The Good Place ranks right up there with Michael Schur’s previous works Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, all of which infuse their casts with palpable affection and tap into the inherent quirks of each actor for comedy that comes from within rather than relying on outward, visual gags which are all too often tied to gendered or racial punchlines.
The show employs one of my favorite setups: an exploration of the afterlife and the delicious meta that comes with it (looking at you, Dead Like Me). The ethical quandaries and whimsical magical surrealism that infuse Schur’s latest creation is catnip for anyone who likes their sitcom laughs alongside more than the mundanities of grounded, everyday life.
However, it is precisely this out-of-the-box concept that turns off some viewers. A stroll through Metacritic turns up such quotes as “It was the most insane thing I have seen on television,” or “The entire premise is lost on me.” So while normally I compromise the Quality category with aggregate scores, of which The Good Place garners a 78/100 on Metacrific, in this case I’m sticking to a full score because a show should only be dinged for flawed craft and not for having a niche audience. After all, The Good Place executes at the highest level but if giant flying cocktail shrimps aren’t your thing, they just aren’t your thing.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES
Like Parks and Recreation, The Good Place features a tiny, blonde force of nature. Comedic leads Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) could not be any more different, however. Whereas the former is a doe-eyed idealist who fights through a world of mucky humans and indifferent hedonists, The Good Place flips the formula. Here, our anti-hero Eleanor is a misanthrope in an afterlife populated with do-gooders and Leslie Knope-types.
Among the grudging friendships Eleanor makes, we find several female ones that are complex and hilarious. In perhaps its most feminist episode, “Chidi’s Choice”, three women simultaneously declare their love for the indecisive, adorably nerdy Chidi (William Jackson Harper). But unlike so many narratives that script women into fighting over a man, Eleanor immediately recognizes how silly their situation is and urges Tahani (Jameela Jamil) to focus on their friendship instead. Eventually, with each other’s help, Eleanor, Tahani, and Real Eleanor (Tiya Sircar) realize that they are simply using Chidi as their own, personal crutches. They rescind their declarations of love and focus on healthier paths to happiness.
One thing that does nick this score is the romance between Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Janet (D'Arcy Carden), a human male and a robot personal assistant:
Jason is a great character as a total airhead, but there are weird consent issues that happen as he marries Janet despite her repeating constantly that she doesn’t have emotions or feelings, isn’t human, and that she was designed only to satisfy the tenants of The Good Place. Yes, Janet is a robot. And yes, Jason is written to be comically infantile. That's why I'm only detracting a quarter point. But it remains to be said that by optics (and thus subconscious imprinting), Janet’s character falls 100% into the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope where a nascent mind is trapped in the body of an adult woman, thus making her sexually desirable to men but mentally incapable of understanding of what is happening to her body. Their relationship begins late in Season 1, so I hope the writers find a way to adjust this problematic story arc in Season 2 because the way they hint that Janet is "awakening" only further digs into the trope, with all its creepy connotations.
Mic drop on the racial diversity of The Good Place. The cast is gorgeously multi-hued, as it should be for an afterlife populated by international souls. Major characters of color are abound, including the Pakistani-English Tahani, Filipino-American Jason, and Nigerian Chidi who was raised in Senegal, each of whom are multi-faceted and full of depth and backstories. The writers of The Good Place prove that you can create ridiculous, exaggerated characters without ever having to reach for flat characterizations or stereotype.
Two reference points to how The Good Place tackles LGBTQ:
- Eleanor often makes casual asides to how gorgeous Tahani is and how Eleanor may be genuinely into her. These remarks can feel lighthearted and fun, but given a long onscreen history of depicting women as flirting with each other specifically for the male gaze, I actually have to consider this a detraction from the LGBTQ category. Until we see real signs that Eleanor is genuinely bisexual, then this is another title in a long history that uses lesbian or bisexual experience as a source of titillation, ignoring the fact that real humans exist behind those experiences.
- The only gay couple in the afterlife are stereotypes: two effeminate, de-sexualized white men. Still, they have personalities beyond just being flamboyant and they see a decent amount of screen time, cropping up in roughly half the episodes of Season 1. Their inclusion is better than having no LGBTQ at all.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.31/5
I am so excited to see an effortlessly diverse show on network television. The Good Place normalizes such everyday realities that seldom make their way to mainstream sitcoms—interracial relationships, Asians in prominent roles speaking fluent English, a woman of color playing the Barbie doll role, or East Asians flaunting the "model minority" stereotype by being dumb and committing petty crimes—and does it all without ever sacrificing its ultimate goal of being a complete riot. Coming off a spectacular finale at the end of its first season, I am so excited for the show’s renewal and look forward to enjoying more of this creative, elevated sitcom.