Thoughtful commentary from The Guardian. No, for reals…we forking mean it!
by Ellen E Jones
f there’s one thing that hit Netflix show The Good Place is absolutely, definitely not about, it’s The State of the World Today. Intentionally, anyway. For one thing, this feelgood sitcom isn’t even set in our world, but in a non-denominational afterlife you might call “Heaven”. This is the Good Place of the title, where Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the show’s opening episode and soon concludes she’s been sent in error.
The Good Place is for the likes of beautiful philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil), silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) and earnest ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Eleanor, on the other hand, is the kind of garbage person who reads Celebrity Baby Plastic Surgery Disasters magazine and sells fake medicine to the elderly for a living. Still, understandably, she wants to stay, so spends most of season one trying to keep her secret from Michael (Ted Danson), the angel-architect overseeing the Good Place neighbourhood.
The other point is that The Good Place was midway through its first season on NBC when the 2016 US presidential election took place. Even after the world entered into its Trumpian twilight zone, The Good Place’s showrunner, Michael Schur, was keen to ensure his writing team did not get sidetracked: “We talked a lot in the room about, this is not a show about Donald Trump,” he told New York magazine before the season two premiere last year. “These characters are dead. These characters don’t even know that Donald Trump is president.”
Most importantly, though, The Good Place couldn’t be about Trump, Brexit, Windrush, #MeToo or any other contemporary talking point, because that’s exactly the sort of thing that fans watched the show to escape. While for some, The Handmaid’s Tale was a perfectly timed misery-watch, this show offered the opposite sort of distraction. By 2017, political drama and comedy were on the wane in TV generally, with once-popular shows such as Veep, Scandal and House of Cards all either cancelled or embarking on final seasons. Schur, meanwhile, was known and loved as the creator of optimistic, easy-watching sitcoms that found silliness and fundamental decency in the lives of local government officials (Parks and Recreation) and police officers (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). The Good Place, with its pastel hues and twee, euphemistic cursing was his most whimsically escapist yet.
Or so it seemed, right up until the season one finale, which first aired on 19 January 2017, the night before Trump’s inauguration. This was the episode in which – plot twist! – Eleanor discovered that Michael (Danson) wasn’t an angel-architect, but a demon-bureaucrat who’d been messing with them all along. It wasn’t just Eleanor who belonged in the Bad Place (AKA Hell), but Tahani, Chidi and Jianyu (actually another imposter called Jason) too. And, what’s more, they were already there. They had been obligingly torturing each other as part of Michael’s reality TV-meets-Sartre experiment since episode one. As Eleanor’s catchphrase-coining moment of realisation had it: “This is the Bad Place!”…