The Good Place? A Comedy Revolution: Why is it so much better than anything else?
It is no secret that here at Nicely Put, we are no fans of the TV show 'Friends'. We think it to be poorly written, overacted, badly produced, full of continuity issues, incredibly homophobic, trans-phobic, inherently racist, endorses endless snide-comment bullying of any character outside of the six main nuggets, colossally unfunny, and with more establishing shots than a holiday promo video. Do not even mention that insipid incidental music.
These oh-so-lovable twenty-something kids with low-end jobs but a high-end balcony-sporting, huge Manhattan two-bed apartment that according to our investigation into Greenwich Village rates, would bring in as much rent as £14,000 per month. It is rotten and terrible and has aged about as well as Love Thy Neighbour and Song of the South.
Then we move to the sequitur, The Big Bang Theory. The slightly more palatable guys and girls internal shot life-in-the-big(ish) -city follow-on to Friends. Now although the characters are almost, if not more, contemptible (burgeoning on criminal), the show is far better. Chuck Lorre does a better script, better stories, and while the idea of university research jobs lasting that long is way funnier than the show, it is far less childish and lazy. Marta Kaufman is not in the same league as Chuck. So in this some may say: "You don't like American comedy" which is a bit weird, as my favourite comic is Doug Stanhope. British comedy has had a little thing called "Live at the Apollo" come along and destroy it. A celebrity-grubbing, ego-bathing Groucho Club of stand up where mates of mates of panel show host after panel show contestant share the same bill on a rotating basis and where the compere has 80% of the time.
It is a show where they spend an inordinate amount of time showing the rich and famous people in the audience who have prearranged to be shown and then you have Gina Yashere come along and, for the fiftieth time in ten years do a routine about how her mother is Nigerian.
So do not think I am saying the panel show-soaked British offerings are any better. A miasma of mediocrity run by two men that look alike, on the BBC it is Michael "I have kids and do silly voice imitations of them" McIntyre and Jimmy "Shocking so it’s Funny" Carr. I tease a bit, there are some good things, but they are cancelled out by utter dross like Mrs Browns Boys. The whole prejudice from the USA of how all British comedy is a man dressed as a woman holding a sausage and saying "PHWOARR." The sitcom had truly returned to the realms of "Oh Crikey" (for the Young Ones fans).
The alternative to that is one-way dross like Fonejacker and Trigger Happy TV. Jokes where one party is not aware is not comedy. To me it is just annoying people and reaction garb. No skill or art in that. Plus the Jerky Boys were a long time ago, or did you think the Brits invented that as well?
So back over the pond then. We have Brooklyn 99, which is good, but still formulaic, same with Scrubs. Then there was Modern Family, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, live-feeling continuous shot and shaky cam shows that, to their own credit, are more adventurous with settings and less all about multi-cuts and incidental music. yet they follow a trope I personally loathe, that being the "frustrating" comedy. Where everyone is superbly annoying and it is never addressed, and a long-suffering hero gets endless bad luck but learns a lesson. Personal preference but...no. So there is laughs to be had, but nothing new.
Then came The Good Place. started off slow for me, almost gave it a miss, but tried a few more episodes on Netflix. To an existentialist, a comedy promising to be based on Satre's play, No Exit; too inviting to say no to. We are about to get to the end of the fourth and final (yes only four seasons of a successful US comedy!). It has been an utter treat.
Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is the lead and as the newly dead Eleanor. A self-described "Arizona trash-bag" who found herself, through an administrative error, admitted to 'The Good Place' (religion is somehow never mentioned, as neither is the usual names for both extremes of the afterlife) even though she was a selfish loner who eschewed company and friendship, even during high school, choosing to be alone and unethical (she gives up a lucrative start-up company job to work in a shady scam call centre, purely to avoid work socials!). She is given a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper: Midsommar) who is a neurotic ditherer who gets cramps whenever he has a choice to make. Exploiting the rules of confidentiality that her new world has, she confides in Chidi that she does not belong, and he vows to help her be better. Ethereal mishaps, and physically realised gremlins of her bad personality manifest and there is terror and uproar. Michael, the "architect" of The Good Place, is a cheerfully insecure suit played with delight by Ted Danson (the eighties) who really belongs in this role. A truly pleasant thing to see. There is wealthy socialite Tihani, a condescending sibling-rivalry obsessed debutante who revels in how wonderful she was on earth and her deserved entry into the Good Place. She loves to name drop celebrities to humorous situation and travesty and is played by Jameela Jamil (those panel shows) making this the first time I have ever enjoyed watching her. She seemed a daft addition given her lack of experience, but she is a charm. There is the hopelessly stupid and hilarious Jason, and the adorable Janet, a "not-girl" robot with all the info of the entire universe and it's history in her drive and the ability to conjure anything the Good Place residents wish. Even a pound of cocaine at one point (they do not have the metric system in The Good Place.)
So I can see it, from my description has no different premise. That is because it moves. It has a show arc as well as character arcs. Extra characters are introduced (although the ones from Brooklyn Nine Nine are strangely similar to ones they play already), and the mythology of the afterlife is toyed with in hilarious travesty. The end of the first series is a huge twist that plays out for the rest of the show, giving the characters chance to really move. Flipping between the on-earth life of the four main humans, we see small-time, and side-splittingly ineffective, yet adorable crook, Jason, acidic loner Eleanor, moral philosopher Chidi, and shadowed society girl Tahani. The flips back and forth, the clever nuances that lead us to conclusions as they happen, and the believable growth of the main characters make The Good Place into a totally one of a kind show for me. Whether you like it or not, it is original, daring, and where it differs from all the mentioned shows in this review is it does not stay in one place. They are all based in a hospital, or a home, or an office, or whatever. If the company folds and moves to Chechnya, the show ends. The Good Place does not do that.
It is masterful storytelling, the romance between some of the characters is truly touching but interpersonal relations never become the focus. Like Howard and Bernadette or Ross and Rachel. Nothing oversteps its mark and becomes the focus. The lilt and intertwine of the various influences on the story are plentiful and well juxtaposed. It is hilarious, yet it has a serious, maybe the most serious premise, yet it does not drown in it.
It is entirely unpretentious, it is unashamedly optimistic, and a rollocking good time. As Jenna Scherer of Rolling Stone said "a show doesn't need to be self-serious to be serious-minded."
Like I said it took a few episodes, but I think it one of the best comedies ever written. intelligent, wildly original, reassuring, and hilarious. You can do a lot worse.