How The Good Place strikes a balance between being deeply philosophical and a hilarious sitcom

Karishma Upadhyay

Feb 12, 2020 16:22:18 IST

Last week, the sun finally set on NBC fantasy-comedy, The Good Place after four seasons, 53 episodes and a whole load of laughs and feel-good vibes. Good television can be highly intelligent or can be downright silly, but very rarely does one find a show that’s the former wrapped in a veneer of the latter, so much so that it works on both levels. For those who’re eagerly waiting for the final season to drop in India, this is a revisit to the ingredients of a winning recipe. And for those haven’t taken the plunge yet, let’s call this an invitation to partake.

When the chief protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) dies and finds herself at the Good Place, she puts it down to some inexplicable mix-up. Eleanor knows she doesn’t belong, but figures she can keep herself there by overcoming her selfish nature and bettering herself.

 How The Good Place strikes a balance between being deeply philosophical and a hilarious sitcom

A still from NBC's The Good Place.

The first season feels like a metaphorical luxury prison rather than the promised "great beyond" for a life well led. On the surface, it’s what you’d imagine a paradise to be. Everyone has the house of his or her dreams, a ‘perfect’ soulmate is already picked out, and loads free frozen yoghurt. There’s also everyone’s favourite AI genie, Janet (D'Arcy Carden) to answer your questions and do your bidding — she can get you anything you desire in an instant. All you need to says is “Hey, Janet” and she appears. Everything about the afterlife is easy.

As the show moves along, though, this paradise reveals itself to be anything but. Each character begins to get tortured and trapped by her/ his own inherent flaws. It’s almost as if the 'Hotel California' lyrics, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device” were written for each one of these people.

Take Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy who is paired with Eleanor as her soulmate. Chidi is someone who can’t take decisions, and it’s this indecisiveness that makes things hell for him (pun not intended). As someone chosen to tutor Eleanor on becoming a better person, he finds himself grappling with the question of whether it’s right to be helping someone who shouldn’t be there in the first place, or whether it makes him part of a lie.

Denying help to someone in need, however, goes against his sense of morality. The show creators have quietly slipped in an ethical dilemma that often gets discussed in philosophy classes — Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative vs. the moral imperative. Regardless of what Chidi finally does, the show offers some hilarious moments as you watch the world’s most indecisive man battle with himself over a topic he probably knows too much about.

Chidi and Eleanor in The Good Place.

Then there’s the other deceased couple — Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) — one a British dilettante and the other a pre-successful DJ-cum-drug dealer from Florida. Like Eleanor, Jason realises he’s in the wrong place but deals with it by taking up the identity of a Tibetan monk who’s taken a vow of silence. Tahani, during her life, had deep-set sibling rivalry issues, which she overcompensated through larger-than-life philanthropic endeavours. It’s through the characters of Eleanor and Tahani that the writers subtly keep hammering in the philosophical concept of moral desert — you get what you deserve. In Tahini’s case, this manifests as the expectation of recognition for every good deed done.

But throw philosophy out of the window and the couple provides some of the funniest moments on the show — everything from what Jason’s thinking while maintaining an outer zen-like presence, to Tahani believing her pairing with this ‘supreme being’ is a reward for having led an exemplary life.

Herein lies the genius of The Good Place: it tackles a bunch of philosophical concepts like morality, ethics, happiness, rewards and personal identity without getting preachy at all. In fact, it’s all so flippant that you don’t need to scratch beyond the surface if you don’t want to, and still enjoy it as a quirky sitcom. But if you’re someone who likes to look for a deeper meaning, this is a treasure trove.

Peel away the top layer and the most obvious allegorical theme of The Good Place is one of crime and punishment; call it karma if you will. There’s even an elaborate points system in the show for one’s deeds but like everything else, this turns out to be a bit of a farce. The meter, as it turns out, ticks harder for good intent rather than good deeds designed to score, and that subtly says a lot while making for mad-funny situations. While the creators have kept humour above everything else, it’s left to the user’s imagination to take what they will in terms of tiny lessons.

Tahani and Jason in The Good Place.

Dig slightly deeper and there’s subtle referencing to the idea of prisons and justice, where someone gets to play god and decide on punishment. It’s treated like reality television, though, where participants are subject to the sadistic whims and fancies of some Big Brother type guy. Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect of the Good Place and a devil in disguise, a demon in a suit of skin, a master of ceremonies whose only job is to find new and devious ways to make people miserable.

Michael, in a completely different way, also represents the show’s creator, who revels in the fluidity of the show’s construct and plays god as it progresses from season to season. It’s what keeps the show fresh, as you see the characters slipping into their true characters with the multiple reboots that follow. In the end, you can’t help asking yourself whether this whole show was just a metaphor for television itself.

Sound complicated yet?

It really isn’t. The Good Place is, at its core, filled with great jokes, intelligent writing and immensely loveable characters. That’s what draws you in and keeps you there. What you make of it at a deeper level is totally left to you, and that’s what makes this one of the most memorable works of television ever.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2020 16:22:18 IST