Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 7: The Good Place became a perfect sitcom machine.

Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) in The Good Place Season 3 back on Earth in Australia.
The Good Place.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Justin Lubin/NBC.

OK, sports fans, you asked for it.

The thing about The Good Place is that it’s like “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, except that instead of Jesus in Seville it’s Michael in hell, and instead of the Spanish Inquisition it’s America in the Trump era, as represented by Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell). If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry about it too much, because that’s the part that my editor cut from my top 10 list too. The point is, The Good Place is about making sense of being alive—and it’s become a show about that, after being a (really fascinating) show about trying to be good for two seasons. I really enjoyed what The Good Place accomplished in its second season, as most TV critics did. The third season to me feels much more profound, though.

It comes down to two episodes: One, “Jeremy Bearimy,” where the foursome learns that because Michael and Janet revealed the nature of the afterlife to them, they’re damned to the Bad Place no matter what they do. This sends them down several intriguing holes—Chidi makes chili with candy in it. Very bad move, Chidi! But I admire your style. Also your pecs. I love you Chidi—but it ends with Eleanor learning that even if there is no reward for being good, it still makes her feel good to do good. “We can try,” she announces. I find that to be such a beautiful and simple sentiment: You can try. You don’t have a lot of power in this very scary universe, but you have a little, and you can turn that toward doing something.

Two, “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will”—and not just because it’s the episode with the kissing, either! This is the episode where Eleanor uses Michael’s weird ear pods to witness her past relationship with Chidi, and I found her personal journey to be genuinely quite moving. She’s reluctant to believe that she could have been in love with anyone, least of all Chidi, who in this timeline (and in most they’ve shared) has been a good friend and nothing more. That leads to her getting into a heated argument with Michael over whether she has free will—and given how many times she’s been scrambled and rebooted, it’s a fair question. Michael shows her, in the end, that when punishment was imminent, she chose to stand up for her friends. And in what is maybe the best moment of the episode, he shows her how it ends with Chidi, and it’s heartbreaking, because although love is powerful and pretty cool, it’s not stronger than anything else in the universe. (As Michael points out, it’s not even as strong as an elephant.) That’s real! I know it’s an after-school-special or Disney-movie-level emotional climax, but The Good Place earns its simple truths for me.

This is the thing about greatness. It’s not just that the show is about how to be alive, and it’s not just because Mike Schur is doing all of this on an NBC sitcom, of all things. It’s because this ridiculously twee premise has been turned into a perfect sitcom machine. The Good Place broke time; it can go forward or backward as it pleases, because there is literally infinite backstory (the hundreds of reboots, that each lasted for indeterminate amounts of time) and literal infinite room to move forward—or sideways, or wherever. The show can do anything it wants to, with even more elasticity than an animated show. I don’t think I’ve seen a network sitcom with this level of dexterity since maybe Community—and even Community only broke time once. I know I’m making this pronouncement without having seen the ending of Season 3, which we won’t get until next year. But I’m more confident about the upcoming goodness of that finale than I am about anything else on TV. I am really not much of a gambler, and of course I could still be wrong. But like Eleanor, I am confused by this warm feeling they call “trust,” and at present I am inclined to see it through.

That has some connection to Pose, which I did not expect to like as much as I did. Willa, you termed it saccharine earlier—true. I don’t think I’ve seen a show recently that is equally likely to make me roll my eyes and/or start tearing up, but Pose had me hovering between those two emotions for most of my viewing experience. I think what worked to counteract the gushiness were the drag balls themselves—a showcase for ruthless takedowns and vicious competition, the internal processing of the shame and disgust the rest of the world heaps on this community. The show made me really see something (I hesitate to say “understand,” but maybe I feel closer to understanding) about how queer communities come together; Pose juxtaposes so much hardness and softness, and it’s perfectly aware how difficult this world is to understand outside of its characters’ experience. Mj Rodriguez is an incredible performer and she had my heart from the first episode; Todd mentioned Episode 6, which is great (and stand-alone), but can I point you to Episode 5, in which Rodriguez’s character, Blanca, returns home for her mother’s funeral. The characters entirely depend on each other for their familial support, so when Blanca calls herself their mother, she means it; the interplay of her own mother with her adopted mother, Elektra (Dominique Jackson, divine) would have been easy to mangle, but the show doesn’t. Ultimately what made me fall for the show was the strong sense that they earned their emotional payoffs, both the sweetness and the bitterness. And Mj Rodriguez. That woman is a star.

It’s funny, Willa, that you liked Howards End so much—I couldn’t stand it. I’m very attached to the Merchant-Ivory film, though, which didn’t help. That’s the trouble with these endless remakes and reboots; I just liked the first thing a lot, and I don’t feel like I need another one. This news that Netflix is making a live-action Cowboy Bebop has me feeling similarly—what am I going to do with that, except complain? (I love complaining.)

Tara, I wanted to say that your list includes two shows I’m behind on but knew I needed to catch up on, and now I’m feeling that end-of-year guilt. The first is The Good Fight, a show that I’m still stuck in the first season on, but every frame of it is like soothing manna for my soul. The second is Detroiters, which I loved when I reviewed but haven’t seen any more episodes of since. A show that I bandied around for my top 10 was Corporate—did anyone else see that? Did you check out that goddamn brilliant PowerPoint episode?

Todd, I’m so glad you are out here stanning for Superstore. I like that show quite a bit, but I think the Globes party was actually my breaking point with the show, not because of the escalating mishaps but because I refuse to have truck with the notion that anyone, anyone, cares about the Golden Globes.

xoxo, Gossip Sonia

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