With ‘The Good Place,’ Michael Schur Has Reinvented Sitcoms
How the screenwriter’s creation transcends all expectations
As my boring summer draws to a close, the post-binge blues have already begun. I had a good time — in these past three months, I’ve succeeded in binging beloved series like The Office, as well as finally getting around to massively-hyped shows like Westworld.
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I watched a ton of TV this Summer (more than I care to admit). Yet, in my mind, one show stuck out to me as something special — something that we entertainment-obsessed people need to begin talking about.
I speak, of course, of The Good Place.
Buckle up your seat belts, friends, for this time, I’ll be reviewing without any spoilers.
The Good Place starts with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) suddenly finding herself in an office-like setting. She’s staring at an overly optimistic sign on the wall stating: “Welcome! Everything is fine.”
Michael (Ted Danson) — “the architect” — then meets with Eleanor. He brightly informs her that her time on Earth had passed, and that she had passed on to “the Good Place.” He then gives Eleanor a tour of her new community — a heaven-like neighborhood filled with an innumerable amount of frozen yogurt shops, amazing individuals who had revolutionized the world, and magical new abilities such as taking flight.
The fun ends nine minutes in, however, when Eleanor is introduced to her soulmate, ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). She then finally decides to come clean and confides in him the truth; that she was a terrible person back on Earth, and does not belong to the Good Place.
With a premise like that, the show could have toyed with this ruse for seasons and seasons to come, until, of course, the writing inevitably grows stale and the episodes become carbon copies of one another. (Author’s Note: please see Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and any other show so repetitive that it deserves a spot in the Bad Place.)
In fact, the sitcom is most clearly exemplified by its use of the same exact cast and locations, allowing for the show to be shot on a set, as well as remain predictable enough to draw in an audience that understands what they’ve bought into. That’s why the genre is so widespread and so popular in the realm of TV — they’re cheap, easy to produce, and, if done well, attain predictable, trackable, and replicable success.
As a result, character relationships in sitcoms typically come off as stale and fixed, as slight deviations within the basic premise are typically over-dramatized and played for effect (think: Ross and Rachel’s famous on-again/off-again relationship). Any attempt in deviation for sitcoms is pretty revolutionary, and since this kind of move is so unprecedented, the gambit could easily end in failure.
On the other hand, seasoned TV Veteran Michael Schur (of the The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame) decided to take The Good Place in a whole ‘nother direction. As Rolling Stone’s Jenna Scherer noted, Schur instead chose to take dramatic risks, which broke stasis and forced the characters — and the series — to continually evolve.
In the world of creating good television, there exists a razor-thin line between moving the plot forward and establishing enough familiarity to draw viewers in from episode to episode. This dilemma, I think, remains as one of the most hellish tightrope walks that television writers in general must confront — how to innovate, while retaining the elements which keep the viewers coming back and wanting more.
The writers also don’t want to throw too many wrenches into the system, lest they want their viewers to be left in disgruntled disbelief and in the utmost confusion (especially in sitcoms, where viewers enter the world with the assumption that they pretty much know what they’re gonna get).
On top of the dramatic turns which the plot takes, the show must also stuff some pretty lofty themes all within a twenty-something minute episode.
Unlike Schur’s previous works, The Good Place is definitely much more intellectual and thought-provoking. While most other comedic shows deal with lighter topics such as romantic relationships and friends in the workplace, The Good Place delves into weekly ethics lessons and constant scrutiny over human nature. Along the way, big name philosophers are casually thrown around — Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, and Socrates, to name a few.
With Season 2, however, whereas a lesser show might have ended up with more than it bargained for, The Good Place delivered the goods. Season 1 ends with a crazy plot twist. Additionally, it felt like the writers had played all of their trump cards, and it was difficult to predict where the plot would go next.
Despite being radically different from the initial premise, however, Season 2 remained strong. In terms of narrative decision-making and pacing, each new episode continued to drive forward at an unrelenting pace while still strongly hitting emotional beats. We were given new concepts and fresh takes on the afterlife, yet the story still adhered to the established rules of the Good Place.
Season 2 could’ve so easily failed with how Season 1 left off… but it didn’t.
Why was that?
Schur adroitly navigates the treacherous boundaries of convoluted storytelling, while still crafting a simple, understandable, yet deeply intricate show through some impressive character work.
The Good Place’s success in the balancing act between plausibility and implausibility, I believe, largely stems from the writers’ laser-like focus on the show’s characters.
The show does an amazing job with primarily working on developing the human relationships first, and the weighty themes after. I feel like sometimes writers in general may accidentally sacrifice character relations and decisions in service of drilling in views on life/philosophical quandaries. The Good Place, however, remains steadfast in putting its protagonists first, especially since the decisions that they make are so intrinsically linked with the questions which the show seeks to answer.
With each new plot development and each step forward, the characters are constantly changing with the show — something which you rarely see in sitcoms (after all, Joey from Season 1 of Friends is basically the same Joey in Season 10, albeit minor emotional changes). As a result, it’s pretty dang rewarding to watch characters continue to evolve from episode to episode, and to realize how dynamic the world actually is — a welcome reprieve from the typically stagnant and static world of television. We are given the opportunity to really identify with the characters, therefore allowing us to accept the wild ride that is the plot with more ease.
In other words, as the world is experienced so strongly through the characters, we are better able to comprehend the show through their interactions.
Schur also crafts just such convincingly real personas. I feel like I know Eleanor in real life — that mean woman who acts like she hates everyone yet secretly wants to be good. We all know a Chidi — that guy who literally can’t make a decision even if his life depended upon it (gosh darn it, Chidi! The Brown Pants! Just choose the Brown Pants!)
And, of course, we have Michael — an angel-like sentient, semi-omniscient being who creates the Good Place and selects its residents. Michael’s not necessarily the most relateable character, and yet I still strongly identified with his joys and desires, played so brilliantly by Ted Danson.
However, the characters are at their strongest when they’re together. Even referenced on a meta-level later on, the characters clearly grow from interacting with one another — most notably Chidi and Eleanor, and Chidi’s ethics lessons on how to become a better person. On a less literal sense, however, is the fact that each of the characters inspire each other, and their overall chemistry just works so well.
As a result of their progress as a group, however, The Good Place finds it’s “it” factor— the secret ingredient that makes the show just such a joy to watch, and brings me back week in and week out. Even when the story world is toppled upside down, the characters and their relationships remain (largely) unchanged. Furthermore, although the characters do evolve and change over the course of the two seasons, they evolve overall as a group, thereby allowing us to keep up with their progress as well as find their development more plausible.
Overall, with the group dynamics already in place, regardless of what curve balls they encounter, as long as the gang remains together, I remain intensely loyal to the show.
Oh, and side note: seeing Adam Scott play a demon from hell was just fantastic.
The Good Place has proven thus far that it will continue to make game-changing narrative decisions for our characters, yet still succeed in making the content feel approachable and understandable. We’ve successfully fallen in love with the characters, and are emotionally invested in their arcs, yet we return each week for the laughs and good vibes.
On the other hand, however, I feel like the fact that a show as masterful as The Good Place still isn’t talked about as much is a travesty. Perhaps because The Good Place is somewhat seen as just another commercialized sitcom on NBC, it really isn’t viewed from an artistic standpoint. Maybe word just hasn’t gotten around yet. Who knows?
Either way, The Good Place remains as one of the most underrated shows within the TV landscape — what other sitcom is taking such creative risks and crazy directions, and succeeding on top of that?
Besides, if a basic series with a simple (and, let’s face it, worn-out) premise like The Big Bang Theory can still pull in 10–20 million viewers per night after twelve seasons, why is a revolutionary, clever, and extremely daring show like the The Good Place only getting 5 million?
The Good Place has proven that it can pull off a high concept plot with great aplomb, yet remain grounded within the story world. I’m sure this upcoming season will not be an exception. Having shown its worth — as well as riding the wave of the crazy, wonderful finale last year — Season 3 looks promising as heck.
Season 3 returns on Thursday, September 27 at 8/7c on NBC (and will be released 24 hours after on Netflix); we know Rey Tang will be watching along with ya.