Have you seen The Good Place? It's an NBC comedy that wrapped up its fourth and final season earlier this year. It's been a while since I've done a media review (and coincidentally, I just finished watching through this one), and I think this show is important for a lot of reasons. And yes, it is on Netflix.
The Good Place is a show about the afterlife. Not the afterlife as we know it (there are some serious theological disconnects with Catholicism, so maybe skip this one if you have difficulty separating comedy from practical theology), but the afterlife nonetheless. In the opening episode, we're told that every major religion got about 5% of what happens after we die correct.
In a great example of the show's quirky humor, we're also told that a college kid named Doug Forcett actually guessed about 92% of the afterlife one fateful evening. He's revered in "The Good Place" (the show's version of heaven) as the man with the closest guess in all human history. He even has his picture on the wall!
I suppose this is a good place (no pun intended) to talk about the cast. And my goodness, what an exceptional cast it is. The headliner is Ted Danson as Michael, an "Architect" responsible for creating idyllic neighborhoods where souls in the Good Place live out their days in peace and harmony. You may recognize him from his standout role as Sam Malone on Cheers (although he's considerably grayer now).
Danson is perfect for the show, and does an excellent job delivering lines about eternity, the afterlife, and the relative goodness (or badness) of souls with a flippance that puts the viewer at ease. He's lighthearted and warm, and it's a great role for him. He's especially good when juxtaposed with Kristen Bell's Eleanor Shellstrop.
Eleanor is the show's main character, and much of the first season is focused on her discomfort in the Good Place. She feels out of place, mainly because she led a pretty awful life on earth. She was selfish, promiscuous, uncharitable, vulgar, and many other things, so she's naturally a bit out of place amongst these heavenly do-gooders!
Bell plays Eleanor with an infectious bubbliness, and her juvenile humor is always good for a chuckle. In reality, I could spend this whole post talking about the cast. Other standout characters include Janet (the most intelligent being in the universe), Chidi (a philosophy professor with cripplingly relatable anxiety), and Jason (literally just Florida Man).
While the cast is excellent, it is not the show's greatest strength. That lies in its ability to balance comedy with thought-provoking examinations of life, morality, friendship, and love. It does this better than almost any show I've ever seen, and I'm absolutely floored that a network show can be this good in the 2010s and 2020s.
Allow me to explain. Most modern TV series are not very good. Our entertainment market is oversaturated with shows and series from networks, cable channels, and streaming services. Don't believe me? In 2019, Netflix released 371 original TV series and movies worldwide. That's more original content than the entire US TV industry released in 2005.
Our appetite for on-demand content, particularly through streaming services, has created a massive library of bad TV. Sure, there are more good shows out now than there ever has been. However, there is also MUCH more bad TV than ever before, and it's often difficult to find the gems hidden in the muck.
Amidst this ocean of meaningless content (I'm looking at you, endless spinoffs of CSI), what constitutes a "good" show can be tough to pin down. I'd suggest that a good show is significantly above-average at one thing. It can be comedy, drama, acting, special effects, writing, cinematography, most anything! But to be a good show, you need to be significantly above average at one thing.
This may sound like a low bar, but it's not. The vast majority of shows out there are average. They may not be awful, but they're painfully mediocre. Formulaic dialogue, rehashed plot devices, unimaginative cinematography, and bland characters are all the rage these days. Being significantly above average at anything is a big achievement for most modern TV shows.
That's what makes The Good Place special. Circling back a bit, it is significantly above average at TWO things: comedy and heartfelt, thought-provoking examination. This is one of both the funniest and most moving shows that I've seen in a long time, and that is an incredibly difficult line to walk. It is SO refreshing.
Let's start with the comedy. It's smart, witty, uses an astounding amount of legitimate philosophy, and has one of the best anti-profanity mechanisms in TV history. In the show, you can't swear in the afterlife, and your attempts at profanity are automatically replaced with innocuous words such as "shirt, bench," and "fork."
On that note, this probably isn't a show to watch with small children. Parents can of course decide when their children (especially as they approach adolescence) are ready to consume different media, just be aware that there are some mildly mature jokes and themes throughout the show's four seasons.
Regarding the show's deeper messaging and more emotional beats, there are some genuinely touching moments here that might even make you tear up. As you become more familiar with the characters, you'll find yourself empathizing with them and willing them on in their journey through the afterlife, especially in later seasons.
Everything from the meaning of life to the innate goodness of humanity is explored, and the topics are shockingly thought-provoking at times. I definitely did not expect to be learning about Immanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre in this lighthearted NBC comedy, but it's done in a humorous and accessible way. Seriously, the showrunners crushed this.
There is so, so much more I could talk about with this show. It has one of the greatest plot twists in modern TV history (we're talking Red Wedding levels, here), the most Jacksonville Jaguars references you'll ever see on the small screen, and an impressive juggling act of multiple theological concepts without being offensive (provided you can take a joke).
I don't want this post to be 5000 words long, though, so I'll simply implore you to give it a try. If you can make it through (all of) the first season and not want to see more, then I'll concede defeat. But I'm willing to bet that you won't regret giving this one a shot. Take it from your resident TV snob: this show is worth it.
I hope that you will give this show a shot, and that it will cause you to think of heavenly things and concepts during this Advent season. You will certainly be hearing more from me about the season of anticipation in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to the parish Facebook page for daily Advent reflections!
May God bless you,