The Good Place is just okay

Michael Schur’s show The Good Place has, through its four-season run, received a lot of critical acclaim, and a pretty dedicated fan base to match. I think that’s pretty understandable. It’s a broadly appealing comedy, and has its fair share of poignant moments; this type of show that attempts to both bring levity and a degree of thoughtfulness is a sort of chicken soup for the soul—with some kind of appealing metaphorical… microgreen garnish? I don’t know—for Netflix watchers. I don’t really know how to phrase this, therefore, without alienating a fair share of people—but The Good Place simply is just okay, and I predict will be rather quickly forgotten. (To cushion the possible blow of this statement at the outset—let me just note that, as a proud Cincinnati boy, I am simply trading blows for Eleanor Shellstrop’s panning of Cincinnati as “a medium place”.)

It’s “just okay” because as thoughtful as the show very clearly wants to be—as darn enjoyable as actors Ted Danson, William Harper, Kristen Bell, and company are—a significant part of me finds the whole thing just pretty anodyne, and close to trivial in a frequently fraught age where a show with The Good Place’s premise could be anything but.

There’s a significant tradition—many significant traditions!—of mixing humor with existential questions in the face of subjects like the afterlife, being good, and so on, from Aristophanes to the satires of court jesters to Woody Allen movies (which also are good for grappling with ethically because they pose the question: is it okay to watch Woody Allen movies?). The present condition of culture, society, and the like—at least from my Western vantage point—provides incredibly rich and ample ground to add a unique take on these traditions! There’s the bizarre relationship between humans, capitalism, and consumption; there are the weird sorts of theologies which have somehow become cobbled together in our secular age (taking a page from Charles Taylor’s book); there’s the curious phenomenon of a great deal of activism, and so much to be ethically concerned with, but no real coherent and overarching sense of what ethics is (here, taking a page from MacIntyre et al.). All of this, of course, means that creating some kind of cultural piece thoughtfully commentating on ethics, much less something as ambitious as an afterlife comedy, is a hard to manage, but surely a rewarding task, full of potential. There’s a lot in today’s day and age which a satirically minded show could poke holes in.

The Good Place, of course, does want to make a show about ethically complex times—but it remains a struggle, fundamentally, for the show to see outside its cultural milieu in order to comment on such times. The Good Place is willing to state that ethical issues are complicated. As Michael notes to the Judge, it’s hard to know what kinds of things you do, however hard will try, will make you a better person or affect the world positively. It is more difficult, however, for the show to grapple with why one should be good at all, what our end is in making good decisions (the glimpse of a Final End they do give is an afterlife system which is as glib and twee as it is admittedly a cutesy backdrop for an NBC comedy), and so on.

Even its humor seems destined to become dated or indicative of a sort of shallowness. A significant part of it seems dedicated to dropping references to memes, pop culture figures, and the like. The omniscient (allegedly? the writers are cheerfully inconsistent with the supernatural limitlessness of the afterlife) Janet’s justification for wanting to live is having tickets to Hamilton. The Judge, when she is not lusting after Chidi, drops references to some or another show which she is a fan of. I don’t even really know how to describe these references without sounding a bit clunky myself—you get the idea; repeat a dozen times per episode. These, of course, are not terrible jokes, and my bone to pick with them is not that they don’t land, though some of them don’t. But it speaks to some of the shallowness that I think is avoidable—it makes the show a reflection of its own culture, and less and less of any kind of insightful penetration into it.

Indeed, many of the features mentioned previously that make our culture noteworthy and ripe for some kind of ethical, metaphysical comedy are merely just regurgitated in the Good Place. See the strange theologies—often disconnected from a real tradition or a unified body of sources—abound in the Good Place, where the humorously wonky afterlife system is more laughed about then thought reflectively about; consider the bumbling heavenly bureaucracy whose small amount of seriousness is merely for the sake of establishing a plot for our decidedly comically-mundane protagonists. (Chidi, a philosopher, never asks questions about the strange new metaphysical world they’ve entered and its foundations, tells Michael that he “just knows more than [him]” about ethics, and so on. I won’t deny this sort of philosopher exists, of course, but the show has yet to reveal a convincing substitute, which I can assure the reader and the showrunners certainly do exist as well.)

Likewise, for a show about how complicated ethics is, it is often unclear—as in so much of society—how much is ethically at stake. Eleanor goes from being a bad person to a good person with comparatively little effort; the sorts of austere moral demands on one’s entire life-orientation that ethics might actually demand are generally dismissed by its characters, who seem basically content with the general hedonistic mindset of the modern condition. (Not to use hedonistic, here, with its totally pejorative and over-the-top connotations, but merely the sort of view that pleasure is what is worth seeking most of the time, with ethical constraints served à la carte.) Even its portrayal of the importance of love seems to fall a little flat (I am just not convinced that Eleanor and Chidi have the chemistry that I want them to, darn it! But that’s another story.)

It might not sound believable to repeat that, again, I don’t think The Good Place is terrible. I think more people thinking about ethics is a good thing; a lot of the visual gags are really nice; boy is Ted Danson fun with D’Arcy Carden. Moreover, it is evident that more thought was put into the show than so, so many other shows on television. But if a Rotten Tomatoes score is any measure of anything, I also worry a bit whether people have just learned to lower their expectations about what this sort of show could be. I certainly don’t want the response to be “well, there are other ethically serious shows, or less whimsical comedy shows” and then point to the proliferation of gritty prestige TV or those late night political satires which have abounded. The Good Place is a nice idea for a show. But I think it could be better.