Michael Schur’s latest project is forking fantastic, and a strong encapsulation of modern TV’s best attributes.
Television has become, for lack of a better word, overwhelming. I’ve spoken many times in the past about the pros and cons of the age of Peak TV, and how good (and, hell, even great) shows can get lost in the shuffle. But whenever the issue comes up, my mind often drifts to this line of thinking: in a world where literally hundreds of TV shows are vying for attention, how do showrunners make their’s stand out? What is the key to attracting an audience in such a crowded pop culture landscape?
Well, the obvious first factor is quality: the truly great shows are the ones that people tend to watch and talk about, for the most part at least (I can’t explain The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory, for what it’s worth.) But beyond that, there are a few factors that contribute to a show going from an ignored piece of decency to a critical sensation. And, in my mind, The Good Place utilized most of them — and became one of the best new shows of 2016 in the process.
By now, I hope you have at least a passing knowledge of The Good Place. It’s far from a ratings bonanza, and disappointingly didn’t get a lot of buzz going into its debut season. That’s a shame, and my only line of reasoning going into its first season was that shows of this nature (a.k.a. episodic, standalone sitcoms) simply can’t amass “buzz” anymore, at least not on the level of a Game of Thrones or Westworld. So many prestige shows depend upon a twisty story and strong, serialized storytelling to gets fans involved, and more importantly, to get them talking. Could a show like The Good Place, with the simple premise of “a bad person trying to do good,” ever compare?
Well, by the time I watched the first few episodes, I quickly realized I was very wrong about this series. The Good Place is not the show I thought it would, and likely isn’t the show you think it is either. No, The Good Place is far more special than that.
But to explain why, let’s go back to the show’s initial premise. A woman by the name of Eleanor Shellstrop dies and ends up in “The Good Place,” which is basically a non-direct way of saying “Heaven.” The twist? She was a pretty bad person in her time on Earth, and only ended up in The Good Place due to a rather complicated case of mistaken identity. But determined not to be kicked to the curb and sent to the rather grisly “Bad Place,” Eleanor teams up with her miss-assigned soul mate Chidi (a former ethics professor on Earth) to try to learn how to be good.
Is this a bit of a high concept? Sure — hell, the show was originally pitched as “a bad person tries to be good,” and the whole Heaven/Hell thing was only revealed after filming concluded. But still, even with such a “big” premise, the day-to-day of the show is still pretty easy to assume: it would basically be a slightly more fantastical take on My Name is Earl, with the lead character spending every episode going against her baser instincts in an effort to improve as a person.
And you know what? That would have been a-okay! Michael Schur is a brilliant TV creator, and with his shows like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, has very much proven himself capable of delivering great, fun “hangout” comedies. He didn’t need to have an overarching storyline, or deep serialization, or thematic depth. These things are necessary for a Mr. Robot or Stranger Things, but a network comedy on NBC? All it had to be was charming, funny, empty filler. And make no mistake: The Good Place IS funny, and charming. But yes, it also has a strong overarching storyline. It is deeply serialized to its core. And it has more thematic depth than any other network sitcom I can think of.
But all of that goes back to the serialization. Network sitcoms have always been weird with serialization, with most shows in the past desperately trying to avoid it. Sure, you would have the occasional three-part episode or hour long finale, but long-term, episode-to-episode serialization was never the intent of a network sitcom. After all, they were made primarily in the hope of syndication, and nothing kills syndication more than a story you literally have to watch every episode of to figure out. But as syndication has become less of a holy grail, and serialization has taken off in the age of Netflix binges, TV creators and outlets are quickly changing their tune. Shows like The Good Place started to realize that nothing attracts a dedicated audience more than a series telling one long, twisty story.
Of course none of that would matter if the story behind said TV series wasn’t very good. Thankfully, The Good Place has a wonderful story, full of twists, turns, and surprises aplenty. Pretty much every episode ends with some type of “twist,” but it never felt like the show was stringing us along — instead, the twists just added to the comedic escalation, putting the series into overdrive at least a half dozen times. Every time the series started to feel like it was getting comfortable, an out of nowhere plot development would send the ensemble scattering. This is a basic component of strong story telling, ESPECIALLY in a TV setting. You never want your characters to be comfortable, because the fun in that gets very boring very quickly. Where would Breaking Bad be if everything just sort of worked out for Walter White at the end of each episode? Who would care at all about Game of Thrones if it was just Eddard Stark solving episodic mysteries with Tyrion Lannister (actually…) “How are they going to get out of this one?” has been an essential element of longform filmmaking since the age of serials, and The Good Place was skilled enough to pull on that history with its many, many cliffhangers.
Making that process all the easier was the season’s short running length, another touch taken straight from the “Peak TV” playbook. Simply put, the “traditional” 22 episode season is dead. Well some would argue that its demise came from the demands of a more crowded marketplace, it’s clear to me that shows started producing less episodes because, almost always, it makes the show better. If Stranger Things ran for 22 episodes, it likely would have been bogged down in nothingness and filler. With a tight eight episode structure, the series was able to tell a constantly enthralling tale that never bored viewers and always left them waiting for more.
Going back to classic sitcoms, it would be almost unheard of to have a successful show run less than 20 episodes. Hell, even the previous series that Michael Schur created, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine Nine, ran for at least 22 episodes a season. And for what they were trying to be, that was perfectly fine — going into an episodic sitcom, you kind of expect to have a bunch of incredible episodes mixed in with the forgettable ones. Just because only 75% of Parks and Rec was good doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best TV comedies ever made. But it was clear from the get-go that The Good Place, despite all its comedic similarities, was going for something entirely different in its ongoing story. And because the overarching plot was such a key part of what made the show great, they had the common sense to keep it brief and concise. Shorter isn’t always better but, if you want people’s constant attention, it’s probably a better gambit. I mean, if I made this article five paragraphs less than it turned out to be, you would have definitely finished the whole thing. But that’s why Michael Schur is a smarter writer than I am, right?
Which, overall, is why The Good Place succeeded. Earlier I wondered what made a show gain an audience in Peak TV-land, and sort of dismissed quality so I could move on to the other things. But in terms of why this show in particular works, it is the fact that Michael Schur and the rest of his writing team are damned good at their jobs. For all the things that The Good Place does that separates it from the rest of its sitcom brethren, the basic tenets of making a successful TV comedy are still followed.
The characters are all wonderfully written, brought to life brilliantly by its crazy good cast. This might be one of the best comedic ensembles working on TV right now, which is pretty stunning when you consider how much of it is made up of relative unknown. Ted Danson and Kristen Bell aside, everyone else has limited acting experience, especially in the comedy realm. But every damn one of them bring their A-game, and create a very lovable and fascinating group of people in the process. And paired with the great and extremely funny writing (which I certainly don’t want to downplay in this piece; the series has left me laughing out loud many times an episode), The Good Place would be a great sitcom even putting aside everything else it manages to accomplish.
But really you can’t put aside the other things, because they are crucial to understanding how special The Good Place is. By focusing so strongly on story and theme (the latter of which I can’t really get into without spoiling things), the show managed to rise above itself, and become far more than what its initial pitch might suggest. As much as I’ve claimed that Michael Schur DIDN’T need to make the show more than just a fun sitcom, I think a part of him knew that he kind of did.
The TV landscape is so overwhelming that viewers are more picky than ever. As silly as it might be to say, your show can no longer just be “good” in order to get attention — it has to be great. It has to spur on conversation, and theories, and fan enthusiasm over the CRAZY twists. Simply put, it has to be “must watch” TV. And if you ask me, The Good Place more than proved itself worthy of such an honor.
The Good Place was renewed just a few days ago for a second season, so there’s no time like the present to give the first 13 episodes a whirl. The season is currently available in its entirety on Hulu.