Have complex narratives returned to network TV with ‘The Good Place’?
The Good Place, a new series from Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur, is full of dialogue concerning morality and ethics. It makes sense, given the show’s concept. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was an Arizonan saleswoman who cared only for herself — at least, that was true when she was alive. In the pilot’s opening scene, she finds herself in the afterlife, a new resident of heaven. The “Good Place,” as explained by resident angel Michael (Ted Danson), chooses its inhabitants via a point system– every person’s actions on Earth are assigned a positive or negative value, and only the “best” people (or those with a high enough score at their deaths) avoid the “Bad Place.”
The flaws in the system are evident from the start, especially once it’s revealed that Bell’s Eleanor doesn’t belong in the Good Place at all. Through some sort of heavenly clerical error, she has been confused with a different, much more deserving Eleanor Shellstrop. When she confides this to her assigned “soulmate” Chidi (an ethics professor played by William Jackson Harper), he decides to teach her how to be good. Maybe Eleanor can earn her place in heaven while still in heaven itself.
This is all very philosophical stuff. On the surface, it sounds like it belongs on a bastion for “quality television” like HBO or Netflix. What makes The Good Place remarkable is the way it has found an audience on NBC, in a network era dominated by middling fare like The Big Bang Theory. The concept of a serialized show about morality succeeding on a network that usually shuns complex entertainment is unexpected, to say the least.
In recent years, cable and subscription-based streaming became the destination for “high-end” entertainment. Kevin Spacey, star of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards, accused network executives in 2013 of “second guessing” audiences and not taking risks. Some of his criticism is rooted in the critical success of cable television, with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones dominating most critic’s “best-of” lists. It makes sense. AMC and HBO aren’t beholden to advertisers as much as NBC, ABC or CBS, which allows for less constricted storytelling.
The Good Place is an enigma, presenting moral challenges and dynamic characters on a platform usually reserved for inoffensive programming. Eleanor and Chidi constantly argue about what it means to be good. Eleanor points out the personality flaws in her heavenly neighbors, questioning whether it’s alright to be vain or smug in a place intended for the least sinful people humanity has to offer. And flashbacks to different character’s earthly lives reveal depths to each of their personalities. Chidi tried his best to be perfect, but overthought each decision in his life to the point of alienating his friends and family. Eleanor is a hurricane of poor decision-making, which makes for hilarious (but immoral) entertainment.
Whether The Good Place opens the floodgate for “riskier” programming remains to be seen. But there is already a bit of a precedent. Schur reportedly consulted the showrunner of Lost (also a huge risk for a network at the time) for story guidance. And with NBC renewing The Good Place following a critically acclaimed season finale (warning: spoilers abound), perhaps network shows can become groundbreaking once again.
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