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The Good Place As A Subversive Sitcom

The Good Place credit - NBC

Image from NBC.

The Good Place spoilers ahead!

Set in the afterlife, The Good Place centers around Eleanor Shellstrop; a trashy and selfish woman  finds herself accidentally placed in “the Good Place,” an afterlife akin to heaven. Not wanting to be sent to “the Bad Place,” Eleanor enlists the help of her alleged soulmate, Chidi Anagonye, a former professor of ethics and moral philosophy.

The show follows Eleanor’s struggle to learn from Chidi and better herself. All while Eleanor must also avoid being caught by Michael(a supernatural being and the “architect” of the Good Place), Tahani(a somewhat-condescending British socialite), Jianyu/Jason (spoiler alert!: an amateur DJ who is similarly misplaced in the Good Place and given the identity of a Buddhist monk), and Janet(an all-knowing artificial intelligence). Forming an unexpected friendship and quasi-family unit,  the group works together to make Eleanor and Jason worthy of their stay in the Good Place afterlife.

The single-camera sitcom subverts the mass-audience-pleasing mutli-camera sitcom, which often relies on a setup/punchline structure for humor (read more about the history of sitcoms in this Vulture article). The Good Place assumes the comprehension of its audience for its humor. Instead of the usual setup/punchline structure, all dialogue can be funny and insightful. Not having a laugh track allows viewers to organically react to the show without direction while also ensuring engagement. 

For instance, in the pilot  episode, “Everything is Fine,” when Eleanor meets her supposed soulmate, Chidi, she gets him to swear to stand by her no matter what. And then, she tells him of her misplacement in the Good Place. No laugh track added. Chidi merely responds, “I’m sorry, what?” The show’s timely cut to a commercial break leaves just enough time for the viewer to laugh before the show has moved on.

The series’ humor appears lighthearted at first sight, but the subject matter of the show reveals its humor to be quite dark in nature. Excluding Michael and Janet, who are supernatural beings, remember all the characters are dead. And though Eleanor’s erroneous placement in the Good Place yields funny situations, the show implicitly comments on the fate of humanity and the system by which humanity is judged to be good or bad. 

Another crucial feature of the show is its necessity for continuous, chronological watching. Traditional, episodic multi-camera sitcoms allow viewers to start watching at any episode. The Good Place’s intricate narrative, cliffhangers, character arcs, and plot twists result in a more complex structure. The first episode ends in a dramatic cliffhanger. Eleanor and Chidi realize her presence in the Good Place has physical consequences on the harmony of the afterlife. The second episode, “Flying,” picks up where the previous episode leaves off and continues the narrative seamlessly, more akin to a very long movie than a multi-cam sitcom in nature.

Additionally, the cast’s diversity yields interesting conversations about representation and stereotype combatting. As the series progresses, a budding romance between Eleanor and Chidi emerges. The series normalizes interracial relationships, from Eleanor and Chidi, to Tahani and Jason, to even Jason and Janet.  The members of the relationships/friend group don’t fall into a typecasting stereotype.

For example, although Chidi Anagonye is well-educated and insightful, he is also extremely indecisive and highly flawed– i.e. he is human. Jason, an amateur DJ of Filipino ascendence, lacks intelligence and logic but has an unexpected innocence and kindness to him. The group members are diverse and human without meaning to be; they are complex and dynamic characters with individualized personalities and backgrounds. They are relatable, but not stereotypical.

In short, The Good Place is a modern sitcom aware of its context and place in history. It respects its characters by making them realistic, flawed, complex people navigating a fantastical, unrealistic world. But perhaps by setting them in a constructed version of the afterlife, the series is able to address the truth of the context of the sitcom and the misrepresentation of minorities and women. It steps outside of the predetermined mold.

Though the show’s premise is theoretically ridiculous, the depth of the commentary on humanity and society expands beyond the expectations of a sitcom. Reflecting on the definitions of “good” and “bad”  questions how we perceive and categorize each other and ourselves. Diversity in The Good Place is striking because it is not concerned with stereotypical token minority roles, but with realistic, relatable people.

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Written by Danny

Student at Georgetown University. Lover of Film and TV. Self-taught clown.

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