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The Good Place is the best show on television right now.
At the very least, it is the most thoughtful. There is nothing else like it in pop culture at the moment, and it’s pulling off a sort of magic trick that makes me wonder if they even know how special it is. You can’t engineer something like this. It’s the result of a lot of smart people throwing a lot of man hours at an idea, and the initial idea here is fascinating.
If you are not currently watching the show, then don’t read this. This is for people who are watching the show or people who are just interested in general narrative theory and critical writing. I think this show is a great idea that was executed at a level higher than anyone involved could have guessed. It is a combination of many things. It is a show whose greatness is predicated on a twist that was so profound that it changed the nature of the show we were watching, and in doing so, created a relationship between show and audience that is the sort of thing writers dream of.
Make no mistake. No one makes a show because they want it to be ignored. People want you to watch what they make, and more than that… they want you to like it. There are plenty of mercenary products out there, and for the most part, we all know what they are. They smell before we ever lay eyes on them, and they look and feel craven. By and large, though, I think most people I know in this business, and most of the people I’ve known over the last 27 years in this business, sincerely want you to watch and like what they make. And they want to do something they like, something they feel good about.
I think we all want to do good in our way.
That’s a hard thing for me to say in 2017. And saying it, I don’t feel totally comfortable with it. There are some really shitty human beings on this planet, and we’ve gotten a face full of them lately. There is a part of me that is so angry, so tuned to a fever-pitch of non-stop moral horror, that it’s hard to take a step back and recognize any humanity in someone who represents all the things I feel are wrong with the world. But that’s why I have to do it. That’s why you take that step back. Because you can stop at the place where you look at the other and you are angry and you feel rage and you want to just make them stop being so goddamn other… or you can take the step back and see what it is that makes you the same. You can recognize someone’s essential humanity without agreeing with them or agreeing with anything they represent. You can recognize that just as you are trying to do good in your life, they believe they are trying to do good in theirs. The distance between those two things is a big part of why we are constantly butting heads, and anything we can do to erase that distance is, I believe, a good thing.
And I think we all want to do good in our way.
The entire value of the word “good” is what the show The Good Place is about. Considering Mike Schur, the Grand Poobah of this particular project, was also in that same position for Parks & Recreation, a show that ultimately became a celebration of living a life in service to others, it should come as no surprise that this is an examination of decency. What’s weird is how counter-culture that notion seems. Our mainstream right now is a fucking sewer. Our President is a disturbing cartoon of everything awful and toxic about America, as if we elected our id out of some kind of weird guilty reflex. We are actually arguing about the relative merits of Nazis. It is surreal how awful things are all the time, and so when I tune in to watch a sitcom and the meat of the show is about whether or not these characters can ever learn to be moral, ethical human beings, that feels like something almost dangerous.
The opening of the very first episode is simply Eleanor Shelstrop (Kristen Bell) opening her eyes. In front of her is a sign. “Welcome! Everything is fine.” A door opens. Michael (Ted Danson) steps out and smiles. “Eleanor? Come on in.”
As she settles in, he introduces himself and the show’s Big Idea. “You, Eleanor Shelstrop, are dead. Your life on Earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe.”
He explains how she died and answers a few questions before she asks a doozy. “So who was right? I mean about all of this?”
“Well, let’s see. Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit. Jews. Christians. Buddhists. Every religion guessed about 5%, except for Doug Forcett.”
“Who’s Doug Forcett?”
“Well, Doug was a stoner kid who lived in Calgary during the 1970s. One night, he got really high on mushrooms and his best friend Randy said, ‘Hey, what do you think happens after we die?’ and Doug just launched into this long monologue where he got like 92% correct. I mean, we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. That’s him right up there. He’s pretty famous around here.” That portrait Michael points out is still hanging in his office in current episodes, and it makes me laugh every time it shows up in the background of a shot.
Eleanor is told she has gone to The Good Place, and Michael begins showing her around so she can see how things work. The afterlife has been divided into neighborhoods, and each neighborhood is carefully designed for the people who live in them. Each person in each neighborhood is assigned a soul mate, a perfect match, and they live in homes designed to specifically delight each of them. It’s a pretty great system as explained, and it’s all helped along by Janet (the delightful D’Arcy Carden), a personal assistant you can summon simply by saying her name. She knows everything and she can make anything. You will never want again.
From the very beginning, there is a secret on the show, one that we’re all in on, even if all of the characters aren’t. Eleanor realizes almost immediately that a terrible mistake has been made. She does not deserve to be in The Good Place, and the Eleanor Shelstrop they keep describing is most definitely not her. She’s assigned her soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and she is sure as soon as she meets him that they have nothing in common. He’s an ethics professor, pretty much her polar opposite, and when she tells him her secret, it puts him in a terrible ethical position. If he turns her in, she’ll be sent to the Bad Place and tormented for eterity, but if he keeps her secret, the real Eleanor will be tormented instead. She manages to talk him into teaching her ethics so she can eventually become a person who is worthy of staying in The Good Place, which seems like all the set-up you need for an average sitcom.
There’s another couple we meet, a surprising couple. Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) is a celebrity, one of those relentlessly perfect charity hounds who seem to be giving a different benefit every week, and she’s been paired with Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto), a Taiwanese monk who still follow his Earthly vow of silence. They seem oddly paired, since Tahani is basically incapable of being quiet or still, and while she was tireless in working for charity, she is strangely vain and insecure. As soon as she meets Eleanor, she seems to be in a competition with her. And it doesn’t take long before the show drops its second bombshell, revealing that Jianyu is, like Eleanor, not who he appears to be. He is actually Jason Mendoza, a Filipino (“Heaven is so racist,” he observes at one point) dipshit criminal surfer dude who has no idea how he ended up in The Good Place.
At that point, you get Eleanor and Jason working with Chidi to earn the right to stay, and that once again seems like it’s going to be plenty of set-up to keep things chugging along for a few seasons. That’s how things work, after all. Television is about stasis. Look at The Walking Dead, for example. That show works so hard spinning its wheels to stay in place, because by design, it can’t really “go” anywhere. With The Good Place, the status quo is upended so often during the first season that it becomes dizzying. Secrets are exposed way quicker than you’d expect them to be, and in ways you wouldn’t expect. People actually own up to things. Things change. There are consequences for bad decisions, and the four main characters make plenty of them. Eleanor and Jason seem to be causing the entire neighborhood to break up, the foundations of reality getting sloppy because they are somehow in the wrong place, and there’s a lot of comic mileage gained from Michael trying to figure out why his work is glitching and self-destructing.
Can we take a moment to appreciate what a gift Ted Danson has become as he’s gotten older and weirder? His work as Michael in the show’s first season is a wonderful, strange variation on the sort of neurotic type-A comic character. Michael isn’t human, but he is fascinated by humans, and the things that he loves are rarely the things that human’s love. His joy over bowties and paperclips and frozen yogurt seems like a fun wacky affectation, and then as the neighborhood’s integrity gets weirder and weirder, the seams start to show. He starts to come undone, adding to the guilt that Eleanor feels about what she’s doing. The entire season is essentially a tapdance between the two of them, with the rest of the cast of characters in orbit around them, reacting to the currents between them.
In fact, the first season seems to be building to a place where it’s going to push Eleanor to make a moral decision that goes against her own best interest, and that would be an exciting enough way to cap a season of comedy that does a better job of laying out the slippery, difficult terrain of being a truly moral and ethical person than most college courses on the subject.
One big final nope.
Because what Mike Schur was up to from the very beginning of The Good Place is nothing less than one of the greatest dramatic misdirects that I’ve ever seen. In essence, Eleanor is given a choice to make. Either she has to go to The Bad Place, or Chidi does, or Tahani does, or Jason does, or the real Eleanor (who is brought back by a hilarious group of representatives from The Bad Place led by Adam Scott) does. She has to pick two people to go, and everyone else gets to stay. Her decision is final and binding, and she won’t be punished for being selfish. It’s all on her.
And as she struggles to figure out the ethical thing to do, the Good thing to do, she is suddenly struck by a larger revelation, one that relieves her from having to make any choice at all. Watching the way this reveal is handled is breathtaking. It’s a character beat, but it flips the biggest story card of all: none of them have to go anywhere, because the entire season has taken place in The Bad Place.
When the reveal comes, Ted Danson’s transformation, handled over the course of a single laugh, is one of his finest moments on film. He crushes it. And suddenly his entire performance makes more sense. It’s not a switch or a twist… it is simply a new piece of information that makes everything become clear. Watching it hit the various characters was amazing, because it recontextualized everything. Suddenly, the relationships that had been presented to them as their soul mates were revealed to be part of the elaborate and fiendishly specific tortures that they were all suffering. More importantly, Chidi and Tahani suddenly had to confront the idea that they were not, in fact, superior to the morally suspect Eleanor and Jason. If anything, Eleanor and Jason are far more aware of who they really are, and they were at least willing to work on becoming better.
The first season ended with Michael resetting the entire neighborhood, wiping everyone’s memories and taking another shot at building his unconventional “fake Good Place” version of The Bad Place. It made it look like the second season would all be about the way the first season’s friends had to gradually figure it all out again. And in the hands of anyone else, that very well might have been the second season. But if anything, they seem even more willing to blow the whole thing up from week to week right now, while also widening the conversation about Good and Bad by pushing Michael into a position where he is now also working to become more ethical, even though he is an eternal demon whose job is ostensibly still to torture Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. Michael can’t help himself, of course, and he’s really upped his game this year. There’s a “trolley scenario” sequence in one of this year’s episodes that is so brilliantly written, both funny and genuinely engaged in discussing how ethics work, that it seems strange to see it wedged in between ads for fast food and credit cards.
The writing/producing/directing staff for this show is made up of so many amazing people that it’s almost unfair. Sure, it doesn’t always mean that you’ll get something good just by putting a bunch of people together, but this is a case where Mike Schur wanted a deep bench, and he got it. Megan Amram, Jen Statsky, Joe Mande, Alan Yang, Drew Goddard, David Hyman, Lynn Shelton, Kate Gersten, Andrew Law, Josh Siegal, Beth McCarthy-Miller… it’s a murderer’s row. A dream team. Not everyone’s there for everything, but you’ve got that much brainpower set free to examine so many different ideas in The Good Place that it feels like everyone has been energized by it, like the premise itself is such a dare that you know you have to do something great every single week to justify it.
The crazy thing is how close I came to skipping it entirely. I didn’t get the ad campaign last year, and I didn’t really get what it was about. I ended up watching the pilot the way I watch most pilots: out of a sense of obligation to give everything a shot. I really do, even these days, after twenty-plus years of writing about media, still try to give everything a chance at working for me. I’ll watch pretty much anything; it’s just a matter of when. For me, The Good Place was a low priority, and it was one of the last of last year’s shows that I tried. The first episode was interesting, but it took me two or three episodes to really start to love what it was doing. Then, after the first season ended, I went back and showed it to my girlfriend, who had not been watching, and I ended up sitting through the entire thing again. If anything, I thought it was more impressive the second time because it’s clear how careful Schur was about building his world and then playing carefully by those rules.
The cast here cannot be praised highly enough. Kristen Bell is often very good, and I’ve watched her work live enough times to know that she’s really game to try anything for a filmmaker if she thinks it’s funny and if there’s a chance it’ll make a scene better. By playing such a rotten person at the start of the show, Bell’s free to be as scathing and vicious as she wants, because there’s something so fundamentally likable about Eleanor that it negates the nastiness. Schur is careful to show that Eleanor’s biggest victim was always Eleanor. She’s a terrible person, and she lied and cheated and didn’t care about others, but it’s more a case of hyper-focused self-interest than malice towards others. William Jackson Harper should be breaking out right now as a major talent based on just how terrific his work is as Chidi. He goes way past the easy neurotic joke and turns the character into this heartbreaking tragic broken bird, crippled by his own decency, so determined to be ethical that he was unable to ever truly make any choices, thereby doing so much more harm in the long run. He makes such original comic choices as the character that I can’t imagine any other version of Chidi. The same is true of the highwire act by Jameela Jamil, who could easily be the most unpleasant character in the show. Instead, the more we learn about why she’s such a grinning monster, the more touching the performance becomes. Manny Jacinto gives low-key trashbag Jason Mendoza a sweet innocence that somehow makes it okay that he is utterly without any scruples. The interplay between the four of them is rich and funny and constantly evolving based on who knows what and how much they know and what other people are doing.
But here’s what I find most exciting about all of this: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a relationship quite like the one that exists between The Good Place and the audience that’s watching it week to week right now. Because after the end of season one, there’s no way we’re ever, ever, ever going to fully trust Mike Schur again. That’s thrilling. And it’s not like when an audience feels betrayed or confused or upset by something, so they lose faith in the creative team behind it. This is the opposite. Suddenly, it’s clear that Schur is playing a different game than he originally told us, and while that is a shock, it’s also thrilling because it means that anything’s possible in the story we’re being told. I’m not going to get heavily invested in predicting where things are going, because I don’t see the point. I have a sneaking suspicion that Janet, the ultimate digital assistant played with such wide-open charm by D’Arcy Carden, is far more central to the show’s big mysteries than one would originally think, but if I turn out to be totally wrong about that, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter where I think the show is going.
What matters is that Schur clearly knows exactly where it’s going, and because I don’t trust the full truth of what I’m watching, it makes me watch even more closely. Is Michael actually starting to develop a conscience and a sense of how others might feel, or is he playing “Team Cockroach” to try to lull them into a sense of false security? Or is it some combination of both? What does happen when you reboot one Janet over 1000 times? We’re told she gets smarter and more efficient every time, so is there a point at which that stops? Or is she turning into something so powerful that it changes the nature of what she is? And how is all of this part of a conversation about a comedy that can include a Dumb Guy gem as great as Jason’s contemptuous snort when someone uses the phrase “the bearer of bad news”? His answer? “I think you mean Bad News Bear.” This show is not high comedy or low comedy; it is everything at once. It fires of smart jokes in the foreground and dumb jokes in the background. It will stoop to puns, and it has done so plenty of times already. It will stop cold for a serious discussion of ethical philosophy, and then throw giant flying shrimp at the audience. It is an original, something that seems almost impossible with this many channels and this many shows and this many years of television already in existence.
The thing that makes it more than “just” a comedy is the way the show has already made it clear that these characters all want to be better people than they already are. We celebrate the shitty in our culture these days, and we do it almost gleefully, like ironic hipsters who have been at it so long we’ve forgotten it’s ironic. To make a show about the way we struggle towards decency and just how tricky that can be feels urgent, necessary. I’m used to be asked to cry sentimental tears with my comedy these days; that’s everyone’s favorite combination now. But The Good Place dares to challenge us about our must core beliefs even as it makes us howl, and the laughs are all tempered by a notion that I want to believe, that I choose to believe, and it is the reason I would urge everyone to get onboard and watch this as it happens week to week.
We all want to do Good.
And Mike Schur and his collaborators are pulling it off.
The Big Sick
dir. Michael Showalter
scr. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon
Romantic comedy is, contrary to appearances, very difficult.
Sure, you can make an easy one, and there are thousands of those, as cardboard and bland as the generic westerns or gangster pictures that once crowded theater screens. That’s what genre is when done indifferently. It’s a template you follow to make something that looks like something else so people who like that general thing will go, “Yeah, that’s familiar.” It’s Pavlovian. It works for a reason. It’s a model for a reason.
And there are plenty of comedians who make the jump to feature films in material they write that’s sort of generally about their experiences, and some of it’s good and some of it’s bad and most of it is relentlessly self-focused, and that’s fine. It’s basically a calling card, a jumping-off. It’s so common at this point that it almost feels like the modern equivalent of the HBO half-hour in the late ‘80s. “You know you’ve made it when…”
The Big Sick stands out, though, in every way, and it is impressively smart and sweet in equal measure. It’s a fairly gentle film, which I appreciate. So much of our pop culture is abrasive these days, and there’s certainly plenty of room for that in this story if that’s the direction they took with their storytelling. But, as seems fitting for a love story, this is a story in which the transformative power of love is front and center.
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a struggling comedian whose traditional Pakistani parents are trying to find him an arranged marriage. Great set-up for a comedy right there, and that’s certainly one that would be new to a section of the mainstream audience. Instead, the film deals with what happens when Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who Kumail immediately starts falling for. Okay, that’s plenty, right? Nope. Things get complicated for Kumail and Emily and, not long after they break up, she has to be rushed to the hospital where she is put into a medically-induced coma. This brings Kumail into direct contact with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who are justifiably confused about why their daughter’s ex-boyfriend is at the hospital. See what I mean? Lots of complications on top of complications.
Oh, and it’s true. Did I mention that? I first met Kumail and Emily several years ago when I knew them primarily from their podcast, The Indoor Kids. We ended up playing XBox games together online from time to time because of mutual friends, and it was always nice to run into them around LA at comedy shows or film nerd events. They’ve always struck me as a genuinely strong couple, complementary to one another, with a very grounded attitude about things, and watching this movie was fascinating because of the way it recontextualized these two very real people I know. Zoe Kazan is a terrific choice to play the real Emily Gordon, who is just breathtakingly positive about things, and Kumail does the best work of his career bringing his story to life. He’s been consistently good on Silicon Valley, and he can make even a small appearance in something like Central Intelligence into a big enough laugh that my boys were quoting him weeks after they saw it. We get a chance to see behind the sense of humor here, though, and that’s quietly amazing for American mainstream movies in general. I don’t look at filmmaking as a case of quotas, but I am always thrilled to have a voice in the mix that wasn’t previously represented. If movies are indeed empathy machines, designed to help us try on one another’s skins, then movies like The Big Sick are the very best version of that.
Like Aziz Ansari’s terrific Master of None, The Big Sick is careful not to make the traditions of Kumail’s immigrant parents into a joke or a bad thing. Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) make their parental concern into something warm and touching. They want their son to be happy, and they want him to be connected to tradition, and there’s not a single thing they do in the movie that they don’t do from love. In fact, the most surprising thing here is how well-written the parents are on both sides. There’s nothing selfish about the way the script by Nanjiani and Gordon portrays their parents. I love Terry and Beth. Ray Romano was stiff his first few years on Everybody Loves Raymond, but he has matured into a terrific actor. He’s heartbreaking to me here, so strong and yet so vulnerable. I’m not shocked that Holly Hunter is awesome. I’m just shocked that we get so few opportunities to remember that Holly Hunter is awesome.
The Big Sick does a nice job of realistically portraying the world of stand-up comedy, never letting that become the focus of things. Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, and many others show up to lend some strong comic support, but the film keeps its focus tight, really letting us go through this with them. This feels like a movie that is of the moment, a look at what America can be at its best, a collision of cultures where the result is harmony instead of harm.
dir. Mike Flanagan
scr. Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan
Longtime fans of Stephen King had plenty of reason to worry when The Dark Tower finally snuck into theaters like a fart in church, but 2017 has turned out to be one of the best overall years for adaptation of the horror legend’s work in quite a while. Mike Flanagan’s feature version of this dark and troubling minor gem is surprisingly rich and controlled, and it’s one of the best showcases the great Carla Gugino has ever had as an actor.
It’s also a very hard film to recommend because when it gets ugly, it gets as ugly as you can possibly imagine.
Mike Flanagan has been building a solid, sturdy filmography, with no home runs so far but a whole lot of doubles or triples. He’s had one film essentially fall off the face of the Earth (Before I Wake) for no good reason, and that sort of thing can derail a career. Flanagan’s response? He took a book that seemed like a losing proposition as a film and he turned it into one of the year’s essential horror films. Hell, I’d argue that unless you see Gerald’s Game, you aren’t really having a conversation about the year’s best films full-stop.
The set-up is as simple as it is horrible: Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) decide to visit their remote lake house for a weekend to try to kickstart the sexual side of their marriage. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the headboard and abruptly drops dead on top of her, kicking off one of the most harrowing stories of how to survive a trauma that I’ve ever seen on film.
Finding a way to tell this story and keep it active and engaging is, of course, the single biggest challenge. Stephen King had the benefit of first-person voice to tell the story, but unless you want your whole movie to be a shot of a woman lying on a bed while she speaks in voice-over, you’ve got to try something else. The solution here is elegant and significant; it allows Greenwood a continued presence in the movie, and it allows room for Gugino to play several different things within each scene. There’s a fiendish timetable to the way the film drops each new horrifying complication to the scenario, and there are moments here that are stark and scary and shockingly simple. Flanagan reminds us of the horrifying potential of something as mundane as a shadow, and he has a real knack for finding the most squirm-inducing way to play these beats.
Gugino’s career has been a study in how an actress takes control of things by both playing to and playing against the male gaze. She’s acutely aware of how she’s been cast for visual impact in certain roles, but she has also clearly pushed for more and more control of things, and the projects that she’s had the most control of reflect a powerful feminist voice. Jessie is a woman who has some deep secrets, and watching Gugino dig through all of them and have to confront some of the hardest truths that anyone can grapple with is emotionally devastating here. This is not just some empty horror thrill ride. This is the story of a woman who has been broken for most of her life finally facing trauma and finding a way to regain some strength and control. She’s a fighter, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in anything this year.
Bruce Greenwood is a guy who I always enjoy, and he’s a terrific piece of shit here. What I find fascinating is how he can turn that charisma of his to relentless decency and strength (a la his crucially important performance in the 2009 Star Trek), or to something black and rotten like Gerald here. He’s not “evil” in any easy or traditional sense, but something in Gerald is wired very wrong, and the five minutes after those handcuffs first go on is one of the scariest stretches in any film this year. As soon as Gerald gets a whiff of real fear from his wife, it’s like his eyes go black and roll back so he can feed. It’s ugly, and the way Greenwood removes that mask to show the cruelty hiding beneath it is memorable.
At this point, Mike Flanagan has to be considered one of the heavy hitters in the genre. Gerald’s Game may be playing on Netflix, but it is as major a film as anything released to theaters this year. It is horror on a human scale, more affecting because of how personal it is, and it continues this new explosion of effective Stephen King adaptations. This belongs in the same rarified air as Misery and Shawshank Redemption and The Dead Zone and Christine when we talk about movies that get Stephen King 100% right, while its incendiary sexual politics make it an essential text for our tumultuous times.