The Good Place and The Art of Foreshadowing
So before we get into today’s blog, I have to get the obligatory Spoiler Warning out of the way. Today we’re going to be discussing NBC’s Television show The Good Place (TGP from here on) and the entirety of its first season. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll try to structure this so you can still follow along, but if you haven’t seen it and you think you might want to, even a little bit, then bail out here. I’m going to be spoiling the shit out of the first season, so you have now officially been warned.
For anyone who hasn’t seen TGP, go watch it now. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then you should know it centers on a woman (played by Kristin Bell) named Eleanor who awakens post-death to find herself in a comfortable office, met by a man who professes to be an architect of the afterlife named Michael (played by Ted Danson). She learns that while no religion ever got the afterlife correct (most were about 5% right) they did nail the idea that there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and Michael assures her that she is in the good place. Eleanor is led out to her community, where she sees her house, views memories of her philanthropic trips and good deeds in life, and meets her soulmate Chidi. The catch is that we soon learn Eleanor didn’t do any of these things, and was in fact a fairly shitty person in life who seems to have arrived in the good place by mistake. She confides this secret to Chidi, who ultimately decides it’s his moral duty to try and teach her to be a good person who deserves to stay rather than be sent to the bad place upon discovery. Making it more complicated is the fact that when Eleanor does shitty things, the world is warped by her badness, causing mayhem and occasional giant shrimp to fly through the air. Thus the crux of the series, or so we think, kicks off as Eleanor must suppress her shitty tendencies while trying to learn to be better and keeping her secret the whole while.
If you’re like me, then you’re probably wondering how the hell they’re going to stretch that concept out through a full season. The answer, as it turned out, was tight scripting, a limited run of episodes, and a willingness to take bold turns to keep things fresh. This is not a show that runs out of steam at any point, and it always keeps you wondering what will come next. Eleanor ends up outing herself for the sake of Chidi around episode 7, making serious personal changes to evolve, and eventually sacrifices her own shot at freedom to save her friends. All of which makes the big reveal at the end of season 1 so thrilling: Eleanor was never in the good place to start with. She, Chidi, and her friends/neighbors who she grew close with, have all been in the bad place from the start. It’s a new type of bad place, designed by Michael, where the torture comes from she and her friends driving each other crazy. The twist is insane when it hits, and I literally remember staring at my screen as Ted Danson’s character shifts from dopey to outright evil, thinking there was no way this could be happening.
Then, when the episode ended, I went back to rewatch the whole season. And fuck me if they hadn’t been laying down the clues for that twist since episode 1. They managed to hide a huge surprise like that on a show during the age of fan theories and internet speculation running rampant all over everything, and they did it with a wink to the audience the entire time. The more I mulled it over, the more I appreciated the level of work that had gone into it, and the more I wanted to discuss how they’d earned that twist.
They played with the expectations of the viewer. From the beginning, Michael explains things to Eleanor, and we take it as a device to provide exposition to us as viewers. Sure, he might be talking to Eleanor, but we really know the point is to inform us about the world. And when some of the things he explains about the afterlife seem kind of dumb, or illogical (like the painting of the stoner prophet hanging in Michael’s office) we just take it at face value because it’s a sitcom, and the people who write it can go for a laugh instead of building complicated lore. We don’t question what we’re told any more than Eleanor does, because why would we? This is TV, and a character is explaining how the world works. For all intents and purposes, that’s gospel, to us and to Eleanor. Until the end, when we find out Michael has been lying to Eleanor, and by extension us, ever since the start. Suddenly it clicks, and we realize that all the oddities in the lore we’ve heard aren’t because it’s a sitcom, but because everything we know has come from a character purposefully misleading us. All of which makes the idea of season 2 more interesting, because thanks to that twist we now have no idea how this world really works. They turned our own trust against us to keep us from noticing the flaws in Michael’s explanation, and it was masterful. Even better, you can rewatch season 1 with this new knowledge and it’s almost an entirely different experience, as the context alters the dynamic of virtually every scene.
They played fair. An unearned twist can be really annoying, especially when it carries the sense that the writers had no idea what to do so suddenly a main character is evil, or an alien, or whatever. But TGP definitely laid the groundwork for their surprise, even if it’s only clear on rewatches. For starters, outside the four humans (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) everyone in the series turns out to be either an architect or a Janet, so they would only need to be “in character” around the humans. And on the rewatch I discovered that there is not one single scene in the show that doesn’t depict one of the four humans. No quick, misleading shots of Michael talking to Janet in character for no reason or anything like that. They only show how these people act around the humans, which is easy to notice when you know to look for it. There are also the flashbacks to everyone’s lives. While Eleanor is outright shitty in hers, we see glimpses of the supposedly “good” people’s lives and gain more insight into their time on Earth. Through that, we also learn that Tahani had a bad relationship with her sister and Chidi was cripplingly indecisive. We see their flaws, and assume it’s meant to be about giving us moments to view the characters as more human. But again, that’s just playing our assumptions against us.
They give us the tools we need to understand. A big part of TGP is the discussion of morality. It’s baked into the concept, since Chidi is teaching Eleanor to be good, so it doesn’t raise any eyebrows when the show slows down to teach Eleanor about things like consequentialism, or how good actions can be bad if their motivation is corrupt, or utilitarianism, or a dozen other ideas. And while again we take that as part of the show, the truth is we’re the ones who need these lessons. All serving the great twist at the end, when we discover that our characters are in the bad place. Now while Eleanor and Jason were a given as rotten apples, Tahani and Chidi appear to be decent people. It’s only when we look at the flashbacks through the lens of our new understanding of ethics that we see the problems: Chidi’s actions, intended or not, caused suffering for everyone in his life, and while Tahani raised billions for charity, her motivations were corrupt from the start since it was really about showing up her sister. It’s because of the lessons imparted through the show without us even noticing that we can understand why these two have ended up where they have.
I already liked this show, it’s hard not to love Kristin Bell and Ted Danson in anything, but the end of the first season vaulted it to among my all-time favorites. It’s very rare a show manages to hide a secret like this out in the open, laying the groundwork to earn it, without setting off so much as a single red flag in the process. It’s amazing, and if all my gushing hasn’t conveyed the point yet you need to go watch the whole thing. Look for all the lines that seem to say one thing but have a whole new meaning in other context. There’s a ton of them. Really take it in, because that show is a great learning opportunity for anyone who wants to use surprises and twists in their writing.
Michael-only-knows what we’ll see from them in season 2.