This post is from my vantage point of the end of The Good Place Season 3, so will need a vague spoiler warning. However, I’m not discussing any in-depth plot details or highlighting any of the revelations that are always somewhere on the horizon with The Good Place.
The Good Place is annoying. It is exactly the sort of sitcom I have attempted to write a few times; high concept, character based and capable of completely motivated and natural reveals that change and expand the world of the show. So I’m jealous.
But it has also highlighted some issues with the sort of show I thought I wanted to write (and to a slightly lesser extent, see). The creators are very deft at spinning jokes from their characters and their interaction, hiding endless puns throughout the production design and making us care about people who’ve grown over the time we’ve seen them. Damn them and their talented ways!
They do also have a tendency to explicitly state the moral philosophy they’re basing the plot on, with a reference to a book or philosopher. It feels preachy. And reminds you that you’re watching a show; the writer is pretty much waving at you from the background, pointing at their internet research. The thing that gets them past that is the incredible performers who can turn their words into something resembling natural speech (N.B. Ted Danson might be the finest sitcom performer of all time, and I think D’Arcy Carden is a future strong contender for that role). I suppose it’s similar to exposition in a science fiction setting, which I find just as distracting and pointless. You can communicate what you think or how something works without explicitly stating it. But I’m sure my attempts at this sort of sitcom have similarly failed to avoid explicitly stating things.
Also, a show that has a reputation for twists will always struggle a bit more to make you care about characters. If the world is going to change ‘unexpectedly’ then why invest in the characters and who you think they are at any point. Inside No. 9 manages to make you care about almost all of their groups of people (and probably Black Mirror too, though not quite as successfully for me). It helps that it is an anthology and the world is completely different every episode, but there is a subtlety and subtext that the creators assume you will find on your own.
I think it comes back to deftness and lightness of touch. I was put off watching The Good Place after the first few episodes of Season 3, because the particular reset at the end of Season 2 hadn’t led to an engaging place. Once the whole season was out on Netflix and I’d heard good things about the episode “Janet(s)” through social media, I got back on board. But I don’t think it will ever enter my hall of fame of great sitcoms.