What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.