The Good Place is Fearless Storytelling at its Finest

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The Good Place is fearless.

Long-form storytelling on television can be difficult. Many shows grow to have diminished returns over time or simply seem to run out of good stories to tell.

Due to these common pitfalls, shows often resort to safer decision making during the writing process.

Michael Writes the Manifesto - The Good Place Season 3 Episode 5

A series may hold off on potential future storylines, such as withholding mysteries for years at a time and keeping a couple in the "will-they-won't-they" stage.

Sometimes they opt to maintain a status quo that's proved to be successful, hesitant to change it in fear of alienating its audience.

The Good Place is not a series that has played it safe, and that fearless approach is a large part of what has made it so special during its phenomenal four-year run.

Everything is Fine - The Good Place Season 1 Episode 1

The series starts out as a tale about Eleanor, a woman who is mistakenly placed in "The Good Place" after she dies, despite her being a terrible person on Earth.

She teams up with ethics professor Chidi to keep her identity a secret so that she isn't sent to "The Bad Place."

“There’s been a big mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.”

Eleanor

The show eventually changes the game on its first finale, The Good Place Season 1 Episode 13, "Michael's Gambit," by revealing that Eleanor and Chidi have been in the Bad Place all along.

But the show actually blows up its premise several episodes prior to the reveal.

Eleanor Reveals Her Identity - The Good Place Season 1 Episode 7

On The Good Place Season 1 Episode 7, "The Eternal Shriek," Eleanor, who has been desperate to keep her identity a secret for the entirety of the show thus far, announces to everyone that she doesn't belong in the Good Place.

This is the sort of moment that could have been held until at least the end of Season 1 if the series played it safe.

The show's original plot is easily strong enough to take it through an entire season of television.

Finding a Secret - The Good Place

It's likely that several entertaining and funny plots about Eleanor concealing her identity were left on the table to make room for this narrative pushing development.

Instead of saving the development for a shocking season-ender, however, The Good Place barely allows itself to get settled before forcing its own hand.

This forces the writers to find brand new scenarios and plot lines immediately instead of drawing from a single well of ideas until it runs dry.

The show makes a meta-commentary on the quick pace of the series, as Good Place architect Michal explains that he believed he could trick the humans into thinking they were in the Good Place for at least a thousand years.

Michael's Gambit - The Good Place Season 1 Episode 13

His plan to torture them depended on Eleanor trying to hide her true identity, so when she reveals herself so early in the process, it forces him to scramble and come up with new ways to keep the charade going.

Michael's journey reflects the show's as the series itself had to increase its pace and try to maintain balance as it pushed past its status quo.

By the time the big Bad Place reveal at the end of Season 1 does come, the show has already practiced keeping up a fast pace.

Eleanor Figures It Out - The Good Place Season 1 Episode 13

It has quietly trained its audience for the breakneck pace that The Good Place Season 2 will provide.

The series isn't concerned with saving plotlines for the future, which becomes very clear on The Good Place Season 2 Episode 3, "Dance Dance Resolution."

The episode blasts past several seasons worth of television in 22 minutes.

Eleanor and the Balloons - The Good Place Season 2 Episode 3

Season 2 initially seems to be set up to follow Eleanor and company as they attempt to reconnect after having their minds wiped, but instead, the show quickly montages through 800 different versions of their story.

The apparent storyline of Season 2 runs its course in three episodes, and the status quo shifts yet again.

Constant changes of a status quo can make a series seem wild and untethered, so to keep a narrative center, The Good Place focuses in on its characters.

Jason, Michael, and Tahani - The Good Place Season 2 Episode 10

The characters stay consistent, and while their situation is constantly changing, their goals of self-improvement and helping others remains the same.

The character work keeps the narrative intact despite the constant changes in the environment around them.

“I’m going to use my free will right now to go pick up our friends at the airport. Worst possible use of free will, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I care about them.”

Michael

This allows the writers to fearlessly shift the status quo and allow the breakneck plot to naturally take us to unexpected places.

The return to Earth on The Good Place Season 2 Episode 13, "Somewhere Else," and the swift re-death of our main characters on The Good Place Season 3 Episode 9, "Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By," are two such examples.

The series works because the focus is on what these characters do in these situations, instead of what the situations do to them.

Jason Tries to Save the Day - The Good Place Season 3 Episode 9

Something interesting about the shifts in status quo since the end of Season 1 is that none of them upend the series in the same way the Bad Place reveal does.

There hasn't been an attempt at a truly mind-blowing twist since that reveal, which exemplifies another way The Good Place has been fearless.

A dangerous question many shows find themselves asking after their first big twist or huge cliffhanger: How do we top this?

That question leads to many series trying to one-up themselves with bigger reveals and more shocking twists than ever before.

Michael Laughs - The Good Place Season 1 Episode 13

This method may seem fearless, but in fact represents the opposite, as the fear of never outdoing themselves propels wilder and wilder decisions.

There is also a tendency for viewers to start expecting huge twists once a few occur, and part of a show's identity inevitably gets tied to its unexpected nature.

Between catering to fan expectation and attempting to up the ante, it's easy to lose your series in the chaos.

The Good Place isn't a show that is afraid to go smaller.

Eleanor and Chidi Watch Their Lives - The Good Place Season 3 Episode 13

The Good Place Season 3 Episode 13, "Pandemonium," the final episode of Season 3, is the perfect example of going smaller.

The crux of the episode isn't a universe-altering moment, but Chidi's decision to give up his memory in service of the greater good.

Most of the episode focuses on what his decision will mean for him and Eleanor, as they've fallen in love, and he will soon forget her.

These sorts of developments are surprising, of course, but there is no reframing of the narrative at these points.

Chidi is Reset - The Good Place Season 3 Episode 13

It takes courage to assume that your character drama will hit just as hard as your plot twists, especially once you've established your show as a vehicle for the unexpected.

Holding off on the temptation to one-up itself has resulted in a stronger overall piece of work that allows its characters to shine and allows the series to clearly state its message.

The message of The Good Place -- that we should all try to be better people for ourselves and each other -- is an important one to send.

Having a point of view on a show is difficult sometimes, as there is a risk of alienating viewers who do not share that same point of view.

Brent - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 6

By having such a clear stance of how we should act, The Good Place takes that risk. The series easily could have kept its views on what makes a person "good" or "bad" broad.

The first season of the show did seemingly do this and is easily digestible because of it.

The end of that season reveals that The Good Place isn't interested in broad characterizations of what makes a person good, and instead begins its deep journey into the complexities of existence and morality.

Chidi: “Moral strength is defined by how we behave in times of stress.”
Michael: “Has anyone ever told you what a drag you are?”

It never goes back.

Chidi and Eleanor - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 10

The Good Place plants itself firmly in its position and consistently speaks to that point of view. It tells you that at the very least, you should try to be good, and if its audience disagrees with that, oh well.

“What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”

Michael

The Good Place isn't afraid of opposing opinions or expressing its own.

Each of these fearless aspects, the willingness to change the status quo, the confidence to go smaller and hold off on major twists, and the assertion of a point of view, are all carried out by the overall story methods of the series.

Team Cockroach about to be sent to the Bad Place - The Good Place Season 2 Episode 12

The Good Place is fearless on an individual episode-by episode-level as well.

Comedy is difficult, as it is very subjective and everyone will not laugh at the same content.

Comedians do not have an easy job, so praise be to the brave souls who risk being laughed at instead of laughed with.

Applause - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 5

On that base level, I praise every comedy airing for shaking some fear.

What makes The Good Place particularly fearless is its commitment to its jokes.

Not every joke is going to be a winner, and it can be tempting to go half-way with a joke, taking smaller risks for smaller laughs. 

The Good Place isn't fond of going half-way with its gags.

The Pure Light Elephant - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 1

On The Good Place Season 4 Episode 1, "A Girl From Arizona," "Disco Janet," a disco version of the personified knowledge-based computer-like system known as Janet, is off-handedly mentioned by Michael.

The joke creates a funny visual image in the viewer's head. It could have ended there.

“Disco Janet was around for a while years ago. She was great, I mean she was a lot, but she was fun.”

Michael

On The Good Place Season 4 Episode 8, "The Funeral to End All Funerals," Disco Janet is revealed in person (though Janet is not a person), for no narrative purpose other than to follow up on the joke from earlier in the season.

Janet? - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 10

But it doesn't stop there. 

The Good Place Season 4 Episode 10, "You've Changed, Man" has the all-powerful Judge Gen enter Disco Janet's void and start dancing to the disco music that is constantly playing there.

Once Judge Gen leaves, she marbleizes Disco Janet, and while all other Janets simply turn into a small marble when deactivated, Disco Janet gets turned into a small Disco Ball.

This is commitment. Maybe even over-commitment; but it takes a throwaway gag and turns it into a visual masterpiece.

Chidi even gets roller-skates from Disco Janet so he can roll around while lecturing his friends on philosophy.

Chidi on Skates - The Good Place Season 4 Episode 10

The show constantly makes jokes about the trashy nature of fellow human Jason's hometown. When we finally get to see the place on the show, Jason calls for a taxi and a monster truck slams up over another car to pick him up.

Why would they spend the money on renting a truck, paying a driver, and crushing a car for this three second gag that doesn't matter?

This over-the-top moment elevates the humor to the next level, doubling down on the series' history and running gags.

The Good Place isn't afraid to fully commit to these simple ideas and turn them into something fully formed, often developing them into something outrageous and truly funny and clever.

Jacksonville Taxi - The Good Place Season 3 Episode 6

It's one thing to hear a joke about Disco Janet or Jason's hometown; it's another entirely to bring those jokes to life.

From the smallest level of gag writing to the big picture level of art, The Good Place is fearless.

It trusts its audience and characters to keep up with a constantly shifting status quo, isn't afraid to tell the story it wants in place of massive twists, and commits to its message and humor with unwavering assertion.

The series finale is upon us. I won't be surprised if the show finally attempts to outdo itself with a series shattering twist, but if it does I know it will be rooted in its characters and message.

Whatever is in store, the series seems confident it will stick the landing.

It's been fearless thus far; why play it safe now?

Tommy Czerpak is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Good Place Quotes

If soulmates do exist, they're not found. They're made. People meet, they get a good feeling, and then they get to work building a relationship. Like your parents. They didn't magically stay together because you proved they should.

Michael

Janet: What do you think happens when people walk through the door? It's the only thing in the universe I don't know.
Eleanor: I don't know either. The wave returns to the ocean. What the ocean does with the water after that is anyone's guess. But as a very wise not-robot once told me, the true joy's in the mystery.