Emma Caulfield's TV Diary: Peeling back the layers of The Good Place
Throughout the year, actress Emma Caulfield keeps a TV diary on EW.com. An alum of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she is no stranger to intense fan bases and is herself a passionate TV watcher. She uses this space to talk about what she’s loving, hating, or tolerating. Currently, she’s into the second season of NBC’s sitcom The Good Place, which airs Thursday nights. Since there isn’t a new episode tonight (the show will return on Dec. 28), Caulfield has taken the time to write about the magic of the show to fill the comedy block void.
I love when Fall TV returns. It’s television Christmas for me. (I feel this way every Game Of Thrones Sunday, but that’s another article.) With year-round programming on every device, it’s not the magical annual event it once was. (Seriously, next up is your uncle’s pacemaker as “Must See TV.” Like, “Whaddya doing tonight Uncle Mel?” And he’s like, “Pacemaker and Chill, little Tito.”) Still, it’s exciting for me, especially this season with the return of my newest happy place, The Good Place. If you haven’t seen this show, I’m irrationally mad at you (not really, but like…), and also super envious of your virgin viewing! If you want to know what’s so brilliant about The Good Place and don’t mind spoilers, read on. If you do mind, get thee to a nunnery, fool, because I’m about to go long! (Fall also equals football. Score!) Okay, let’s dive in.
What is The Good Place? Here’s the basic info: In life, it’s a comedy on NBC. On the show, it’s Heaven and every character on the show is dead. AWESOME! Way to be bold, NBC!
But this isn’t your average Heaven. It’s elite Heaven — no average great soul is allowed. Not even Mother Teresa cracked their admission standards, though Lincoln did (Go, Abe!). Competition is fierce as fork! All human souls are immediately paired with their one true soul mate (whether they want it or not), and their every desire made real by a walking computer with a “slammin’ bod” named Janet. (What’s up D’Arcy Carden?! You’re brilliant! Can we be friends?) The Good Place slogan, “Everything is fine” is displayed boldly in the office of the neighborhood architect, Michael (I love you, Ted Danson! #SamMaloneForever!).
The show’s first soul jumbo lottery winner is Eleanor Shellstrop, played by next level hilarious Kristen Bell. (If I was still playing with Barbies, there would be an epic open mike battle between Eleanor Shellstrop and Kimmy Schmidt. “Up top,” girls!) Michael and Janet guide Eleanor through the neighborhood’s attractions (yogurt for everyone!) while praising her for all her corporal selfless deeds. Eleanor is soon introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a former ethics professor on Earth. Once alone with Chidi, Eleanor presses him for his loyalty, which of course he freely gives, because his ethics compel him to BE THERE FOR HER! (I smell foreshadowing!)
Eleanor then confesses that a mistake has been made and that she’s not supposed to be there because she’s actually a really bad person. Like, the WORST. The Good Place got her name right, but accepted the wrong soul. TWIST! What the fork?! (There’s no swearing in The Good Place because fork it, why would they? Everything is forking perfect!)
If you’re not already intrigued by the show’s clever and hooky premise, then let me detail why you should be watching. WHY DO I LOVE The Good Place SO MUCH?! Let me count its twisty ways…
1. The plot. Duh. I have more on that but first let me…
2. The cast. In addition to Danson, Bell, Carden, and Harper, two other hilarious actors round out this amazeballs ensemble. Jameela Jamil plays Tahani Al-Jamil, an Amazonian-like beauty, who’s also a preternaturally nice, secretly competitive, do it all, good-doer. Think Forrest Gump, but if Gump was also Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman was always dressed for the cover of Cosmo. Tahani — full of boundless kindness and positivity — naturally tackles her role as soul mate to Jianyu Li with as much enthusiasm as any of her successful philanthropic endeavors.
That brings me to actor Manny Jacinto, who plays Jianyu/Jason. We first meet Jacinto as Jianyu, a devoted monk who took an oath of silence. Upon arrival at The Good Place, Michael asks if he would like to remain silent for all eternity. He nods. And he meditates, much to the frustration of his soul mate Tahani. Poor perfect Tahani’s afterlife is giving her blue balls. But like the shrimp suddenly falling from the sky (watch the show), Jianyu shouldn’t be there either — he confesses to Eleanor that his real name is Jason Mendoza. Jason is actually a “pre-famous” musician from Jacksonville, Florida, who loves jalapeño poppers and boobs and was also sent to The Good Place by mistake! TWIST! Getting to know Jason and watching him live a double life with Tahani was my favorite part of this show at first. But then a sinkhole opened up in the middle of town hall (watch the show), taking my current favorite thing and replacing it with a plot about a SINKHOLE!
3. The writing. As they say (“they” being the people — usually men — with the money), it all starts with a good script. I typically disagree with the money people, unless I’m the one with the money, then it’s like, “You better make all the best decisions! You’re so funny and smart! Everything you do is art!” (It’s not about you Emma! Right.) Where was I? The writing. What’s up Michael Schur? Your show is quickly entering my all-time list! Bravo! Lots of loud enthusiastic clapping is happening right now for you and your brilliant writers’ room! (Happening in my head, not with my hands, because I need them to type about the clapping!)
When I’m not busy laughing at this show, I’m thinking about the show’s layers, which there are many. Hold on. An analogy is forming; I feel it. I gotta go stream of consciousness here. Okay. Layers. Clothing. Fall. I love fall. Not about you, Emma. Layers. Cake. I want cake. Not about you, Emma. Layers. Onions. Peel. Banana. Slip on. Fall. Shoes. Fall boots. I want fall boots. Not about you, Emma. Layers. More onions. Peel. Smaller. Less is more, is more or less good. Good things come in small packages. Ring. Marriage. Kids. Honey, I shrunk the kids. Shrink. Therapy. I need therapy. It’s not about you, Emma. Right. Okay… I got it.
The Good Place is a Russian nesting doll set. You know the kind where there are like six smaller dolls hidden inside one large doll? But the doll in this case is an onion and the onion is the show. Let’s peel that onion and start crying, shall we? The Good Place is high-concept television. Large Russian doll. Inside that doll is a comedy that looks like cotton candy, sweet airy and whimsical. Smaller Russian doll. Inside that doll is a subversive take on the 1 Percenters. It’s elite Heaven remember? Inside that doll is a show about motives. What motivates us to be good? If the outcome of our actions is good but our motivation isn’t, is the action worth much if anything at all? Smaller doll.Inside that doll is a show about friends. What makes us friends? Is it situational? Is it shared values? Does misery truly love company? Even smaller doll. The even smaller doll inside that doll is a show about soul mates. Are soul mates only sexual? Are soul mates people we hate as well as love? Smaller doll still. And inside that doll is a show about Hell being about other people. Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre came up with that gem in his play No Exit. In the play a group of souls are left in a waiting room on route to Hell. Spoiler alert, the torture they inflict on each other is worse than any real Hell that waits for them. AWESOME.
You may be asking yourself, I thought this was a show about Heaven, Emma? TWIST! The characters are actually in “The Bad Place.” The Good Place for them is an artificial construct designed by Michael, an ambitious junior “afterlife architect” demon from Hell. Chocking-hazard-small doll.
A show this smart could sustain itself on six Russian dolls and be perfect. But inside THAT doll is one more raisin-size doll called redemption. Each of these brilliantly drawn characters attempts to better themselves despite their present circumstances. Even demon Michael finds himself for the first time, experiencing genuine affection for “Good Janet.” (There’s a Bad Janet, too. Seriously, watch the show.) Like I said, this Russian doll onion has many layers. Layers. Fall. Cold. Soup. French onion. God, I want French onion soup. It’s not about you, Emma.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.