The American sitcom, since its inception, has struggled with a fundamental tension at its core. Let’s call it “jester vs. guru.” We expect half-hour comedies to pull off an impossible double duty: to both inject jokes into the national bloodstream and to enlighten us with high-minded moral instruction. We want not only zany catchphrases but wise life lessons. The history of the form has been a constant tug of war between these two contradictory demands. Early sitcoms tended toward Very Special Episodes — morality plays in which we learned to honor our parents, say no to drugs and rat out even our most charming friends. The sitcoms that followed rebelled against such ham-fisted piety, replacing it with ironic cynicism. “Seinfeld” famously rejected the moral duties of the sitcom altogether; “30 Rock” was a pure fire hose of laughs. The control knob turned, further and further, from wisdom toward jokes.
“The Good Place” tries, improbably, to fulfill both functions at once. It wants to sit at both ends of the control knob simultaneously. Like any good modern comedy, the show is a direct IV of laughs, but the trick is that all of those laughs are explicitly about morality.
The premise of “The Good Place” is absurdly high concept. It sounds less like the basis of a prime-time sitcom than an experimental puppet show conducted, without a permit, on the woodsy edge of a large public park. The show’s action begins in a candy-colored heaven in which new residents are welcomed to find their perfect soul mate, an ideal home and an eternal supply of frozen yogurt. (Flavors include Double Rainbow, Four-Day Weekend, Full Cellphone Battery, Panoply of Exuberance and Beyoncé Compliments Your Hair.) There is just one problem: Eleanor Shellstrop, our foulmouthed protagonist, does not belong anywhere near any kind of paradise. Eleanor is a comically awful person — in flashbacks, we see her refusing to be a designated driver, ruining a stranger’s quinceañera and selling fake medicine to the elderly. Her arrival at the Good Place seems to be a result of some kind of existential clerical error. Eleanor is understandably reluctant to confess this, particularly when she learns about the many horrors of the Bad Place: bees with teeth, four-headed bears, volcanoes full of scorpions and — unfortunately — “butthole spiders.” Out of sheer desperation, she decides to try something drastic: to improve herself. Eleanor manages to persuade her alleged soul mate, a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy named Chidi, to teach her how to be good. “How do we do it?” she asks. “Is there a pill I can take or something I can vape?”
This is the trick of “The Good Place.” Ethics is not some kind of moralistic byproduct; it’s baked into the very premise. The show is entirely life lessons. Every episode is Very Special. It synthesizes those old contradictory impulses — jester vs. guru — so completely that they cease to be in tension. If “Seinfeld” was a show about nothing, “The Good Place” is a show about everything — including, and especially, growing and learning. By all rights, it should probably be awful — preachy, awkward, tedious, wooden, labored and out of touch. Instead, it is excellent: a work of popular art that hits on many levels at once. It has been not only critically acclaimed but also widely watched, especially on streaming services, where its twists and intricate jokes lend themselves to bingeing and rebingeing. The modern world, perhaps, is hungrier for ethics than we have been led to believe.
I really love this show. It’s mildly rude on rare occasions, but mostly it’s just LOL funny, demented, and takes you in unexpected directions while it gives you a sort of community college overview of various schools of moral philosophy, yet does not bore you. It understands the cardinal rule of comedy: if they aren’t laughing it does not matter how smart you are. This show will make you laugh.