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Has The Good Place shown how to stop TV shows going to a bad place?

Too many shows flog an idea to death, but NBC's exploration of the afterlife offers another way.

We have all been there at some point in our lives. It’s a bad feeling, a sinking feeling, but it’s the first step towards acceptance. Whether it’s your childhood fave or what was, for the last few years, your weekly bright spot, we’ve all had that same defeating, heart-breaking moment when we finally have to admit to ourselves: our favourite TV show has jumped the shark.

In the last decade, seemingly never-ending show runs have become entirely normal and expected. Starting in the United States about 15 years ago, we began to witness shows such as The US Office, Smallville, and Desperate Housewives running for near double-digit seasons despite critics calling for the show’s end years before their overdue finales. It hasn’t taken long for other countries, the UK included, to adopt similarly exhaustive programming. 

Add in the rise of transnational programming (original shows on Netflix, Amazon, etc, that are broadcasted globally at the same time) and it is increasingly difficult to avoid having your favourite shows being flogged to death well past their expiration date as production companies attempt to squeeze out the remaining enthusiasm for a once fresh and interesting proposition. Sure there were (and are) some successfully long-running classics, but we now few shows finish in under five seasons, and by the time they do wind up most are past their sell by date.

I’m not here to argue that these shows will, or should, change their runs and cut short early even if people are still watching. With big money involved in episodic programming, it’s a relatively fruitless campaign to try to change it. But if we can't wean TV off its addiction to never-ending runs, then perhaps we need to find a new way of keeping them from going bad, and the answer may just lie in recent hit The Good Place. 

(Warning, major spoilers below.)

For those who haven’t watched it, NBC’s The Good Place (broadcasting simultaneously in the UK on Netflix) begins with its protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, being dropped into the afterlife in the Good Place, the show’s version of a heaven where all of the people who were “good” in their mortal lives get to spend eternity. After a couple of minutes of being introduced to the wonders of an afterlife of pleasure, the viewers discover that Eleanor is there by mistake, having spent her entire mortal life as a living nightmare to her friends, family, and mankind as a whole. Following this revelation, the entire first season is dedicated to Eleanor’s attempts to become a good person to avoid being found out and sent to the Bad Place, the show’s version of hell, by being taught ethics and morals by her Good Place peer, Chidi. 

But then at the end of the first season comes the  twist: the four main characters (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) aren’t in the Good Place after all, but have instead been in an experimental version of the Bad Place, designed to ensure they psychologically torture each other, as a new and innovative alternative to the physical torture carried out by demons in the traditional Bad Place.

Then earlier this month, The Good Place hit us with another shocking season finale. After our four main characters spent the entire second season evading demons and avoiding being sent to for an eternity of physical torture in the Bad Place, they are given a chance to prove they deserve a spot in the real Good Place. The season ends with them being sent back to earth, and back to mortal life, to demonstrate that they’d changed for good after trying to become better people in the afterlife.

For any other TV show, this would be a pretty shocking twist, but now, for TGP viewers, this is merely par for the course. But it has managed to eschew the twist-tropes often seen in mainstream television shows. No protagonist harbouring a character-altering secret for several seasons, no revelation that the villain was in fact the Good Guy all along. The Good Place doesn’t flip an element of a character, bring in someone new, or even reveal something shocking about an entire group. Instead, it does something that’s rarely been seen before: it changes the entire framework within which the show functions. The characters don’t dramatically develop nor does the audience discover any surprising information about them, but the show still undergoes a major makeover that refreshes dynamics, changes perspective, and redevelops the entire premise. This changes The Good Place into something which is both familiar and entirely different. Most importantly, it takes a premise that could otherwise get old pretty quickly and gives it a jolt of new life with one simple change.

Of course The Good Place has only wrapped on its second season, and has done so with about half the episodes of an average length episodic comedy in the United States, so it will take more time to see if these world-altering change-ups have the longevity they promise. But in a television landscape filled with one note premises being stretched to breaking point over too many episodes, on every channel and every platform, The Good Place provides a refreshing, new path to keep good shows from going bad.

 

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist