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14 February 2018

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.

By Sarah Manavis

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.)

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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.

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