Review: The Good Place

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It’s very rare that a sitcom actually manages to improve so considerably on a second viewing – that re-watching really makes that big a difference. But The Good Place is a rather unique show, and as such demands a re-watch, and for fans to really reconsider the groundworks the series is based on. It’s for that reason that I cannot suggest reading this review without first having completed series one of The Good Place, because the spoilers here will be much more impactful to watching the show than for any other sitcom I think I’ve ever seen.

I think that really speaks to the scale and uniqueness that Mike Schur is aiming for in this show. Previously known for workplace sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation (both great in their own right), Schur hasn’t really ever created something akin to this before. Let’s be honest – the reason for this is business based; workplace sitcoms without much of an overarching story are perfect for syndication, while a show like The Good Place which ends each episode on a cliff hanger, really isn’t. I guess that it’s only because NBC has Superstore and is trying to revive Thursday night comedy that Schur was allowed to be so experimental with The Good Place (but that’s complete speculation on my part). The premise of The Good Place is immediately unusual; it revolves around a woman (Kirsten Bell) who has mistakenly been put in ‘the good place’ by a fumbling deity-like figure played by Ted Danson. Of course, this turns out not to be the case – the real premise is that a malignant deity (played by Ted Danson) has trapped four people inside their own personal hell, playing each of their personalities off of each other in order to create a place of eternal torture. I think to see how impressive The Good Place is, it’s important to examine how each premise works on its own.

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The initial premise is the one that carries the series right up until the second half of the final episode on an initial watch, and so remains probably the most important in the minds of most casual viewers. The entire structure of the good place is immediately sketchy, however, and I did see people theorise that it might actually be the bad place from episode one. It’s important to note, however that the show does a good job of deflecting that theory, mainly by ignoring it and assuring constantly that not only is this the good place, but it must be because there is also a bad place (run by the amazing and always hilarious Adam Scott). All the problems with the good place are repeatedly asserted to be all Eleanor’s fault, which is a neat deflection, and one that creates an amusing premise within the fake premise. Speaking of Eleanor, both premises revolve around the four central characters (and Michael but more on him in a bit). These four are Eleanor (Kirsten Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Nicely, most of these are played by relative newcomers, and all of them play their parts well, with the exception of Jacinto, whose line delivery sometimes came across a bit forced. I also started off the series with a dislike for Tahini, but this is something that changed circa. Episode 3 or 4. These four are supposed to be ‘perfectly matched to torture each other’, yet this choice of characters somehow manages to work in the first premise as well. There’s great friendly chemistry between Bell and Jackson Harper but you can also see why they ‘torture’ each other, even if Chidi being a Kantian ethics professor facing a moral dilemma is a little bit on the nose. Once again, Tahani being so self-centred raises questions about the moral implications of the good place, but this is further stuffed under the carpet because the good place itself is so flimsily built for heaven. While we’re on the topic, the ethics of the good place are brilliantly specifically designed for comedy – and I urge everyone to screenshot any time some of the rules are bought up – there are gems a plenty. In fact, the entirety of the good place is funny – its plastic-y aesthetic really makes it a certain type of heaven; the one chock full of frozen yoghurt stands, to be precise. The initial premise, then, disguises it’s twist quite well, and a lot of that has to do with pacing – the series carries the audience from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, joke to joke at lightning speed, and we aren’t given much time to catch our breath and wonder about the problems of the good place.

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So yes, initially the show works well. But the show feels like it’s missing something right until the very end. Parts (like the giant insects) feel inconsistent with the rest of the show, and the whole thing feels like it should be a little funnier, that the characters should all be getting on more, and joshing about in the expanse of heaven. When I heard about a show about heaven from Mike Schur, I didn’t expect it to be quite as tense and quite as mopey for some of its characters. Of course, these fears are put to rest at the final moments, and during the subsequent re-watch. You see, the show isn’t aiming to be a traditional network sitcom, it has loftier ambitions. And these ambitions are revealed at the end of episode 13 by Michael.  And I’m not quite sure if I mean Michael Schur or Michael the architect. Clearly the name was intentional though, both are the ultimate creators of the universe the characters exist in, and both create the set-ups that lead to the torture of the protagonists. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Ted Danson, whose performance here is the performance of a career, simultaneously creepy and whimsical. And of course, there’s that smile. The final twist of the show manages to cleverly put everything into its rightful place in a way that I didn’t quite realise up until I’d seen the show again. It strikes a slightly false note that this elaborate set-up was made solely for four unremarkable people, but accepting that leads to an otherwise pretty perfect twist; guessable from the start, but something you’d never even consider. Of course, more is likely to be revealed in season two, so I’ll stop talking about it here, but it really is a feat of the kind I haven’t really seen in a sitcom like this.

I don’t think that The Good Place is a perfect show, mind. It could do with being a bit funnier, and some of the performances are a little off. I also have neglected areas of character development here, and focused mainly on the big picture (maybe I’ll go more in detail when it comes to season two), and that’s a shame, because the character stuff is where much of this show lives and dies. But I wanted to focus mainly on why this show is so special, so ambitious as to be worth talking about and worth remembering for years to come. Because it so is.

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Top 16 of 2016

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This time of the year is when everyone and their mum comes up with their best things of the year, but you should listen to me because… um, I write it down I guess? In all seriousness, this year has been pretty good for entertainment, even if it hasn’t been so good for the rest of the world. This post will focus on the stuff that takes your mind off of it all though; Films, Video Games and TV. So without further adieu…

Best Films of the Year

Before I get into this; no, obviously I haven’t seen every good film this year. In fact, some films I’ve heard are great haven’t even come to the UK yet (see; La La Land). Also, the order is pretty arbitrary.

6) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Spinal Tap will never be topped as musical mockumentary, but this film comes pretty damn close. Much like the David Brent movie, the songs are one of the best things about this film, but even outside the Lonely Island’s usual musical comedy genius is a nifty little film that starts as a modern pop-star parody and ends in a glorious and over the top musical number starring the power of friendship and Michael Bolton. The film’s genius comes in hiding perhaps a rather standard plot in a guise of flashy songs and surreal humour, much as how it’s star Conner4Real masks a simple personality behind the veil of his superstardom. Perhaps the funniest gag in the film though is when Nas says of the song Karate Guy; ‘that song changed my life’, in the most deadpan tone he can manage when talking about a song who’s lyrics contain ‘We’re rolling with our friends, All over town, But we’re all in the car, We’re not rolling on the ground’. Brilliant.

5) Train to Busan

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I don’t watch many zombie films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good one when I see it. Train to Busan takes a simple premise (zombies, but on a train) and extends it to its natural conclusion. The zombies move around in a thrillingly creepy way, their bodies twisting in a way that makes them seem like they were filmed in stop motion. The train itself is a fantastic setting, and it makes sense that the film is reluctant to move far away from it; it condenses the action into tight corridors and spaces, and makes the horde of zombies piling over each other an ever more terrifying sight as there’s only one way to run. The traditional zombie movie clichés may all be present, but the setting helps make them feel fresh, as does the acting and cinematography. These things come together in a surprisingly effective little package that breathes a little bit more life into the genre. (I could have made a zombie joke there, but that would be dead stupid)

4) Hell or High Water

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I don’t have much to say about this one to be really honest. A really solid film that harkens back to old Westerns while revolving around a modern day series of heists. Great performances from the main cast, and fantastic direction. Not necessarily the easiest film to watch, but well worth seeking out.

3) When Marnie was There

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No, this might not end up being Ghibli’s final film, but if it was it wouldn’t be a tragedy. In fact, When Marnie was There ends up a touching mini masterpiece that shies away from grand narratives and focuses on a small town and a relationship between two people, one of whom’s existence is called into question by the viewer and the protagonist herself. Really, however, the crux of the film rests on the protagonist. Throughout the film we question her sanity and reliability but she remains a fascinating lens to which to see the beautifully animated world through. As a Ghibli swan song, this may be a whimper rather than a bang, but in this case, that isn’t a negative.

2) 10 Cloverfield Lane

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You really shouldn’t know anything about this film before going in, but suffice to say while my expectations going in were low, this film blew me away. Sharing a similar dynamic to last year’s Ex Machina (three people alone in a remote location), 10 Cloverfield Lane feels more like an indie experiment than a sequel to a blockbuster monster movie, but it’s all the better for it. Claustrophobic direction courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, combined with the masterful performance of John Goodman are what makes this film click as a tense psychological thriller. The ending has proved controversial but I rather liked it, and if you don’t, just forget it happened and enjoy the rest of one of the best films of the year.

1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I said the ratings for this were arbitrary, but for this entry they aren’t. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my film of the year, hands down. The art of directing comedy seems to be lost on most mainstream comedy films, but a few directors still have the knack. One of these directors is Taika Waititi, and this is on full display here, even more so than in his last film What We Do In The Shadows. While that film had a premise that perhaps didn’t quite deserve the run time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has both the heart and comedy to sustain a full film length. The humour is the gentle kind that Flight of the Conchords (another New Zealand comedy) mined brilliantly, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has some lines that are up to par with that show’s comic genius (“You’re more like Sarah Connor. And in the first film, before she could do chin-ups.”). Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, is a talented child actor of the kind any director would be lucky to find, and his chemistry with the gruff Sam Neill is pitch perfect. A real treat, and my unrivalled best film of the year.

Best Video Games of the Year

Another arbitrarily ranked list. Don’t expect any AAA titles on here, I didn’t play many of those this year. Instead, treat this as a list of quirky games you may have missed otherwise (but only if you own a 3DS)

N/A) The Last Guardian

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I can’t give this a ranking yet, because I haven’t finished it and I plan to write a full and comprehensive review when I have. However, The Last Guardian has completely won me over. It’s a broken game in parts, with a messy camera and an unstable frame rate. However, I simply found myself not caring. The coup this game pulled off was to get me to care about Trico, the giant dog/bird monster who guides you through the game’s mysterious world, and it did this successfully through every means available; cutscene, gameplay, animations and scripted sequences. This one’s shaping up to be a true classic.

4) Pocket Card Jockey

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Mobile games are a difficult thing to do well. They tend to be shallow little experiences, fun for a few minutes before becoming mind numbingly tedious. Pocket Card Jockey avoids this by taking the classic card game of solitaire, the ultimate boredom killer, and attaching it to fast fun horse racing with enough skill that winning feels like an achievement and enough luck that anyone can pick it up and play. Plus the game has a whole host of other little side options that make it feel well worth the price tag.

3) Rhythm Paradise Megamix

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Strange surreal mini-games played to the beat off catchy J-pop tunes. This one contains all the mini games from past Rhythm Paradise games as well as a host of catchy new ones. It’s fun, it’s addictive, but its ultimately bogged down on an initial play-through by a needlessly inserted story. Luckily forcing your way through that opens up a treasure trove of mini treats. Enjoy!

2) Kirby: Planet Robobot

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Occasionally, you have to celebrate a game for having not much more than really good level design. Kirby: Planet Robobot has that in abundance and I would have never even played it had it not been for a sale at a game shop I stumbled into. I’m not the biggest fan of the game’s steampunk aesthetic, but it solidifies it into a cohesive experience and links to the game’s new core mechanic. Unlike other gimmick Kirby power-ups, the Robobot armour isn’t used to solve obvious puzzles, but as a new way to traverse the level, sometimes even cutting off valuable collectables in exchange for a quicker path through. It has it’s own copy abilities, and it’s fun to control through the tightly designed corridor levels traditional to the Kirby series. Even the story is a step up from usual, a weird little muse on the ethics of colonialism. Well worth a play.

1) Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

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You can read my spoilerific review here, but for those yet to play it: the best addition to a fantastic series since Trials and Tribulations back in 2004.

Best New TV shows of the Year

Comedy dominates this list because it’s what I’m a specialist in, but I’ve heard there were lots of good drama shows as well. I’m just not the guy for that. Also, this is just new stuff, so no second series here (sorry Crazy Ex Girlfriend, It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine Nine and many more).

4) The Good Place

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Mike Schur is one of the most reliable names in comedy, so I had little doubt that The Good Place would be, well, good. What I didn’t expect was that this comedy would be so great even in its first season. Sure, there’s room for improvement but even as the series went on the quality of episodes kept increasing. Set in the afterlife, Kirsten Bell plays a woman who has been sent there mistakenly, while Ted Danson plays the afterlife’s oddball ‘architect’. Like Schur’s other comedies, the show rests on a balance between main and supporting cast both pulling their weight, and luckily they do. What’s different about The Good Place is that it feels less like a traditional sitcom – it’s much more structured and planned, each episode ending in a cliff hanger. For that reason, I’m excited for each new episode not just for the comedy, but also to see where the plot goes next.

3) Lady Dynamite

I already wrote about this one, and here’s what I said; With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery. Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

2) Search Party

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This one was a real surprise to me; I had no real idea about it until it aired, but I binged the entire show in two nights. This is an almost perfect package of a show, a fascinating psychological study of Dory (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat), a woman struggling to find purpose in her dull life until she gets swept up in a missing persons case involving an old acquaintance from University. Some see this show as a critique of so-called millennials, others shun that interpretation. In my opinion this show acts more as a reflection on contemporary characters; it’s too loving towards some of its key players and too engaged in their culture to be a simple critique, but too damning of their efforts to be a celebration of it. Whatever it is, I’m sure everyone can agree that this is smart, funny television that can exist even without social context as it’s own thing.

1) The People vs OJ Simpson

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Like many viewers of The People vs OJ Simpson, I was not alive to witness the original trial. However, the cultural memory has lingered in the imagination long enough for lines like ‘if the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit’ to exist apart from the original tragedy. FX’s show The People vs OJ Simpson brings back the trial to TV screens and is every bit as gripping as what I’ve heard of the original. The cast playing the roles are all superb, even David Schwimmer surprises as Rob Kardashian (more like Ross Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson is the undeniable best performance of the show as Marcia Clark. The show looks at the case from multiple angles, each as intriguing as the last, and slowly guides you into understanding how the shock verdict came to be. This one stands at the top of many a ‘year’s best’ list and for good reason. I wish I could write for longer about this one but I feel I’ve already gone on long enough. This is one of the best TV shows not only of this year, but that I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be remembered as a faithful and telling depiction of tragedy and the role of law in public life.

So that was my top 16 of 2016. Obviously I’ve not seen everything, and if you disagree with any of my suggestions, or want to recommend me something to review, please say in the comments. Additionally, if you want to hear my full thoughts on any of these, drop a comment and I’ll try and write a longer review. Thanks, and here’s to a better 2017!