The Good Place

I was going to write about Messiah, the Netflix miniseries, but with the phenomenal NBC series, The Good Place, coming to an end, I felt compelled to speak a little about that. I’ve been contemplating exactly what to write about this show, and, honestly, it’s not easy. Mainly because I like this show so forking much. I don’t, in general, like sit-coms. I’ve been watching TV since the 70’s, so I’ve seen the entire run of M.A.S.H., of All in the Family, of Happy Days (yes, I saw them “jump the shark”) and the list goes on and on. Sit-coms have barely changed at all. I’m willing to bet I could find jokes and storylines from The Dick Van Dyke show or Gilligan’s Island that play almost verbatim on Last Man Standing or Modern Family. Don’t believe me? There’s an entire website dedicated to listing all of these worn out, over used tropes. With few exceptions, sit-coms are lowest form of television, their position only recently usurped by the worst of the worst, reality based shows.

I started watching The Good Place on the recommendation of a good friend of mine, who shares my love of television, and even then I was hesitant. But, what the hell, it’s only a 30 minute show. How bad could it be? By the end of that half an hour pilot episode, I was hooked and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and see it. See it now and let me tell you that the less you know about it, the better. The story follows four individuals that have died and found themselves in “the good place”. Elenor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars and Frozen) is a basic girl from Arizona and the first character we are introduced to. Along the way, we meet Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper of Midsommer and the Electric Company), a philosophy professor from Senegal, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil of Freshly Squeezed and The Misery Index), a British socialite, and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto of Supernatural and iZombie), a Taiwanese monk who has taken a vow of silence. These four souls are guided in the afterlife by Michael (Ted Danson of Cheers and Becker), an “Architect” of the good place and Janet (D’Arcy Carden of Broad City and Barry), who is sort of a programmed guide to help the humans. Not a Robot!

The cast is great, each one portraying their character with enough strength to express their individuality and not just become part of the group. I’m not going to weep once the show is over (well, maybe just a little), but I’ve really developed an affection for these fictional characters, as only the best shows can inspire one to do (I’m looking at you, Buffy Summers!). The writing is smart, weaving philosophical concepts into the jokes, without being pedantic. It’s heart-warming without being sappy and deep (we’re pondering the freakin’ afterlife here) without being cerebral. While the Christian framework from which the story takes place is thinly veiled, it doesn’t let itself get bogged down in religion. God and the Devil are never mentioned, angels and demons are mostly referred to as Architects, Heaven and Hell as the Good Place and Bad Place respectively. Even purgatory gets included as the Medium Place. One of the reasons I didn’t mind bumping my piece on the show Messiah is because the Good Place fits in with the whole theme of using religion as a major plot device, though they have chosen the path of comedy, rather than drama.

As a visual artist, I have to give a special shout out to whoever did the sets and costumes on The Good Place. They are spectacular, some of them being so over the top that I was distracted from what was actually going on. The show itself was created by Michael Schur, who also did The Office and Parks and Recreation, so the type of comedy is really no surprise. In researching the show to write this piece, I learned that he based a number of the premises and cliffhangers on the show Lost, which came as a total surprise to me. There is nothing I don’t love about this show, including, unfortunately, its all-to-short, four season run. In the wise words of Elenor, “Every human is a little bit sad, all the time, because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” While I am sad to see it go, the ending is one of the things that makes this show so special.

Evil

So I’ve just finished binge watching the CBS horror, Evil. It was a fun watch that I never would’ve found had they not put up all 10 episodes for free on their website. The trailer they released seemed a bit corny and I’ve long since given up on most network television. I know, I know, they occasionally come out with a Hannibal or a Marvel’s Agents of Shield, but, for the most part, it’s all Two and a Half Men and The Bachelor. But I’m always looking for something new to watch and there are few shows that I won’t at least try. I hadn’t heard much about this show, so when they put the first 10 up for free, it wreaked of desperation, but the ploy worked. The show was a very pleasant surprise and now I’m hooked, so, bravo to whoever made that marketing decision.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the best description I can offer is that it’s a Catholic X-files that balances a big-bad of the week style with a longer story arc, and does so quite satisfyingly. The first protagonist we meet is Dr. Kristin Bouchard (Katja Herbers – Manhattan, West World), a forensic psychologist working for the courts to assess the mental statuses of the accused. While interviewing a serial killer, she meets David Acosta (Mike Colter – Luke Cage, The Defenders, Jessica Jones), a former war journalist, now a priest in training. He works for the Catholic church, investigating extraordinary occurrences, such as miracles and possessions, for the presence of the infernal or divine. Aiding in these investigations is Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi – The Daily Show, The Brink), a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic and tech nerd.

I was a bit shocked at how much I liked this show, at how much I look forward to the next episode, now that I’m following it on the weekly. I find the characters likable, fleshed out and the cast already very comfortable in their roles. The horror elements are amazing! I mean, they’re no Channel Zero, but for network, I’m pretty fucking impressed. The writing itself is spot on. The elements of mystery draw me in and I actually care about what happens to the characters.

I gotta give a special shout out to Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest), who plays the vile, Leland Townsend. He played a bad guy on Lost, but, holy fuck, is he evil on this show! Slimy, hateful and all around misanthropic; Mr. Emerson, if you are reading this, I have no idea what you are like in real life, but your fantastic acting makes me want to punch you right in the face. Bravo! And to the FX crew, I found the demon, George, genuinely unsettling and felt anxious whenever he was on screen. Noice!

What I find most interesting about this show is (or what I am assuming is) its intended audience. I was raised VERY Catholic and I’m not sure this show would have the same impact on someone without religion. There’s no ambiguity on this show. There’s no X-Files style of “was that really an alien, or was it swamp gas and we may never know”. Here there is evil with a capitol E. The supernatural exists, the devil is real and those who are too dismissive of God will open the door to demons who will drag us all to Hell. There is a holy war going on and it will determine the fate of the human race. That’s not to say there isn’t a role for the skeptic in this world. A scientific mind and critical eye are valued here a utilized liberally throughout the show. The characters are not blind followers, but intelligent individuals whose lives drive them to constantly reevaluate their beliefs. It’s a show that allows for a world in which faith and a belief in God do not negate intelligence and a reasonable mind. That being said, when it comes down to a choice between faith and reason on this show, faith wins every time.

I don’t believe I’m alone in my appreciation for this show; it’s already been greenlit for a season 2. I’ve just started the Netflix series, Messiah, which I also hope to write about, and I’m wondering if we’re seeing a trend towards using faith and religion as a major plot device. And not the black and white battle of one faith verses another, but the constant battle we personally wage to stay true to ourselves and what we believe in. It’s not always violent and never clear cut, but it’s oh so relatable to so many people. The temptation could be as subtle as a backyard BBQ on a day of fasting to flirting with a married coworker, but to those who temptation has deep, cultural connotations, this could be as dangerous as any bette noir. I’m not sure where such stories will take us, but, for the moment, I am loving this fresh direction. 

Television

 

My guilty pleasure is television. Should I feel guilty? It seems that so many people are down on television, but it makes no sense to me. I’ll ask someone if they’ve seen West World and they automatically respond with, I don’t watch television, and then they go on about the YouTube channel they’ve been binging. It’s the same goddamn thing, people! And besides, no one watches “TV” anymore. It’s all streaming these days. 

Sorry, I digress. I wanted to talk about television. Truth be told, it’s far more than a guilty pleasure. I quite literally grew up with it. In my increasingly vague memories of childhood, the television was always on, a constant backdrop to any other family drama that may be occurring at the time. Weaned on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, I raced home to the joy of after school cartoons and couldn’t wait for more on Saturday mornings. I learned about society and interpersonal relations from Three’s Company and the Love Boat, learned about the legal system from both Columbo and the Dukes of Hazard and became a Trekkie the moment I saw the Enterprise. I gorge myself on pop culture like tribbles wolf down poisoned Klingon wheat. 

Why should I talk about this on my art blog? Well, because I watch videos whenever I do art. Some artists listen to music, I have gotten in the habit of watching multiple movies and television shows while I spend hours at work on my art. The few people I do open up to about my dirty little habits are astounded at how many things I watch. I’m not entirely uncultured about this. I do love the podcast, The Daily, from the New York Times and PBS Newshour is a regular in my YouTube feed. That being said, I have a near constant mental diet of pop culture and I’m probably going to talk about it, so consider yourself warned. 

My tastes run decidedly towards nerd fodder. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror are my mainstays. I do love me a good justice boner, so Law & Order, Monk, Psych and the like will always scratch that itch. My wife is somewhat dismayed by how much I love Matlock, which will only get worse once I start wearing the same white suits he does and affecting a southern accent. And I do like the occasional documentary regarding the political or scientific. Dramas bore me to tears; I came from a big family, I was a doctor and I’m an artist, I am familiar with drama, I don’t need to watch it on TV. Why reality shows are a thing are beyond me. I can remember when the show Survivor first aired. There was so much hype around it that I took the time to watch. I thought it was so bad that I couldn’t last out the hour and thought to myself, “Wow, that program format will never last.” Oh, how wrong I was. 

While I started talking about television, I’ve already mentioned both movies and podcasts, so it would be closer to the truth to say that I am an absolute media junkie. The heart of the matter is that these little entertainment nuggets are a shockingly big part of my life and sometimes I will get obsessed with something and I’m going to want to write about it. And, if I do, in all likelihood, I’m going to publish it on my website and you’re going to have to read it. So, I’m apologizing in advance.