Congratulations to last Thursday’s season finale of “The Good Place” season for forcing me to do something that I haven’t done since “Mad Men” went off the air – to sit down and watch a scripted, ad-supported TV show live.
It was a little weird watching TV the old-fashioned way – yelling out to my wife at 8:30, “Hey come on, ‘The Good Place’ is starting in two minutes.” And sitting through all those commercials?
Although watching that episode live was a throw-back to the days of “Must See TV,” the series itself offers a glimpse into the way TV might be headed, both in terms of content and as a business model.
“The Good Place” is a show about a shallow and selfish young woman played by Kristen Bell who dies in an accident and wakes up in a heaven-like world called The Good Place. It’s immediately apparent that she didn’t earn her way to a happy after-life and season one depicts her efforts to prevent the community overseer, played by Ted Danson, from discovering the mistake and sending her to The Bad Place.
The series itself is a joke-a-minute sitcom with a wide range of pop culture references in the style of “30 Rock” that seems to have walked into a freshman seminar on moral philosophy and ethics. The series is essentially a meditation on who deserves to be in heaven and what it means to be good. What role does circumstance play? In flashbacks we see that Kristin Bell’s character had a lousy childhood. How much should that count? And what if you’re doing good only because you expect a reward of some kind?
The series is liberally sprinkled with references to philosophers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Kierkegaard and Sartre. A whole episode, for example, revolves around “The Trolley Problem” in which a runaway train is heading for a group of workers on the track who will all be killed, unless you throw a switch to send it on to a side track where it will kill only one person. The dilemma is: do you let numerous people die by doing nothing or actively murder a completely uninvolved bystander? Never saw that on a sitcom before.
As delightful and thoughtful as the series is, it only has niche appeal, averaging about a million live viewers an episode and attracting just over one percent of all viewers in that all-important 18-49 demographic. Numbers like that would have once consigned a TV series to The Very Bad Place.
But here’s where “The Good Place” is showing the way to the future. It’s really a Netflix show that happens to be on NBC. Each of its two seasons features 13 heavily serialized episodes. On most sitcoms, each episode has a new story with a couple of subplots for the supporting characters. This allows you to watch and enjoy every episode in isolation. On “The Good Place” there are no subplots – just one story that starts in episode one and continues straight through the entire series. You can’t watch just one episode mid-season – you’d never get the jokes.
What’s also revolutionary about “The Good Place” story-line is the whiplash you get from the show’s constant reinvention. You think it’s about one thing, only to find that it’s about something else and then quickly discover that it’s about something else altogether. The famous surprise at the end of Season One rebooted the whole series, which was followed with three or four more reboots during Season Two.
The series is the creation of Mike Schur, who co-created three other great comedies, “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine Nine.” These are famously sweet and humane sitcoms in an era of snark and vulgarity. What a gift it would be to American culture if the critical success of “The Good Place” were to provide a model for the rest of network television.
That’s a big challenge. Any network that fills its line-up with 13-week serialized series needs to green-light twice as many shows as it used to in the old days when sitcoms had 26-week episodes. And how often does a talent like Mike Schur come along anyway? It’s a lot easier to produce a standard workplace or family sitcom where a writer’s room can grind out obvious and predictable set-up/joke, set-up/joke narratives.
But here’s what “The Good Place” business model has going for it; you can monetize quality over the long-term. Many once-popular but mediocre sitcoms are long since forgotten while the classics survive. NBC is certainly still reaping financial rewards from timeless series like “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” Season One of “The Good Place” was trending on Netflix less than a year after it went off the air and the same will be true of Season Two. “The Good Place” demonstrates that good television can be good business.