I spent many weekends of my childhood watching and re-watching Monty Python & The Holy Grail with audio commentary. Like all little girls do. And I’ll never forget one story that John Cleese related about making that movie. Holy Grail was co-directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, who were both obsessed with getting the visual style of the movie right. They once spent an hour trying to get mist to pass in front of the road where the “bring out your dead!” scene happens, doing take after take. Eventually Cleese got fed up, and started yelling at Jones. Was the mist funny, he demanded? How does this serve the comedy? If the scene is funny, we should move on, even if it’s not pretty. As an eight-year-old, I thought this was so wise. Comedy should be funny, not visually engaging.
But what if the mist can be funny? A strong aesthetic can actually make jokes funnier, can add to a sense of character or world building. Films like those of Wes Anderson or TV shows like The Mighty Boosh are known almost as much for their sets, costumes, and soundtracks as they are for their jokes. Mike Schur’s new half-hour comedy The Good Place is not as strikingly styled as those examples, but it is doing some very subtle – and very good – storytelling with its visual design.
The Good Place is about the afterlife. Apparently, you are judged for every action you take in life. The points are tallied at the moment of your death. An infinitesimally small percentage of humans go to The Good Place after they die. Everyone else goes to The Bad Place, which is presumably very bad. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who made it into The Good Place by mistake. We’re treated to flashbacks of Eleanor’s life (I can’t tell you how happy I am to see Kristen Bell doing wig-heavy flashbacks again), and apparently she was an absurdly bad person. Rather than own up and face The Bad Place, she tries to learn how to be good. Needless to say, wackiness ensues.
It’s very hard to get into The Good Place. Abe Lincoln is the only US president to make it, and Florence Nightingale didn’t quite make the grade. All artists go to The Bad Place. It seems like a throwaway joke in the pilot, but the more I see of The Good Place, the more I think artists just wouldn’t like it there. The Good Place is divided up into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is designed to be paradise to its residence, the most pleasant place to spend eternity. Eleanor’s neighborhood looks like The Grove, the open-air shopping mall where Mario Lopez shoots Extra. It is banal, and pastel, and full of frozen yogurt shops. Every store has a pun name (a restaurant named The Good Plate, for example), and every sign is in Futura. “Futura has an appearance of efficiency and forwardness,” according to Wikipedia. It’s the font of IKEA, a font designed to sell you on a perfectly designed life. But like IKEA furniture, The Good Place is nowhere near as sturdy as it wants you to believe.
Eleanor does not fit in the saccharine niceness of her neighborhood. Bell is always dressed in dingy browns and gray, while her neighbors look like an ad for Banana Republic’s spring line. Everyone, except a buddhist monk from Taiwan, wears pastel western clothes. Why? We know there are people from all over the world in The Good Place, yet they all dress like they’re from Connecticut. It’s unnerving, at least to someone as cynical as Eleanor.
Stylistically, The Good Place owes a lot to The Prisoner, a sci-fi mystery show that ran in England in the 1960s. The Prisoner was a show about a man who did some manner of spy stuff, was kidnapped, and imprisoned on an island where he was closely monitored and interrogated at every turn. It’s a much weirder show than that synopsis makes it seem. For example, there’s a bubble that eats people. Comedy nerds might recognize it from the season 11 Simpsons episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.”
The Island on The Prisoner is designed to look like a British seaside town. Everyone is outfitted in British upper class clothes of the 1920s. There are lots of conversations in gardens over tea, conversations about escaping The Island whose tension is juxtaposed by the genteel setting. The sunny facade is one of the means The Island uses to control its prisoners.
Like The Good Place, The Prisoner was an ontological mystery, a story where the characters don’t know where they are or how they got there. On The Good Place, everyone knows how they got to the afterlife. They died, duh. But trying to figure out the system that sorts people into good and bad, the limits of the neighborhood, and how a mistake like Eleanor’s inclusion could happen are big parts of the show. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger, one that usually hints at the greater mystery that surrounds the characters. Other examples of ontological mysteries include several episodes of The Twilight Zone, Groundhog Day, and of course Lost.
In an interview with The AV Club, Mike Schur said he got tips on plotting his show from Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof, and it shows. The Good Place is essentially a comedy version of Lost. A group of strangers are brought together. These strangers have to coexist in a semi-magical setting, and never have contact with anyone from their old lives. Characters’ backstories are elaborated on through flashbacks. There are unseen forces pulling the strings, a lot of talk about right and wrong, and a polar bear. OK, there’s no polar bear on The Good Place, but the first shot of the pilot is someone’s eyes opening, just like Lost. This is not a criticism. Lost tackled themes of morality and community more than almost any show in recent memory. This is the exact same project as The Good Place. It only makes sense that there would be stylistic similarities when the two shows were both concerned with essential questions about good, evil, and the self in relation to others. Or “The Others,” in the case of Lost.
The visual style of The Good Place not only serves its story, it serves the jokes. This is a show with jokes! Since The Good Place never feels natural, The Good Place doesn’t have to be naturalistic. We never second guess that people in this world say things as absurd as “First of all, throwing sand is an excellent way to put out a vodka fire.” The look of the show is essential to moments like this working, in the same way that 30 Rock’s score heightened its screwball sensibility. The fake cobblestone streets of Eleanor’s neighborhood tell you “this place is fake,” which builds the mystery while simultaneously reminding you that you’re watching a TV show. It’s why you can watch a show all about the afterlife without constantly pondering your own death. In a TV landscape focused on making things seem as real as possible, a little artifice can be a wonderful thing.