In the first episode of NBC’s comedy The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) learns that she has died and made it into a heaven-like afterlife known as the “Good Place,” but knows she doesn’t belong. With the help of her assigned “soul mate” Chidi, a former moral philosophy professor, Eleanor works to become a better person and earn her spot while hiding her true, somewhat morally bankrupt disposition from town architect Michael (Ted Danson), informational delivery system Janet and the other town residents—including the philanthropist Tahani, and Jason, a DJ from Florida masquerading as a silent Buddhist monk.
The success of The Good Place relies on its flawed but lovable characters, charming humor and, especially, its game-changing twists. The second season finale recently aired on February 1st, so you have plenty of time to learn from the series’ successes while waiting for the third season to premiere in the fall. Below are some hands-on lessons you can learn from the show’s terrific writing.
Warning: This post contains spoilers.
1. Specificity creates humor.
Sitcoms are generally characterized by their situational humor, and The Good Place provides laughs aplenty based on the situations in which the characters find themselves, as well as the general afterlife premise. But where The Good Place really shines is through its tight dialogue, which helps build the world and develop its characters.
For example, viewers can’t help but feel surprised and delighted each time socialite Tahani’s constant name-dropping adds another gem to her wide circle of friends, as in the following lines:
“I haven’t been this upset since my good friend Taylor was rudely upstaged by my other friend Kanye, who was defending my best friend, Beyoncé.”
“Quvenzhané Wallis and Stephen Hawking in the same room discussing me? Guess they must’ve made up.”
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Pippa Middleton right before we went paragliding in Gibraltar: Let’s go.”
Additionally, showrunner Michael Schur’s vehement dislike of pineapple on pizza pops up through multiple references to the “evil” of this food choice. (Note: It’s fine to eat pineapple on your pizza, and it’s fine not to like it. Live and let live, people.) This supposed evil is humorous because it’s so specific, so seemingly minor, and dropped so casually throughout the two seasons that it can’t help but elicit a laugh when it pops up.
Lesson: You don’t have to be mean or paint in broad strokes to be funny.2. Do unexpected things with classic tropes.
2. Ethics aren’t always boring.
The premise of this show—in which characters try to become better people after they’ve died by studying ethics—isn’t immediately compelling on the surface. (Did anyone else fall asleep while reading Kant for a college class?) Yet The Good Place references Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Kant, plus more modern names like Judith Thompson, Philippa Foot and T. M. Scanlon, to comedic effect—in a straightforward way that anyone can understand.
Many of these references are tangential; for example, Eleanor convinces Chidi to set aside his moral absolutism in favor of moral particularism for the sake of their team, and viewers can clearly follow what they’re talking about.
One episode, titled “The Trolley Problem,” is devoted almost entirely to exploring the ethical implications of the titular conundrum. All of the characters—human and non-human—end the episode with a deeper understanding of the complexity of humanity. But the ethical questions also add dramatic stakes to the overarching plot and make it one of the funniest episodes in a very funny show.
Lesson: Ground your humor in something deeper to add a sense of richness and complexity. Just make sure you explain complicated subjects in a way that doesn’t cause your readers’ eyes to glaze over or pull them out of the story.
3. Big twists create buzz and keep your audience hooked.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but it’s worth repeating. In The Good Place, each episode ends with a twist, compelling viewers to eagerly hit the “Watch Next” button (much like how a chapter ending in a cliffhanger entices a reader to continue onto the next page). But the show’s biggest game changer occurs in the first season finale, when it is revealed (spoiler) that the characters are actually in the “Bad Place,” put there to torture each other. (As stated so succinctly by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.”).
The Good Place received decently strong reviews throughout its first season, but the critical response and audience buzz shot way up at this reveal.
Significantly, while this twist comes as a shock, suddenly things start to make more sense. Of course Tahani, whose philanthropic motivations lay in her own self-interest, doesn’t belong in the Good Place. Of course Chidi, who is so paralyzed by his ethical deliberations that he can’t make simple decisions, doesn’t belong there either. And of course Michael, who spends the whole season poking at characters’ insecurities and pitting them against each other, orchestrated the whole thing.
Lesson: Surprise readers by changing things up, but don’t cheat them; lay the foundations for the twist early on and throughout your story.
4. Don’t settle for mediocrity.
In the second season finale, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani make their case to an impartial judge: They, along with the demon Michael, have all improved as people since their death—and thus deserve to go to the Good Place (for real). The judge first plans to send each of the humans to a separate “Medium Place”—which may have been a fine, interesting twist to set up for next season, but doesn’t necessarily provide much space for conflict or character development.
Eventually, the group lands on a new solution (again—spoiler): The humans’ memories will be wiped and, instead of dying, each will be saved before death, providing them with the opportunity to become better people or prove that they truly did belong in the Bad Place. It can be hard to be a good person in our world, so there will be plenty of chances for them to make good and bad decisions.
Lesson: You may have ideas for where to drive your plot, and that’s great. But don’t stop at the first idea; keep thinking until you’ve brainstormed many potential paths—and then narrow them down to the true winner.