Subvert Expectations, Rinse, and Repeat: The Good Place’s Premise Problem?

By Katarina O’Dette

This essay contains spoilers for the first three seasons of The Good Place and the entirety of Game of Thrones.

As an ardent fan of The Good Place (2016-Present), I wanted to love the most recent season. But I found myself feeling distant from some of the events of Season Three and struggling to understand my lack of investment in specific areas. How could “Jeremy Bearimy, baby” make me cry so easily while “Michael and I have a plan to save my dad” left me so cold? Writing a review of the second season for Fantastika Journal helped me sort out some of my early thoughts (hence why I have so copiously and egregiously self-cited it here), but I was still left with a question: after taking so many dramatic twists and turns, did The Good Place have a premise problem?

Consistency has historically been a key concern for television. In Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box (2006), writer Alex Epstein goes so far as to call it the “essence of a successful TV show,” arguing that “[a]udiences tune in every week to see compelling stories told in a consistent way” (4). The amount of anticipated consistency varies: some series, particularly episodic ones, are consistent across many aspects of character, plot, narrative, theme, and tone, while others have greater variety on an episode-to-episode basis. The degree of consistency and the elements that are expected to remain consistent are specific to a series: as Jason Mittell notes in Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015), every series has its own intrinsic narrative norms which viewers come to learn and understand as part of its style and storytelling approach (168). Consistency is important even to anthology series that might appear to be built on variety. Consider, for example, Black Mirror (2011-Present) and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964): both series share a mission of interrogating human behaviour and a ‘variety pack’ approach to genre, plot, setting, character, and premise. But producers could not switch an episode of The Twilight Zone for an episode of Black Mirror because each series has a consistent tone and theme that characterises their respective episodes and differentiates the series from one another. The new Twilight Zone (2019-Present) is already being presented in promotional discourses as “Black Mirror for optimists”: in spite of the variety that each series promises, they also promise a semi-consistent thematic take on humanity and an overall feeling that they want viewers to leave each episode with (Reilly, Refinery29 n.p.). These consistent elements are often what we as viewers invest in – the aspects that incentivise us to return hour after hour and provide us with a vague sense of what to expect when we turn on an episode.

If a series is too inconsistent, viewers may be disincentivised from tuning in (imagine a Black Mirror that alternates bleak thrillers with romantic comedies – it would be difficult to be ‘in the mood’ for an episode with such variety). However, too much repetition can lead a series to feel stale. If every episode is identical, viewers have no incentive to watch more than one. Maintaining the balance between consistency and innovation is, as Jeffery Sconce in puts it, “an age-old narratological challenge in series production” (Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition 100). The solution, at least historically, has been what Sean O’Sullivan terms the “same-but-different production model of serial television” (“Space Ships” 118). Audiences are accustomed to this same-but-different model, particularly in American television which has become (sometimes unfairly) infamous for repetitive longevity. So, when a series does subvert an element previously assumed to be consistent, it generates conversation, excitement, and that all-important buzz. These subversions can serve as watercooler moments, encouraging prolonged engagement from viewers and pressuring non-viewers into watching so that they can participate in these discussions.

 

The Good Place’s Premise Parade

Consider the end of The Good Place’s first season, the Holy Motherforking Shirtballs moment: after spending the entire season believing that they are in the Good Place (a non-denominational equivalent of heaven), our human protagonists learn that they have actually been in the Bad Place all along, being manipulated into torturing one another. This moment is not simply shocking because it is unexpected: it is a fundamental upheaval of what audiences expect from a half-hour American comedy series. As I note in my review of Season Two, “viewers, whether or not they are conscious of it, are accustomed to knowing a series’ premise after the pilot, and while dramas […] have changed premises, it is significantly less common for comedies” (178-179). A surprise premise change serves, for Mittell, as a narrative special effect, a moment that “[calls] attention to the narration’s construction and [asks] us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off”; by inverting the intrinsic norms of the series, writers “create pleasurable moments of confusion, surprise, and twisty trickery by violating these norms” (43-44, 168). Viewers are shocked, not simply because it is a shocking revelation, but because it reveals that we were watching a different premise than we thought. The twist invites us to re-watch the series, marvelling at how we were tricked and enjoying the new layers revealed by the true premise. This generated significant buzz for the series, encouraging viewers to draw new people to the series with a coy ‘and let me know when you finish Season One so we can talk about that finale.’

However, the subversion of the premise also caused viewers to doubt whether the series could reconfigure itself. Fans sent letters and tweets to the writers questioning whether the series could sustain beyond a season, and even actors like Jameela Jamil were initially sceptical of how the show would continue (Jackson, “Ch. 16”). This was not helped by the fact that the Second Season takes three episodes to settle into its new premise. As I observe in my review:

[F]or some viewers, having this uncertainty [over what the premise is] extended over one hour of screen time is an uncomfortable experience that reflects poorly on the series, as its writers are expected to clearly and urgently guide viewers toward the new premise. (180)

After the first three episodes, the premise officially switches from ‘Eleanor tries to stay in the Good Place’ to ‘Team Cockroach tries to find a way to escape the Bad Place and get to the Good Place.’ However, the Second Season does not stay stable for long: the demons reveal the Bad Place ruse, forcing the humans and Michael to go on the run and the viewers into a new premise when the humans are rebooted on Earth, alive again in the final episode of the season.

Season Three transitions through the largest number of premises, emphasised by the number of group names that the protagonists cycle through. The last episode of Season Two and the first three of Season Three centre on the Brainy Bunch trying, without their knowledge, to earn their places in the Good Place. Once they discover the truth about the afterlife, they are no longer able to earn points and the premise temporarily becomes the Soul Squad attempting to help their loved ones get into the Good Place. This premise then gives way to the Soul Squad attempting to reform the entire Good Place/Bad Place system via a new experimental neighbourhood. This is the premise that will, presumably, start off Season Four.

 

Serialised Subversions

New premises are not problems in and of themselves. Series change and evolve the longer they are on air, and even gradual shifts can sometimes create a new premise. The non-Fantastika Parks and Recreation (2009-2015), which is originally about a parks and recreations department in local government trying to fill a pit, slowly evolves into being about a U.S. National Parks department and national political campaigns. In other series, there may be a single drastic premise change. Alias (2001-2006) starts off being about a spy who is a double-agent by night, postgraduate student by day. In a surprising episode in the middle of Season Two, less than halfway through the series’ run, the terrorist organisation that Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is pretending to work for is dismantled, rendering her a single agent. Two episodes later, she graduates and her attempts to balance civilian life with her job disappear from the series. Though these core elements of the original premise are rather abruptly removed, the new premise of Sydney the Central Intelligence Agency spy remains throughout the rest of the series. Other series may change the specific ways in which their premise manifests without changing its foundation. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) is about a girl who tries to balance her high school life with her destiny to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness. Though the forces change, with a new ‘Big Bad’ cycled in every season, her destined fight never stops. And though Buffy eventually swaps high school for college and later young adulthood, the tension of trying to balance these ‘normal’ life responsibilities with her calling never drops.

What makes The Good Place stand out is how drastic the premise changes are and how frequently they happen. Series creator Michael Schur has said that “this show has to be endlessly compelling and full of momentum in order for it to feel vital and interesting,” noting that the number of shifts arise because “premises, in TV especially, burn off real quick” and can leave audiences bored (Jackson, “Ch. 1”). As co-executive producer Megan Amram jokes, “we’re constantly trying to blow through whole seasons of story in one episode” (Jackson, “Ch. 16”). While this is a notable, much-discussed, and often-praised aspect of the series, the number of drastic changes can inhibit viewers’ ability to invest in any particular premise, which becomes even more noticeable in this most recent season after three successive changes. This is particularly conspicuous because of the amount of screen time devoted to transitioning viewers into what turn out to be short-lived premises. Season Two was an early indication, taking three episodes to get to the season’s premise. More recently, the entire episode “Jeremy Bearimy” focuses on letting the characters and viewers mourn the loss of the previous premise and transitioning us to the new one of saving loved ones’ souls, which we then only spend two episodes on. For a medium like television, which can demand so many hours of a viewer’s time, recipients like to know, to a certain extent, what will remain consistent and what will not. Viewers want to know what to invest their emotions in, and can dislike realising that they have misinvested in something that only survives on screen a short time.

What can be particularly problematic about this rotating door is that, if succeeding premises do not have equivalent, if not higher, stakes, it invites nostalgia for previous iterations, which further disengages audiences from the current incarnation. (Never do I miss the original premise as much as I do when the stakes are ‘will the group save the soul of Donkey Doug, a short-lived, rather unlikeable character?’ – the stakes are so low that the characters themselves abandon their attempts two-thirds of the way through the episode.) O’Sullivan claims that this is a common complaint of third seasons, as “the gulf between the cherished old and the disappointing new [turns] into a dangerous chasm” (“Old, New”, 118). When viewers have strong nostalgia for previous seasons, they can struggle to feel invested in the present. Not only is it hard to engage with the current premise because viewers do not believe that it will remain stable, but also because it encourages viewers to point to earlier seasons as being purer and more engaging.

 

Risky Repetition

This is not simply an issue for premise changes. Any series that repeatedly subverts audience expectations in a drastic manner can eventually lose the acclaim of doing something fresh and surprising, and may instead risk weakening audience investment in that particular element. Alias became infamous/absurd for so frequently bringing characters back from the dead that there was little audience investment in character deaths because it was highly likely that they would make a ‘surprise’ reappearance through a highly implausible series of circumstances (sometimes with a vaguely Science Fictional explanation). While early character non-death reveals were exciting and surprising, there was soon little impact from character deaths, and it became more surprising when a character stayed dead.

Game of Thrones [GoT] had the opposite problem, as both George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-Present) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019) play with audience expectations of a relatively stable cast of characters. Ned Stark is initially presented as the main protagonist, so when his life is in danger, audiences expect him to wiggle free as protagonists do. Series co-creator David Benioff emphasises this part of the appeal for both the source material and the adaptation, as “it leads to a story that is so much more suspenseful because you truly have no idea what is going to happen and who is going to survive” (Hibberd n.p.). While initially this refusal to be precious with character lives or follow extrinsic norms about the mortality of protagonists gave GoT prestige and a reputation for being subversive, it became so frequent that it led to a plethora of memes in which viewers beg for just their one favourite character to survive. Being invested in the continued existence of multiple characters on GoT was a recipe for heartbreak, so part of viewing the series was limiting investment to just a handful of favourites. As the final season aired, I pared my character investment down to one: this did not mean I did not care about other characters, but that I had pre-mourned the deaths of all but my one favourite and therefore felt less invested in their fates. There were many reasons why the season left me feeling cold, but the defensive apathy I had carefully cultivated after seasons of subversive character deaths contributed to my emotional distance from both characters and narrative events.

Fantastika texts need to be particularly cautious when navigating serialised subversions because there is potential to introduce shocking new twists to the viewers’ fundamental understanding of the series’ storyworld. The Good Place’s first premise twist rewrites our understanding of the Good Place and the Bad Place, the second twist rewrites our understanding of the relationship between life and death, and the third season’s several twists rest on technicalities about how the storyworld operates. So far, this has not proven to be disruptive, but rewriting reality at the drop of a hat can strain a Fantastika television series’ ability to balance same-but-different: it can be exciting to reveal a new or surprising use of the storyworld’s rules, but it also risks a series jumping the shark and abandoning the logic by which viewers understand a series to operate. For many viewers, gaining mastery of the storyworld’s logic is one of the major pleasures of the genres; if viewers feel that they can never fully understand the rules because they are constantly changing, they can lose investment.

 

Second-Chance Solutions

The fix for a series that consistently subverts one element is not necessarily for it to simply stop subverting, as this can similarly disrupt audience expectations, particularly if this subversion has become part of the series’ brand. Think of GoT’s seventh season: down to a skeleton cast, the series has fewer characters to kill and more of the remainder are major players who need to survive to the final season. Jon Snow’s revival in the season premiere was anticipated by many viewers, but in a series built on the sudden murders of characters and the consequences of their deaths, seeing a murder undone without consequences can provoke eye-rolls. Similarly eye-roll worthy is Jon’s development of that inevitable protagonist plot armour that protects him from the Night King in “Beyond the Wall,” with a last-minute rescue that early GoT positions itself as being so against. In a series like Alias, The Good Place, or Buffy, this moment would provoke at most a grumble about unrealistic clichés. But when an element of the series is subverted so often that the subversion itself becomes part of the series’ consistency, abandoning this process can prompt backlash. Case in point: the amount of criticism heaped on GoT’s final season for not killing enough major characters. Subvert the intrinsic norms of your series once, shock the viewer. Subvert it back again, risk the angry internet thinkpiece about the declining quality of your series.

However, the potential disruption that subversion can cause to viewer investment fails to account for a key part of television watching: the re-watch. As I suggest in my review of The Good Place:

[T]his discomfort [at not knowing the premise] does not remain on a re-watch, suggesting that once viewers know that there will be a new premise as enjoyable as the original, they do not mind premise-less episodes. The discomfort is potentially more reflective of how accustomed viewers are to constantly knowing a series’ premise, rather than an actual weakness of the season. (180)

When we re-watch a series, we know where to invest our emotions, because we know what lies ahead and, in particular, which aspects of episodes will be relevant in the season arc and the overall series. Subversions are less disruptive to the overall viewing experience than they could be when they occur in series that encourage re-watching. Not the kind of re-watching that causes outcry every time Netflix is about to remove Friends, but the kind of re-watching that invites a re-understanding of the series. As Mittell argues, “today’s complex narratives are designed for a discerning viewer not only to pay close attention to once but to rewatch in order to notice the depth of references, to marvel at displays of craft and continuities, and to appreciate details that require the liberal use of pause and rewind” (38). Series like The Good Place and Game of Thrones encourage such re-watching, with the twists and turns demanding that we revisit earlier episodes and see how the subversions were set up. Our investment shifts: while we may care even less about characters and plotlines that we now know to be short-lived, we care more about the larger stories being told and even the process of story making itself. Have you ever shown someone a beloved series for the first time, and watched them become invested in plot lines and characters that you, the seasoned viewer, know will not be important in the overall series? Meanwhile, you become invested in seeing the seeds laid for plot points that you know lie ahead. While I was not personally invested in GoT’s Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), on a re-watch, I appreciate how his fourth season death sets up dramatic twists in Seasons Five and Seven (RIP Myrcella, Tyene, and the final shreds of Cersei’s soul). And while “Jeremy Bearimy” sets up the shortest-lived (and least interesting) premise of The Good Place so far, on a re-watch, I appreciate how it enables a key motivation switch for the protagonists with series-long consequences: from focusing on saving their own souls to trying to save all other humans from an eternity of torture. This motivation switch has outlived the premise that it was a vehicle for, shifting the focus of the characters, the series, and even the viewers. On a re-watch, we understand the larger significance of dramatic subversions as cogs in a bigger narrative machine, rather than simply as shocking moments.

So, does The Good Place have a premise problem? It may depend on how many times you watch it.

 

About the Author 

Katarina O’Dette is a Fantasy writer and first-year Film and Television Studies PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her research interests include worldbuilding, narratology, and Fantasy television. She holds a BFA in television writing from the University of Southern California and a MLitt in Fantasy from the University of Glasgow. In addition to earning responsible degrees, she serves on the organising committee of GIFCon, and has led a research station on Harry Potter at the Hunterian Museum and worked as a Television Academy Foundation intern in the writers’ room of Syfy’s Haven. Her work can be found in From Glasgow to Saturn, Fantastika Journal, Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies, and the forthcoming A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction

 

Read more of Katarina's work:

 

Works Cited

Epstein, Alex. Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box. Holt, 2006.

Hibberd, James. “Game of Thrones Death.” Entertainment Weekly, 12 June 2011. <https://ew.com/article/2011/06/12/game-of-thrones-death/>.

Jackson, Marc Evan, host. “Ch. 1: Mike Schur.” The Good Place: The Podcast, NBC, iTunes app, 1 June 2018.

---. “Ch. 16: Jameela Jamil, Actress | Megan Amram, Writer.” The Good Place: The Podcast, NBC, iTunes app, 17 August 2018.

Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York University, 2015.

O’Dette, Katarina. “Holy Motherforking Shirtballs: The Retrospective Hilarity of the Afterlife.” Review of The Good Place, created by Michael Schur. Fantastika Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 179-182.

O’Sullivan, Sean. “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction.” Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, edited by David Lavery, I.B. Tauris, 2006, pp. 115-129.

---. “Space Ships and Time Machines: Mad Men and the Serial Condition.” Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary R. Edgerton, I.B. Tauris, 2011, pp. 115-130.

Reilly, Kaitlin. “The Twilight Zone Promises To Be The Black Mirror For Optimists.” Refinery29, 29 March 2019. <https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2019/03/228357/twilight-zone-like-black-mirror-jordan-peele>.

Sconce, Jeffrey. “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, edited by Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, Duke University Press, 2004, pp. 93-112.

 

 

 

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