Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

the good place the answer daniel schofield valeria migliassi collins ted danson william jackson harper michael chidi best of 2019 top ten review

For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast. Not only the most attractive ensemble this side of Riverdale, the cast of The Good Place are surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Why Community is the perfect show to binge watch

community tv cast study group greendale 6 nbc joel mchale donald glover alison brie gillian jacobs danny pudi ken jeong chevy chase jim hale yvette nicole brown dan harmon

There’s one chief reason why Community is the best show to binge watch. It’s because it’s so rarely the same show twice.

Community has always been a show that was unparalleled in terms of breadth and ambition – a genuine work of postmodern genius, with episodes flitting between musicals, lovingly crafted stop motion stories, and intelligently crafted movie homages. If you talk to any fan of Community and ask them their favourite episode – perhaps the chicken wings Mafia story, or the episode comprised solely of flashbacks, or maybe one of the infamous paintball specials – the only guarantee is that it’s going to be something unique.

Today’s Yahoo article is about binge-watching, and why Community – a show I dearly love – is perfect for it.

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Community: An Introduction to Fantastic Sitcoms

community introduction to film abed nadir danny pudi jeff winger joel mchale britta perry gillian jacobs cool abed films dad dan harmon nbc hd

Community is no doubt a sitcom you’ve heard of before.

It started in 2009, first airing on NBC; under the care of writer Dan Harmon (most of the time), Community was able to cultivate a particularly loyal fanbase, all of whom recognise the show as something special.

There is something much more going on beneath the surface with this show. A lot of people would point to the absurdist humour of Community to explain why they love it – and don’t get me wrong, that’s part of why I love it too. Episodes like Contemporary American Poultry or Modern Warfare are genuinely quite fantastic – but I fell in love with Community far earlier than that.

Another recent Yahoo article, this time about the moment I feel in love with Community. It’s probably not the moment you’d expect!

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It’s December 10th! Ranking the Community Christmas Specials

community christmas specials oh christmas troy abed comparative religion abed's uncontrollable christmas stop motion intro to knots

So, Community. It’s not a program I’ve ever really spoken about on this blog before, which is in fact a crying shame: I love Community. I watched the whole series (bar the sixth season finale) over my long summer holiday this year – it’s the only show I’ve ever binge watched like that, actually. It’s very close to my heart, in any case; I really connected with it.

The thing is though, watching it during the summer, I didn’t really get the full seasonal experience of the Community Christmas Specials. So I figured I’d rewatch each of the episodes, and make a special blog post for the occasion.

community its december 10th shirley yvette nicole brown christmas special comparative religion

After all, it’s the right day for it!

So, let’s get onto the ranking! There were only four Community Christmas specials, all of which were in the first four seasons, so there’s only four to rank.

4). Intro to Knots (Season 4)

Community christmas special Intro to Knots malcolm mcdowell andy bobrow tristram shapeero

Admittedly, this one isn’t amazing. That’s true of most of season 4 of Community, it’s got to be said; the ‘gas leak year’, where creator Dan Harmon wasn’t running the show, always felt weirdly off brand. It’s a problem exacerbated by reduced involvement from characters such as Pierce, and the mismanagement of other characters like Chang (the “changnesia” arc was always really very strange), as well as the unwelcome appearance of the ‘darkest timeline’ at the end of the episode.

Perhaps most damning of all, this episode simply isn’t very Christmassy – an extra shame, given that it ultimately proved to be the last Christmas episode that Community ever did. It’s understandable, I suppose, once stop-motion and musicals had been covered, but regardless, it feels like something of a shame. It’s far from the end of the world, because there is an entertaining plot here, that does, in fact, work pretty well; the Professor’s manipulative actions are grounds for a lot of good jokes, and the eventual twist is set up rather cleverly. It’s just that, as a Christmas episode, it’s difficult to consider this episode a resounding success.

3). Comparative Religion (Season 1)

Community Christmas Special Comparative Religions december 10th dan harmon snow fight

There’s something rather fantastic about the first season of Community, which I count as amongst my favourite seasons of the program. I think part of it is the charm of the early days; the characters don’t quite know each other yet, the show is still settling into its groove, things are a little more “normal” in terms of the style, and so on and so forth. You can see that to an extent here – we’re still starting to get to know all the characters, and this is where we learn most of their religions. Pierce’s religion is legitimately hilarious, and the exchange between characters and discussion of religion works really well. (Also, another charming thing from the early days: the Dean’s insistence on avoiding discrimination by being as nondescript as possible.)

This is a brilliant episode, albeit perhaps not the most Christmassy – Christmas is, for the most part, a matter of setting here, something that informs the story, rather than being essential to it. The story of Jeff confronting the school bully could easily have been presented at another time of the year – but, actually, it works better by virtue of the fact that the episode is set at Christmas. It’s just more fun. The ending is particularly well suited to Christmas, actually; it juxtaposes the traditional Christmassy moral of people coming together with what actually happens – a great big punch up – to great comedic effect.

2). Regional Holiday Music (Season 3)

Community christmas special Regional Holiday Music greendale 7 flat pyjamas

I kinda love musicals, to be honest. Particularly musical episodes of shows that aren’t typically in such a format – Once More With Feeling is a brilliant Buffy episode, and I am still waiting for musical episodes of The Flash and Doctor Who. So, absolutely, it was really fun to see a musical episode of Community. It was always going to be difficult for them to follow Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, in terms of presentation and style, but Regional Holiday Music does a stand up job regardless. It’s a lot of fun, and it retains the usual humour that Community does so well at.

Of course, being Community, there are elements of parody to the whole thing – biting sarcasm directed towards Glee (I’ve never seen it – is it really that bad?), lambasting the infantilization of women, and, of course, the entire Baby Boomer Santa song. More than that, though, is the comment on the grimdark nature of certain stories, and the fact that Christmas should, ultimately, remain a time of togetherness and positivity. Which is a nice message, methinks.

1). Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (Season 2)

Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas community christmas special abed nadir claymation stopmotion duke johnson nbc dan harmon

This is the quintessential Christmas episode of Community; there is surely no doubt as to whether or not this would be the top of the list. Its most obvious strength is its central conceit – the stop motion animation, which ultimately proves to give the entire episode a genuinely charming and undoubtedly Christmassy tone. I love the fact that Community does episodes like this – bizarre and wacky and off the wall, breaking the conventions of the genre, and really pushing their format as far as possible, whilst still maintaining a hilarious script.

What’s brilliant about this episode, though, is that it has real emotional depth to it, with some intelligent and poignant ruminations about the meaning of Christmas. I actually really like the conclusion that’s reached – “The true meaning of Christmas is the idea that it can have meaning”. That, in and of itself, is a really poignant statement, and I think it conveys a brilliant understanding of Christmas. It’s really wonderful.

“Christmas is the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights of the year can be the warmest and brightest.”

Merry Christmas, everyone. (Even if it is still just December 10th!)

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