The producers of The Good Place recently announced that the show will end after Season 4. While it’s excellent to know they will get a whole season to bring their story of death, the afterlife and moral philosophy to a proper conclusion, it’s also bittersweet to lose one of the all time great comedy ensembles.
Casting a TV show is a weird kind of magic. Some shows don’t get the perfect balance right away, reshaping the character combinations and tone until it finally gels. Some shows present as if the ensemble is important, but ultimately only care about one or two of the central characters or relationships, with the rest used as set dressing and background noise. Some shows start off brilliantly but struggle to adjust to the loss of prominent cast members as they fall like flies, creating increasingly desperate Watsonian (in story) excuses for Doyleist (real life behind the scenes) concerns.
The dream, surely, is the perfect cast and character balance, maintained from the pilot episode and continuing throughout the run of the show. So few TV shows manage to achieve that dream.
And then, there’s The Good Place. Its six key players are not only excellent character actors with great comic timing and effective chemistry with each other, but every one of them is a distinct, very different performer. The contrast between the characters, through performance as well as the voice that comes through in the writing, contributes overall to a truly engaging group dynamic.
There are two kinds of character ensembles in film and television that spark strong reactions from fans: the cavalcade, and the family.
The cavalcade ensemble is exciting because of so many faces, so many characters, some of them never crossing each other’s path because the story is so sprawling. A big part of the excitement ahead of the recent TV mini-series Good Omens was the massive list of beloved characters matched with an equally massive list of casting announcements.
Apart from Crowley and Aziraphale, played brilliantly by tentpole actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen, the majority of roles in that epic production were fairly small, each with a great deal of weighty significance to be packed into only a few screen minutes per episode.
Something similar was at work with the recently completed Game of Thrones, where a huge number of character arcs were filmed discretely, with overlapping but often separate narrative threads. Many of the co-stars didn’t even film in the same country for years, only meeting on press junkets.
There’s a majestic glory in pulling off a successful cavalcade ensemble, whether it’s packed to the gills with high profile celebrities, new pretty faces, slightly familiar character actors or, most often, some combination of the three.
Achieving a family style ensemble is much harder, because in a small, emotionally charged group, the chemistry must be faultless. Look at Community, a show that overtly explores group dynamics by assembling a found family of intensely different people (points of difference including race, age, experience, personal philosophy and reasons for attending a community college) and watching them challenge and break each other on a regular basis.
Part of what makes the Community ensemble work so well was that the show’s own meta-narrative allows and even encourages the writers to point out every instance in which the group dynamic is vulnerable, fractured or failing.
Like Community, The Good Place ensemble works so well because each of the characters have independent relationships with each other rather than merely occupying a role in the group. Some of these relationships may be more thoroughly realised than others—the pairings of Michael and Janet, Tahani and Jason, Eleanor and Chidi, for example, though also Michael and Eleanor, Eleanor and Tahani, and Janet and Jason. Unusually for a comedy, there is rarely a time where the group divides along gender lines, probably because the characters of the same gender (or in the case of Michael and Janet, appearance of gender) have the least in common with each other.
It’s all the more impressive that this group dynamic has survived so thoroughly given that most of the characters have had multiple time-lines, experiences and memories wiped from them, and only recovered part of what has been lost.
What can I learn from this as a writer? (This is always my first question when I admire a piece of good media)
The first and most obvious answer comes back to my previous statement that diversity makes stories more interesting.
The different backgrounds of the characters in The Good Place are expressed gradually, and become more and more significant as the story progresses. Characters are shaped by their families, their experience during life, and their views of the world. The fact that the four human characters are from different cultures, family and racial backgrounds is not just wallpaper, but significant to their choices. (Though the show is not perfect in this regard—in particular, Chidi’s background has been oddly handled and needs a lot more fleshing out. In Season 4, maybe?)
Another writing lesson I would take from The Good Place is the importance of character consistency. For a show that relies so much on narrative surprise, and is constantly revising its own premise, it is notable that the characters are consistent to the point that their speech patterns and reactions feel deeply familiar. This is true even when someone else is playing those characters, as with the episode Janet(s).
This is worth noting because the story also allows the characters to grow and change while remaining authentic to the version of them we met in Season 1, something that many serial TV shows (especially comedies) often get wrong.
One often cited example of getting it wrong is Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother, a charming but amoral seducer who is never allowed to grow up, because whenever the charac-ter starts to develop or mature in interesting ways, a metaphorical reset button is hit, forcing him to awkwardly return to his initial character setting.
The central question of The Good Place is whether deeply flawed people can overcome those flaws and improve as people after death. Still, the characters are allowed to grow and change and learn new things even as a literal reset button is often imposed on them, and they have many important memories removed from them. Consistency does not have to mean stagnation.
When it comes to a small scale family ensemble, rather than a cavalcade of faces, the last writing lesson I would take from The Good Place is about liking.
Likeability is one of those terrible terms so often used to dismiss a piece of writing, especially when female characters dare to be flawed. Kristen Bell’s Eleanor is amazingly unlikeable a lot of the time, as are her companions in the afterlife. And yet they are not just likeable but lovable, because of the warmth with which the actors play the parts, the cleverness of their banter, and especially because of the compelling way that the characters enjoy each other’s company.
They like each other, even when they don’t like themselves. Their loyalty to each other—to their “family” gives them heart even when they are saying and doing the most hilariously awful things.
I would watch this team in a heist, or a spaceship, or Shakespeare. I would follow this ensemble to the ends of the earth, because the thought of them not being on this show any more is emotionally wrenching.
After this final season, when the credits finally roll on The Good Place, I choose to believe that the actors will all get a charming little house together on the beach and live there forever, as eternal BFFs.
It’s a sign of great writing, and a great character ensemble, that the fans aren’t ready to let them go.
© 2019 Tansy Rayner Roberts
One Response to “The Gang’s All Here: Writing Lessons from The Good Place”
Nice piece. If you have not been listening to The Good Place podcast yet, it is highly recommended. Loads of writers and BTS folk as well as the actors are featured.