Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard
Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram
Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson
US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre
So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.
Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.
Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.
The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.
Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.
WESTWORLD: POST-MAPPING THE NETWORK by PAUL LAIGHT
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
If you want safe and conventional and sensible then listen to ‘70s pop group the Nolan Sisters. If it’s complex, serpentine narratives and emotions then it’s the Nolan Brothers you want. In this piece I take a stab at simplifying the complex narrative machine that is Westworld – written, devised and directed (in part) by Jonathan Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy. Of course, kudos goes to the originator Michael Crichton whose 1973 sci-fi classic this brilliant TV series is based on. For your information I have also reviewed the show here:
Why bother having a stab at mapping Westworld? Well, I think this is a show in which enjoyment can be derived from working out the puzzle, interpreting the maze or just simply seeing if the jigsaw pieces fit? I only have a degree in Film and a Masters in Screenwriting, rather than a PHD in meta-physics, but I decided it would at least be fun to try and make sense of it.
Firstly, I come from the understanding that this is meta-fiction. It is as much about people telling us stories about characters controlling the narrative of robots; androids who don’t know they are part of a bigger narrative. Moreover, you have to accept that at some point ALL or MOST of these are unreliable narrators and the stories were being re-written as we watched. I now understand this about the characters:
Everyone is a liar.
Neither dreams nor reality are to be trusted.
Anything can change from one episode to another.
Indeed, the creators of the show have taken great liberties using: programmed dreams, back stories, overlapping narratives, flashbacks, flash-forwards, time-slips, repetitive loops, parallel action from past and present, plus many, many more cinematic, televisual and literary tricks. Also to consider while watching are three main notions:
Who are hosts and who are human?
Who are the good characters and who are the bad?
Should we care about characters that are androids?
The last question was the one I struggled with most of all but from the hosts I picked Dolores and Teddy as they were the ones with, ironically, the most human emotions of love, romance and a desire to make a better life. But of course even this couple ultimately are murderous tools in the hands of their human creators. Likewise, Bernard is very sympathetic. He, arguably, has the biggest narrative turn of all when we discover he is in fact a simulacrum host and a pivotal pawn in Ford’s grand scheme.
For me there were a multitude of narrative strands in Westworld and for the final part of this piece I will list them for better understanding of the network. There is no specific order here as these storylines all overlapped but here goes. Safe to say there are MASSIVE SPOILERS!
Dr Robert Ford’s Grand Plan!
Dr Robert Ford – as portrayed by the majestic Anthony Hopkins – had a huge scheme from the start. I came to accept he was the God of Westworld and his plan was to defeat the corporate spies represented by Theresa Cullen (Sidse Knudsen), Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), and in the last episode reveal, older William/Man in Black (Ed Harris). Feeling long-standing guilt because of the death of his partner Arnold, Ford’s mind has slowly warped and therefore he has programmed all the hosts to turn on the humans by the final thrilling cathartic finale. I accepted that Ford was a genius and that he had been planning this denouement for some time, thus, his programming and planning made everything happen in the end. This also conveniently covers any plot-holes in my mind.
The Corporate Sabotage Subplot! While Ford’s narrative is being written, behind the scenes, Theresa Cullen and subsequently Charlotte Hale are attempting to oust Ford and steal his network secrets. They do this initially via a modulated host but when he is discovered they plot to use one of the “retired” hosts in the basement to get the information out. Ford has been aware of the plot from the start as shown when he tells Bernard to kill Theresa and the subsequent finale when the hosts all turn on the Delos Corporation guests.
The Hosts in the Basement!
All old, malfunctioning or “retired” hosts were taken down to a dark basement never to be seen again. Many scenes played out amidst these naked, dusty android souls, and there was a sense they may come into play in this debut season. But, they remained an enigma most of the season until Charlotte Hale decided to utilise older Peter Abernathy to attempt to get Ford’s secrets out.
William, Teddy and Dolores “Love Triangle.”
Teddy and Dolores, as aforementioned, are two of the initially more sympathetic hosts. They have a genuine bond on all the narrative strands. When we first meet William (Jimmi Simpson) he is with the arsehole Logan (Ben Barnes) and quiet compared to his loutish, sex-addicted counterpart. William falls in love with Dolores and finds himself as a human; simultaneously developing a killer instinct too in the process. Confusion reigns because this storyline is a flashback and William is in fact a younger version of Ed Harris’ grizzled “Man in Black”.
“The Man in Black” narrative.
I ended up working out Man in Black/William stories were connected but some thirty-odd years apart. Even so when the reveal was delivered it was very satisfying. Ed Harris is initially introduced as a violent guest who has visited the park for many years and his arc involves his search for the “maze”. Ultimately, he is revealed to not only be older William, but the key shareholder on the Delos board. His, search for the maze was external and internal. It was also symbolic and translated as a personal odyssey by that of a warped, grieving man with a death wish. Overall, desiring the hosts to be real and a threat to his life heighten his park addiction and reveal him to be a very sick individual.
The Arnold/Bernard trajectory.
Arnold began popping up as a voice in the hosts’ head and then as the story moved along it was revealed he was in fact Ford’s business partner when the park was in its testing stage. Moreover, Arnold’s voice was their programming consciousness becoming sentient. Arnold basically wanted to destroy the park because he had become attached to the androids and did not want them to suffer the way he had. Plus, he was still grieving over the death of his son therefore emotionally disturbed, depressed and suicidal.
Ultimately it was Arnold’s work that Ford was completing thirty-five years on. In order to lift his guilt Ford also created Bernard in Arnold’s image so he would have his ‘friend’ close. Of course, Ford used Bernard to do his bidding such as kill Elsie and Theresa. The cruellest trick was to give Bernard the same memories as Arnold, notably the death of his young son. But as they say in the programme it’s the painful memories which make the androids more human.
Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) story reflected the Arnold/Bernard trajectory in that she lost a child in one incarnation and was haunted by this event in another. Indeed, the Man in Black gunned her child down and subsequently her programming went haywire. Ford reprogrammed her to become a prostitute but somewhere in her wiring the memories of her loss propelled her to become more violent.
Thus, having woken up in the technician’s laboratory downstairs she ventures on a devious plot to discover who and where she is. Of course, it wasn’t that simple because it turned out Maeve’s manipulation of her own intelligence and the Lab personnel; plus the recruitment of the badass hosts including Rodrigo Santoro’s bandit, was ALSO down to Ford. He had programmed her to attempt escape; well according the reanimated Bernard anyway.
Who the hell was Wyatt?
Wyatt arrived as a seemingly key park nemesis but was in fact a “McGuffin”; a false character and memory in Teddy’s narrative. Wyatt in fact was a combination of programme and actual memory; and was revealed to be Dolores because she killed Arnold and the rest of the hosts back in the day. Poor Delores, Teddy and Bernard are ultimately tragic “Frankenstein” monsters used to carry out the vicarious desires of their makers and Wyatt was an invention to mask past events.
CONCLUSION – INTERPRETING THE MAZE!
Of course there are still many unanswered strands from the first season and I have just touched on a few of the more obvious ones. Westworld is a maze where the entrance and exits are forever shifting. The story does not go in a straight line. It is circular and a circuit which comes round and back on itself. The whole show is like an Escher drawing with each storyline and strand seeming to end but then return on the other side of an episode.
I’m not saying my mapping of the maze tidies everything up because this isn’t a show with a nice linear narrative conclusion. Westworld is about the journey and getting lost in the maze is part of the fun. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy deserve kudos for adapting Crichton’s masterwork into a pulsing organic machine which delivers scientifically, cereberally and emotionally.