In A Dark Year, 2018's Film And Television Made The Case For Kindness And Decency

You don't need me to tell you that 2018, like 2017, has been a uniquely dark time. (Well, you shouldn't need me to tell you that.) One purpose of an entertainment website, and indeed popular culture in general, is to provide a distraction from or a refraction of the world at large. But as that world grows grimmer, it's unsurprising to see a lot of popular culture that serves as a funhouse-mirror version of our world's grimness. I mention this not because I want to wallow in that grimness; instead, as we approach the end of the year, I think it's valuable to highlight a trend in 2018: that some of the year's best films and TV celebrated or championed goodness and decency.

The World of TV: The Good Place, Nailed It and Making It

Is it possible to be a good person in a truly selfless way? If you're good on Earth because you hope to be sent to Heaven when you die, does that make anything you do on Earth actually good, or are you being selfish? And is it even fair for some unknown force to decide what is or isn't good enough to send you to the best version of the afterlife?

These questions are the foundation of what is arguably the most ambitious show on network television, The Good Place. It's right there in the title — for 3 seasons, The Good Place has been focused on the goodness of humanity, or lack thereof. (If you have somehow avoided details regarding this show's twists and turns, a warning: I'm about to spoil it for you.) The setup in the first season was as such: Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in a waiting room, with a friendly greeting facing her: "Welcome! Everything is fine." She's greeted by a kindly older gentleman named Michael (Ted Danson), who informs her that she's died and has wound up in...well, call it the Good Place.

Eleanor, though, soon realizes that there's apparently been some clerical error — another person named Eleanor Shellstrop should've gotten into the Good Place, whereas the self-centered (on Earth, at least) Eleanor we meet should be in the Bad Place. The first season focused both on Eleanor's efforts to avoid the Bad Place, and on her burgeoning friendships with her supposed soulmate, uptight philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper); with the beautiful and haughty Tahani (Jameela Jamil); and with the goofy dunce Jason (Manny Jacinto), who also has wound up in The Good Place by accident. In the season-one finale, Eleanor came to the realization that she and her friends were already in the Bad Place, and were being tortured in a slightly different fashion than most people who wind up there.

Season 2, the final episodes of which aired in January 2018, took things in a much different direction. After admitting his ruse to the humans, the demonic Michael restarts his fake Good Place neighborhood in the hopes of escaping punishment from his Bad Place boss Shawn. But the humans keep figuring out the ruse, causing Michael to restart the neighborhood more than 800 times. Eventually, the humans' innate ability to improve when grouped together inspires him to reject his evil heritage and help them as best he can to reach the real Good Place. By the end of the season, Michael and his artificial-intelligence colleague Janet (D'Arcy Carden) have convinced an eternal afterlife judge (Maya Rudolph) to let the humans go back to Earth and start fresh by avoiding their deaths and hopefully becoming better people.

The Good Place Season 3 Clip

In the current season, the four humans are all compelled to come together in Sydney, Australia (by Michael, though they don't know who he is, having had their memories of the afterlife scrubbed) to join a study Chidi is holding on near-death experiences. That, in turn, leads them to understand what's really going on, and to team up with Michael and Janet to figure out how they, or any other humans, could enter the Good Place. As of the midseason finale, Michael and Janet have learned that literally no humans have gone to the Good Place in 521 years; they presume that the demons of the Bad Place have tampered with the all-defining point system that denotes how each human action has point values assigned to it.

Through its three seasons — the show was recently renewed for a fourth season by NBC — The Good Place has been as remarkable for its argument in favor of the possible goodness of humanity as for its ability to speed through plot in a ridiculously fast fashion. When Eleanor first reveals to the other denizens of what she thinks is the Good Place that she doesn't belong, it happens midway through the first season. In other shows, that might've served as the first-season cliffhanger. Instead, that revelation served as a midpoint reveal. The show, created by Michael Schur (of The Office and Parks and Recreation), is equally adept at making sure its overriding message about goodness is constantly at the forefront no matter how wild the plot gets.

How fair is it to have your actions given point values? Should it matter at all, and is it even possible to get into the good version of the afterlife if you have to be judged so specifically? These questions have driven Eleanor and the rest of the "Soul Squad" (that's a third-season reference) to their current location: the actual Good Place. The current season has only three episodes left, all airing in January; for now, the heroes have wound up in the Good Place in the hopes of revealing that the Bad Place architects have somehow managed to game the point system so that no human has arrived in the Good Place for over 500 years.

In the early going, it felt somewhat like the very idea of whether humanity was good was on trial. But instead, no matter how spiky and sharp the digs can get (I live in Arizona, a state that serves as one of the go-to punchlines on the program), The Good Place is, of all things, an inversion of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. In that play, a few people are trapped together in what's revealed to be Hell, with...well, read the title. The Good Place has proved that there's another option aside from hopelessness, and that each of us can get better. It's a gradual process, but one that's all too necessary to experience now.

Nailed It!

Reality TV, for some of us, is close to the antithesis of goodness and decency. This isn't to say that all reality TV shows are bad, but whether it's a singing competition, a show about house hunters, something about beauty pageants for kids, or the like, these shows are rarely about anything other than survival of the fittest. And two of the examples I want to talk about here aren't that different. They're each, ostensibly, competition shows. Per episode or season, only one person winds up the victor. But these shows have, in their own way, taken their cue from one of the most delightful, sweet, and surprisingly emotional shows, The Great British Bake Off.

The two shows I want to highlight are both American made: Netflix's Nailed It! and NBC's Making It. Aside from their vaguely similar names, these shows have some common elements. They're both competitions, they both bring together a disparate group of contestants, they're both overseen by exceptionally hilarious hosts, and they're both about lifting people up instead of putting them down.

Nailed It!, with this in mind, is all the more amazing for how often it succeeds, and how it manages to not be cruel. The premise is simple enough: in each episode, a handful of contestants are brought together to replicate exquisitely designed cakes, cupcakes, etc., and judged by an expert baker, a guest, and irrepressible host/stand-up comedian Nicole Byer. This would be hard enough, but the one consistent throughline is that each contestant may love to cook but they're all...bad at cooking. They use the show as a way to hopefully prove to their loved ones that they've got some glimmer of talent.

It's this latter point that helps Nailed It! not seem genuinely mean. Yes, the contestants aren't talented chefs, but the show does not give them a spotlight to mock them, a la the laughably awful auditioners on American Idol. In its own twisted way, the show is about improvement. Nailed It! does, admittedly, walk an extremely fine line, but it's that the contestants are aware of their own limitations that the show can work. One wonderful example from the episodes created in 2018—Netflix has only commissioned a few seasons of no more than 7 episodes each, including a holiday-themed season available now—is when one chef used salt instead of sugar in making a pastry for Byer, the guest, and regular co-host Chef Jacques Torres to judge. The ensuing mix of laughter and disgust is, almost inexplicably, delightful instead of a putdown, in part because the contestant ends up laughing at himself.

What also helps is that Nicole Byer is just the best. In the same way that Great British Bake Off is defined by the charm of its comedian co-hosts (Mel Perkins and Sue Giedroyc remain its only true hosts), Byer's intensely manic energy coupled with the sense that Nailed It! is a TV production that was crafted on the fly—a running gag involves her making fun of the assistant director for forgetting to bring out a trophy at the right time—defines this show. Byer's your hyped-up best friend; her energy is so off-the-wall that one of the bonuses the show offers contestants mid-competition is the option to have her annoy other contestants just as a distraction.

In the case of Making It, it would only be too easy to be distracted by its co-hosts, Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. Watching Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson share the screen again should be enough of an incentive for some of you, but for the rest, the basic premise of Making It is essentially GBBO with arts and crafts. A series of master craftsmen from around the country head into a workspace each week to work on different homemade crafting ideas; each week, one contestant is eliminated until one person is crowned the winner.

Here, unlike in Nailed It!, the contestants are unquestionably the best of the best. If you're familiar with GBBO, you'll notice that Making It is following the template of the show—two non-expert hosts and two judges, with three challenges per episode—to a T. And while craftmaking isn't something I have much interest in, the show excels in the same ways that GBBO does, lifting up its contestants even when they struggle or are eliminated from the competition. These shows – and Nailed It! – are the antithesis of common reality TV tropes, like when someone will bluntly say to the camera that "I'm not here to make friends."

It's hard to know if any of these people would become friendly after being on the show together. What's important, within the context of watching any episode, is that these shows are the very opposite of cutthroat. Each episode of Making It ends with the hosts and contestants hugging it out or shaking hands, the sense there's a genuine amount of heartbreak on Offerman and Poehler's part to bid adieu to anyone. And each episode closes with the two hosts delivering a brief wrap-up, including the recently departed contestant. No doubt there's something scripted to this bit, but the notion at its core is what makes the show special. When one of these contestants is booted off, it's not done out of spite. And on Nailed It, when only one contestant is championed at the end, they may win the trophy, but they share a mutual victory with their fellow bakers (and get to take a goofy selfie, too). These shows are nakedly upbeat in their own way, but in a vast morass of nasty, self-centered reality TV, they're all the more charming.

The World of Film: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Paddington 2

Years after his passing, it's still remarkable that Fred Rogers ever succeeded at making enjoyable, entertaining television. Even back in the late 1960s, his aggressively low-key style of presentation was at odds with the majority of television shows. In 2018, of course, watching clips of the public-television program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is like watching a dispatch from another world. The spirit of the show lives on today — PBS still has repeats of the old show available, and the animated series Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood is a spin-off of the original — but has come roaring back to full life thanks to the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Morgan Neville's documentary was tailor-made for success this summer. The documentary isn't flashy, nor is it truly groundbreaking. If you've seen a handful of documentaries in your life, then you'll recognize the structure and style of this one without feeling like you've seen a breakthrough in the format. (I would also say that, as much as Won't You Be My Neighbor? is charming, it's not the best documentary of the year; that would be the heartbreaking Minding the Gap.) What makes Won't You Be My Neighbor? so impressive is not the way Neville presents his evidence of Fred Rogers as a purely good person, as much as the evidence itself.

Won't You Be My Neighbor trailer

The documentary arguably only scratches the surface of Rogers' life and career — one of its highest points is archival footage of him speaking in front of Congress in the late 1960s, making a persuasive argument that public television should continue to get (arguably meager) government funding. This isn't the only time in the film that Rogers is able to prove the necessity of public television, or at least of his own show, but it's an unexpectedly early climax. When the gruff politician leading the hearings almost blithely says "Looks like you've got your funding" after Rogers' testimony concludes, the resulting sense of emotional catharsis is hard to avoid.

This, no doubt, is what made the film such a hit over the summer. Moments like these, or the clip of Rogers, on his show, interacting with a disabled boy whose parents had written him a letter thanking him for his program, are the most emotional parts of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, as well as the images that turned this into what critics would dub "the movie we need right now". (This has been a theme of some film criticism this year. There were a lot of movies we needed right now in 2018!) But what those kinds of comments highlight is the inherent decency on display in films like this. Fred Rogers was not the most charismatic presenter. He was a religious man, and a man of his era. (One of the side avenues the film skates past is how Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the program, was told by Rogers to avoid indicating his homosexuality on the show or in real life, lest any scandal come down on the show. Rogers was more racially progressive, but the surface-level exploration of this side of his personality never reconciles the problem.)

I can't say Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a truly great film. Neville has made a loving, hagiographic portrait of a man who was embraced by many people, at a time when his decency seems almost alien. There's a lot to like about this movie, but what stands out most of all is less anything done by the documentarian. It's all just a wonderful glimpse back into the kindness and caring displayed by someone who most children grew up with through TV. People learned a lot through Mr. Rogers when they were growing up, and you wish kids had someone who could teach them similar lessons today.   

January is not a good time for new movies. Everyone — at least film critics — knows this. January is when markets outside of New York and Los Angeles get various independent films and/or awards-bait-y movies from the end of the previous year. January is when schlocky horror films, forgettable dramas, and saccharine family fare open. Basically, January is a studio dumping ground for new films. You go into a January release at your own risk with low expectations.

Or, you're supposed to. The first film I saw in theaters in 2018 was one I was mildly hopeful for, and by the end, I was richly rewarded. It remains my favorite film of the year, and it's a most unlikely title: Paddington 2.

Yes, really. I didn't make an ironic choice for my favorite film of the year. As a (moderately) self-respecting film critic, I've seen many of the acclaimed films of 2018. Vice? Seen it. (And give me a break.) Green Book? Seen it. (And seriously, give me a break.) The Favourite? A Star is Born? First Man? Seen 'em all, and they're all quite good. The same goes for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Widows, Eighth Grade, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and more. And Paddington 2 is still my favorite.

As much as the other pieces of culture mentioned here, Paddington 2 is about the power of being a kind, decent person to those around you. If that message was the overriding element of the film, though, I'm not sure it would have risen above being just a saccharine family film. Plenty of films and TV shows try to tell kids how to do the right thing, but mostly in a condescending fashion, with little attempt to explore the impact of decency, and even less interest in actual cinematic technique. This is what makes Paddington 2 stand out. The message is wonderful, and its effect is so profound that the final shot of the film is one of the year's great emotional gut-punches. But this movie's aesthetic, its design, and its commitment to being exceptionally funny and inventive is what makes it truly special.

Young Paddington Bear (voiced marvelously by Ben Whishaw) is living comfortably with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, with his only point of stress being what he'll buy his Aunt Lucy for her 100th birthday. He alights upon an extravagantly designed pop-up book of London, but has to work odd jobs to raise the money to buy the gift. The night before he can do so, Paddington spots a mysterious thief stealing the pop-up book, but when the thief gets away, he's framed for the crime. Paddington then lands in prison, making tough friends like Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), while the Browns try to clear his name and Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) begins to suspect their new neighbor, downtrodden actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant).

The joys of Paddington 2 are not confined to its message. Here is a film with remarkably deft direction from Paul King in every scene. When Paddington first opens up the pop-up book, he's transported inside, imagining walking around London with Aunt Lucy on her first visit to the metropolis. As each page turns, he and his aunt, whom he adores, fall more in love with the city's sights and sounds; watching the fanciful animation, you can see why. When Paddington is able to save his skin in prison from the initially fearsome Knuckles, the two then turn the prison kitchen into the equivalent of a high-end bakery, and the camera sails through the cafeteria to show the colorful ways in which the prison is changing, akin to a family-friendly version of the bakery in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. (I love this film, but let's not pretend it's an accurate depiction of prison life.) When Paddington tries to make a living to purchase the pop-up book, he works at a barber's and has a disastrous run-in with a local judge (Tom Conti), in a bit of silent comedy that recalls Buster Keaton; so too does the climax on a pair of speeding trains in the English countryside.

This is, in effect, part of why Paddington 2 is so wonderful. It's not just that the film is empathetic to most, though not all, of its characters. (The only character who doesn't get off light is one of the Browns' neighbors, played by Peter Capaldi. He's stridently anti-immigrant, and treated with appropriate amounts of disdain and mockery, much as King and co-writer Simon Farnaby no doubt feel about Brexit-style racism in Britain.) It's that the film is committed to being extremely intelligent, and is directed by someone who cares about the look and feel of such a film. Where else are you going to find a movie with a mid-credits scene that features a prison full of men singing and dancing to a Stephen Sondheim song? (I don't have enough space to tell you exactly how delightful Hugh Grant is in this film, but let it be said now that it'll be a shame when he doesn't get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.)

Paddington 2 set an important foundation for some of the most remarkable pieces of culture this year. It is an unabashed ode to the necessity of being a good person, and the notion that being good will pay off in the most unexpected ways. Each year, there is incredible culture to experience; anyone who tells you it's a bad year for movies or TV is just lying. (Or they need to watch more of each.) And some of this year's best films and TV shows have little to do with goodness, nor do they feature people being or striving to be good. But a handful of them were all centered, in some fashion, on the power of being good to your fellow person. It's a reminder we all need now.