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 Good Place - Eleanor Chidi

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.

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