The Delightful Escapism of 'The Good Place'

Trucking through modern television series is usually an exercise in exuberance or exhaustion, no matter how good or demanding a show turns out. Of all the substantial dramas, quick-witted comedies, and metaphysical laments, one show — a network show, of all things — captured my attention in a way that many shows haven’t: it was a joy to watch.

I’m talking about Michael Schur’s NBC show, The Good Place, a drama-comedy that came seemingly out of the blue, and since its first episode has been one of the easiest and most delightful shows on television. The writing is quick-witted enough, the material substantial enough, and the concept entirely metaphysical. How does a show capture so many things at once without being burdened by its own complexity?

Looking at Shur’s backlog of work is telling, I suppose. He wrote, produced, and directed a number of previously successful shows, contributing to many cultural milestones such as The Office (US version), Park & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-nine, Master of None, and Saturday Night Live. He also dabbled in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” as its writer, one of the more ludicrous but pitch-dark comedy episodes of the future-shock Netflix series. But for The Good Place, a certain kind of nonchalance permeates its very soul. No one character dominates (though I would argue Kristen Bell’s Eleanor and Ted Danson’s Michael steal the spotlight), and the story is smoothly unwound over a sprint of 25 minutes per episode, each one ending in a credits sequence cliffhanger. The entire format begs you to binge watch without feeling bogged down in a mountain of episodes (each season squares off at just ten episodes a piece).

The Good Place is at its core a show about relationships among four key characters, and whose narrative tackles karma in a constructive and deconstructive way — all in an afterlife setting. The premise is keen on exploring absurdist situational humor, and is at its strongest with character interactions that take full advantage of the quickly-developed dispositions of each of the show’s stars. Michael operates as a kind of foil for everyone’s delights (and toils), sound-boarding off everyone's reality check of the afterlife's meandering eternity.

What perhaps helps set this show apart from many others competing for your attention is the colorful sets and nearly cartoonish narrative brokered through bubbly music, jovial cinematography, and dialogue bantering that exudes a PG-style appropriateness while nodding gracefully to a cleverer audience’s intellectualism. The Good Place sits in stark contrast to HBO’s dreary, somber The Leftovers, but intriguingly both share similar stretches of exploratory existentialism. Of the two, I certainly feel better after finishing an episode of the former.

In a cluttered world of show choices — many of which are exceedingly excellent — The Good Place stands out for its unusual territory and easy format, and has something almost everyone can find delight in.

I'm sure people are going to fall into two camps with Google's Duplex: you're for it, or you're against it. Ethan Marcotte has a nice write-up about the latter, specifically with regards to how Duplex was designed to deceive.

...the demos above are impressive because Duplex specifically withholds the fact that it’s not human. The net effect is, for better and for worse, a form of deception. Duplex was elegantly, intentionally designed to deceive.

Lava Cheese

Exploring Iceland’s Snack Directly (But Indirectly)

My wife recently jetted over to Iceland for a quick few days with her sister and a friend. When she arrived back, she left a few goodies for me, one of which was a curious, “handmade” concoction called Smoked Lava Cheese. Though I won’t claim I’m a connoisseur of cheese by any stretch, I would consider myself an enthusiast for the age-old custom of melting a pile of cheese into a merged form and eating with a fork. This may sound strange, or maybe you’ve done it (either way, I recommend doing it, now?), these little circular cheese bites remind me exactly of this practice. Except in portable, snack form. And that’s a good thing.

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An Icelandic snack made from “pure” cheese, Lava Cheese is a brand that began in Iceland back in December of 2016, engineered by the founders Guðmundur Páll Líndal and Jósep Birgir Þórhallsson. As they state in their origin story:

The idea of a snack made from pure cheese came to us when we realized the best part of a grilled cheese sandwich is the melted cheese which hits the grill.

So right you are. I’ve always loves the crunchiness of the slightly hardened cheese bits from microwaving or oven-heating nachos (the shredded pieces that missed the tortilla chips and get a heat-flash during the warm-up), which gave me the idea of doing this when I was a kid. Skip the chips and just toss a pile of shredded cheese on a plate, microwave for 1:30, and there you go. Pure cheese. I’ve since migrated to using a small egg-sized pan to do the heating work, and at this age, it’s only once and a while. But… Lava Cheese. These Icelandic guys came up with a few variations, and I’m very thankful Ashley brought me home a box.

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Since the cheese has been “smoked”, there is a slightly different flavor than when I’d do it. You can feel the hardened cheese texture with your tongue, which nails the first part of the idea of crispier cheese. I suppose, according to the company’s naming convention, this texture reflects the Icelandic lava fields. I’m terrible at describing tastes, so from here, you’ll likely experience a harsher aroma of cheddar, and a sharper association with the cheese you’re likely most familiar with, just restructured in harder, less dairy-like form. It delivers, though, and I have to imagine it’s a better snack than some faux bullshit cheese flavorings from Cheetohs or whatever other hell-spawn snack food from PepsiCo/Nabisco/Mars.

While I was able to enjoy the Smoked Cheddar version, I found that after researching the company’s other products, they also have a Crunchy Cheese series that includes Licorice Root and With Chili. The largest hurdle here is that line of snacks is only available at retail in Iceland, though they hint that new locations are coming soon. I certainly hope so, as I can attest to the magic of this stuff, and think it would do well in any other country on the planet. In the meantime, fry some cheese on your own, toss bacon in there, whatever it takes — it’s an easy, decadent, go-to late-night snack.

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