We’re four episodes into the third season of The Good Place, the brilliant US sitcom which started off being based around four recently deceased people in the afterlife and is now … um, what is it about now? Friendship, or something? It’s still good.
And while I’m a notoriously one-eyed fan of the show and loudly proclaim that it can do no wrong, I’ve found the third season a little hard going. Maybe it’s overfamiliarity. The feeling that a real-world setting is somehow limiting the boundless possibilities that made the first two seasons such reliable delights.
Or maybe it’s that it’s supposedly set in Sydney and yet obviously is not.
One of the weirdest things about travelling as an Australian is seeing places that are immediately familiar thanks to films and TV. Cities like New York, London, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo are as recognisable as our own streets because of countless pop-culture artefacts.
And Sydney, it turns out, can be similarly evoked: you use an establishing shot of the harbour, with the Bridge or the Opera House or both, and then footage of you know, whatever.
Fine, you weren’t going to actually come out here and shoot, Good Place (The). But we need to talk about the accents. Oh god, the accents.
If you listen to The Good Place The Podcast, which is definitely recommended if only for the authoritative purr of the host, Marc Evan Jackson (AKA The Good Place’s devilish Shawn), you’ll know that the cast and crew have been spellbound by the flawless authenticity of British actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s accent when playing Australian neuroscientist Simone.
Let us clarify something: no, that is not a good accent. Very, very no. Like, not even a bit.
And I get that Australian accents are hard to do. Unless you’re trying to go Full Ocker – perhaps to create that all-important Crocodile Dundee spinoff which the world is obviously waiting for – it’s annoyingly fiddly, with all sorts of regional subtleties.
That’s the joke with Ted Danson and his character’s unconsciously terrible attempt at an Australian accent. Except that it’s a joke which would be funnier if it didn’t sound to Australian ears kind of like Simone.
It’s no wonder that most actors seems to nod and say, “OK, loads of vowels, done.” Or, as with Brit Robert Kazinsky and American Max Martini playing Australian brothers in Pacific Rim: “Eh, don’t worry about it.”
Weirdly enough, the performance that most often gets mocked in this sort of article, Meryl Streep’s in Evil Angels (A Cry in the Dark outside of Australia), isn’t actually far off the real voice of Lindy Chamberlain, who was born in New Zealand and has an idiosyncratic hybrid accent which Streep actually approximates fairly well. Conversely, that John Jarratt didn’t straight-up deck Quentin Tarantino over what the actual hell he thought he was doing with his cartoonish accent in Django Unchained remains a mystery for the ages.
I know, this piece makes it look as though we have a problem with being mocked. We’re not sticklers for verisimilitude, honestly (the term “dollarydoos” still gets thrown around here, even in otherwise serious financial journalism).
So we’re not going to huffily point out that those buzz-inducing nitrous oxide “whippets” are called “nangs” in Australia, that Sydney airport doesn’t have “International” in the sign, or that Marshmallow Peeps aren’t an easily accessible confection in this hemisphere. That’d be nit-picking at an especially pick-nicky level.
Nor do we expect you to accurately capture the contemporary Australian experience. For one thing, in the current political climate, a true-to-life depiction of Australia would mean the action would grind to a halt as the non-white characters would need to enter every scene with, “Honestly, you wouldn’t believe what someone just yelled at me on the train.”
In fact, now I think about it … could it be that The Good Place isn’t depicting Australia at all? Is it some sort of simulacrum designed by the Judge as a meta-test for the other characters? Could it be that Australia was really just a place inside all of us the whole time?
Holy forking shirt.
• Andrew P Street is a freelance writer