[This is a review of the The Good Place series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
NBC has had multiple generations of its Thursday night must-see TV comedy block, though the most recent era of shows to hold the title have all since come to the end of their respective runs on the network: 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community. Now, it seems NBC is looking to restart the network’s Thursday night comedy block with a duo of young series: Superstore, which is entering its second season later this week, and the freshman sitcom The Good Place. Mike Shur, who previously worked on NBC sitcom hits Parks and Recreation and The Office, as well as FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, created The Good Place and will serve as showrunner on the series.
While many of Schur’s previous comedies were set in a workplace, his new sitcom is located in the afterlife meant for “good” people known as the Good Place — though the Bad Place does exist as well. However, when an average, if grumpy and foul-mouthed, woman named Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell, dies in an accident with a truck advertising an erectile dysfunction pill, she winds up in the Good Place by what appears to be a mistake. As a result, Eleanor attempts to avoid the architect of the Good Place, Michael, played by Ted Danson (Fargo, CSI), while making the most of her afterlife.
NBC debuted The Good Place at a special time with a double episode starting off with ‘Pilot’, written by Schur and directed by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil), and concluding with ‘Flying’. In ‘Pilot’, Eleanor tours the Good Place and meets her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), while attempting to hide the fact that someone majorly forked up and she was sent to the wrong place. Then in ‘Flying’, Chidi tries to decide whether he wants to help Eleanor become a good person while surrealist giant animals and trash storms bring chaos to their utopic neighborhood in the Good Place.
The Good Place manages to establish its tone from the very second shot of the series: Eleanor sitting on a sofa having just woken up in the afterlife, with a giant sign reading, “Welcome! Everything is fine.” Welcome to The Good Place, where a show manages to take one of the most divisive subjects in history — religion and, as a subsect of that, what happens to us when we die — and turns it into a comedy that is both bold and subtle at the same time. Over the course of an hour, The Good Place hits both large gags, like Eleanor’s death-by-erectile dysfunction truck, and smaller character moments that tie into the truth under the show’s surface: Everyone wonders if they’re a good or bad person.
According to The Good Place’s logic, which claims that most religions only guessed a small percent of the truth of the afterlife, a person’s actions are all valued for whether they added something positive or negative to the universe. For instance, remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns is +53.83, while telling a woman to smile is -53.83. When a person dies, the total value of their life is calculated, but only those with a very high value go to the Good Place; everyone else goes to the Bad Place. But don’t worry about the people in the Bad Place — they’re simply worrying about a bear with two faces.
The particular sequence that explains this calculation is full of plenty of small on-screen jokes, such as, “Helped Mom with her printer (x339) +59.48” and “Root for New York Yankees -99.93”. But, it’s also exemplary of how the show pulls off a double act — sight gags and a commentary on the problems inherent within binary thinking. The Good Place takes a gallows humor approach to the meaning of life and death, weaving the ridiculous notion that a person’s value can be calculated by a certain formula with one woman’s own personal dilemma in realizing she’s not what the Good Place would deem, well, good.
But, as The Good Place delves deeper in its second episode, is someone born good or can they learn to be good? When Eleanor asks Chidi for his help to make her worthy of the Good Place, he’s faced with the ethical question of whether he should help or whether she’s a lost, selfish cause. In the second half of The Good Place’s premiere, the series settles into its premise of tackling one ethical question after another. With ‘Flying’, Chidi confronts Eleanor about her selfishness, though she seemingly learns her lesson — sort of.
Meanwhile, ‘Flying’ also highlights the other residents of Eleanor’s neighborhood, including her neighbors, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). When Michael begins spiralling toward a breakdown since his utopian neighborhood has been plunged into chaos, Tahani steps in to help, though it’s Jianyu who finally instills some confidence into the architect. Although Tahani and Jianyu have the potential to be excellent supporting players in a series inevitably resting on Bell’s shoulders, ‘Pilot’ and ‘Flying’ didn’t give Jamil and Jacinto too much room to work with.
That said, Bell is the standout of the series, moving seamlessly from the more ridiculous gags to grounded moments — like Eleanor pulling shrimp out of her dress then quietly asking Chidi if he thinks anyone will be sad she’s dead. However, Harper is a good balance to Bell, playing a scene quietly while she goes loud or vice versa. Danson, meanwhile, is somewhat of an outlier. While the other cast members are paired up by way of being each others’ soulmates, Danson’s Michael is wrestling with a different kind of dilemma: What to do when something goes wrong in a carefully thought out plan. But, Danson pulls it off with as much humanity as the other stars, if with a bit more overt exaggeration in his performance.
All in all, The Good Place takes a wholly lighthearted view of death to examine a more complex and universal question. While the concept could have easily come off preachy, the writing of The Good Place keeps the series securely in the realm of humorous commentary rather than after-school special. Still, if the show has one message, it seems to be in that second shot from the pilot: “Welcome! Everything is fine.” Eleanor may be wrestling with the ultimate question of whether she’s good or bad, but everything is fine because everyone wrestles with that same question.
Of course, whether the pairing of The Good Place and Superstore will usher in a new era of Thursday night must-see comedy on NBC remains to be seen. The new comedy certainly provides an interesting predecessor to the likes of Parks and Recreation and Community, but the series needs to build out its cast of characters and the world of the Good Place (and the Bad Place). Still, The Good Place has plenty of potential to earn its spot in the Good Place for NBC comedies.
The Good Place continues with ‘Tahani Al-Jamil’ Thursday September 22nd at 8:30pm on NBC.