by Matthew Thompson
(Going forward, I will be reviewing a number of new shows from the Fall to let people know whether they are worth watching. I will be keeping any major spoilers to the bullets at the bottom, so the main body will be perusable for those who have not yet seen the show. Enjoy!)
I mentioned time and again prior to the premiere that what made The Good Place such a sure bet this Fall was creator Michael Schur. His track record, which includes working on The Office before co-creating both Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is simply too good to ignore. And yet what stands out the most about The Good Place are the ways it diverges from Schur’s previous work.
Take, for instance, the setting. The titular Good Place is the show’s take on the concept of heaven. It’s a super-exclusive version of the good afterlife, only for the best of the best. It’s a place where everyone is paired with their soulmate and gets the home of their dreams. A place where you can call upon virtual guide Janet to appear at any moment to answer your queries. Where frozen yogurt flavors can be made to replicate the feeling of having a full cell phone charge. Where you can experience the joys of flying or, when things aren’t going quite as swimmingly, see giant shrimp flying around. It’s a fantasy setting unlike any live-action comedy I can think of… and I love it.
The Good Place also has a high level of serialization for a half-hour network comedy. The basic premise of the show is that Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has ended up in the Good Place after a case of mistaken identity. They think she spent her life getting innocents off of death row, while in reality she was not quite so good during her time on Earth. The main thrust of the series finds Eleanor trying to become a better person, worthy of her place in this new world. But there is a lot of other stuff to unravel from this jumping off point. Mysteries and questions abound. Like how Eleanor ended up here and why things are the way they are in this take on the afterlife. There is a suspense to whether Eleanor can keep her secret while she tries to figure things out, especially tricky as her presence seems to be having adverse effects on the neighborhood so painstakingly created by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of this little corner of the afterlife. Flashbacks are a staple of the show. Instead of acting as hilarious cutaways like some of the brilliant scenes of Holt from the 1970s in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they illuminate characters’ past lives to help shed light on who they are and how they got to where they are now. Some of the episodes have ended on twists and cliffhangers that leave you wanting more. All of these aspects would feel right at home in a serialized genre show and, like the setting, help The Good Place further stand out from many of its comedy contemporaries and some of Schur’s other series.
More expected from the series and Schur are the fun cast of characters and good-natured sense of humor present here. Bell is a perfect fit to play both sides of Eleanor – the at times terrible person that doesn’t fit in and the one who is slowly trying to better herself. But the supporting cast has delivered thus far as well. Like the aforementioned Michael, who Danson plays well particularly as he becomes flustered over the problems cropping up, and Janet, who is a source of much humor due to her personality quirks and matter-of-fact replies. Chidi acts as Eleanor’s confidant and teacher, but serves as a needed foil to her as well. I’ve also enjoyed Tahani who along with the others has proven capable of shouldering a B-plot if they must. Humor ranges from recurring gags like the way the Good Place censors swear words and Janet talking about who didn’t make it into their side of the afterlife to more situational bits that arise from the odd circumstances that the show’s setting presents. It’s been very funny even if it isn’t quite as dense with jokes as something like a 30 Rock.
This feels like a very different kind of network comedy to me. Perhaps not as outwardly hilarious out of the gate as a Brooklyn Nine-Nine, nor showing the sort of heartfelt sentiment that Parks did at its best (at least thus far), but The Good Place is giving us something else instead and I love it all the same. It’s like a comedy with a mythology that still delivers on laughs. A show that I enjoy sitting down for the fun of each episode and because I’m curious what will happen next. With its unique setting, serialized structure and smart sense of humor, The Good Place is an easy recommendation for those looking for a new comedy this Fall.
A few more things:
- Very impressed with some of the twists and turns that have popped up so far. Coming in, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of havoc Eleanor’s presence would wreak on the place or that someone else that didn’t belong would be there. They seem like natural ideas given the premise, but they have still been keeping me on my toes with some of these revelations.
- I really like how they are showing the flaws of the characters that are meant to be there. Obviously someone like Chidi is a good person and the formula got him into the Good Place, but his book being kind of a mess was a really great reveal I thought.
- So many cool little things about the Good Place. Like how it translates languages. Touches like that just make the whole thing that much cooler.
- Have I mentioned that I love Kristen Bell? She’s the best. I also love how Eleanor says dude and similar things a lot.