by Josie Kafka
Fans of Michael Schur’s heartfelt quirk, Kristen Bell’s deadpan glow, and Ted Danson’s comic sprezzatura will love this high-concept sitcom about a young woman who winds up in a heaven(ish) place despite being a terrible person.
NBC aired the first three episodes of The Good Place last week, and although this review is generally spoiler free, I will allude to some events in the second two episodes, since, despite the 30-minute format, The Good Place looks to be a complicated show that eschews the lather, rinse, repeat structure of the average sitcom.
It starts simply enough: Eleanor (Bell) is dead, and she has wound up in a lovely afterlife managed by Michael (Danson). It’s not Heaven, or any of the other happy-ending places you may have heard of, though: each major world religion only got the facts about “5% right.” But it is, undeniably, the good place. Not the bad one. Definitely not.
The pilot episode milks the setting and characters for all they’re worth: the good place is a small town with innumerable frozen yogurt shops, pleasant people (who all look to be about 30 years old), and beautiful weather. Nobody can swear. Everyone gets the house of their dreams, and everyone’s soul mate is waiting for them there.
But Eleanor doesn’t belong. She’s selfish. She’s petty. She, of course, wants to milk the scenario for all it’s worth, because that’s the sort of person she is: the sort who certainly doesn’t belong in a good place too exclusive for Florence Nightingale. Even her putative soul mate Chidi (the excellent William Jackson Harper), a professor of moral philosophy and ethics, doesn’t know what to do with her.
Showrunner Schur cut his teeth on The Office, and both of his previous shows—Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—rely on the same formula of quirky people in a quotidian setting. In those shows, as here, his humor is just offbeat enough to make us feel cool for watching, but not so wacky that the show devolves into tedium and starts chasing its own tail (like, say, the fourth season of Arrested Development).
With The Good Place, though, Schur has kicked his worldbuilding up a notch to explore complicated people in a fluid setting. Eleanor’s dreams and emotions affect her environment. Her neighbors are allegedly the best of the best, but all seem horribly flawed. Even Ted Danson’s Michael appears to be out of his element: he admits in the second episode that this place (there are an infinite number) is the first one he’s been in charge of. In other words: stuff actually happens to a degree that most sitcoms reserve for later seasons, not their first week.
In an interview with the AV Club, Schur explained that he was inspired, in part, by Lost and discussed his premise with Damon Lindelof, who emphasized the importance of knowing not just the premise, but where the show can go: beginning, middle, and end. Although some people might think that’s a reason to skip The Good Place, I think it seems even more captivating. In just the first three episodes, we’ve seen change in the characters and instability in what we think we know.
Even if The Good Place doesn’t become the peppy cousin of Lost, though—even if there’s no time travel or smoke monster or Ben Linus (let there be Ben Linus!)—it still promises to be an excellent show with naturalistic characters and idiosyncratic humor. In a fall season filled with a stupid new MacGyver and the sugary mopefest This Is Us, that’s enough to warrant a heartfelt recommendation from me.
Three and a half out of four clowns.
Although this review was relatively spoiler free, the comments are free game! I'd love to hear your theories on where you think Eleanor is, and what the rules might be.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)