The Good Place: Pilot

“What the fork?”

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?)


Billie Doux said...

I have to say that I'm completely confused about what's going on in this show. It seems pretty obvious that they're not in "heaven" heaven but that Michael is sincere about making one. It also seems unlikely that Eleanor is there by mistake. I was thinking that maybe she's there only so that Chidi, her professor of ethics soulmate, can enjoy the challenge of teaching her and saving her soul, even though he doesn't know it, but that's probably too simple a solution since there's something weird going on with the other 332 or whatever people in the "neighborhood."

The show is certainly interesting and different, and I'm so happy to see Kristen Bell in something fun. I'm hoping for some fascinating substance down the line because it seems like there's a borderline chance it's not going to keep my interest, and I want it to keep my interest.

migmit said...

I've already dropped this show — couldn't make it through the third episode — but I have to say one thing.

So, the majority of this "community" are good people. Selfless. Devoting each moment of their lives to helping others.

Now, they are being told that they are in a good place, that hundred times more people are in a bad place where they are constantly tortured for all eternity. And, apparently, it's OK.


Billie Doux said...

migmit, I didn't like the idea of so large a percentage of people in the "bad place," either, and you'd think that most of them would be upset about it. But I don't think they're being told the truth about their situation, anyway.

Josie Kafka said...

Migmit, for what it's worth, I don't think the people in the "good place" are really that good, for exactly the reason you've mentioned. Tahani, in particular, is too condescending!

ericl1 said...

you should rewatch this again. It's brilliant and funny.