The Good Place

4 out of 5

Created by: Michael Schur

It’s very easy to like The Good Place’s debut.  It’s got a bright, cheeky, style.  It has wonderfully pitch-perfect comedic timing performances from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.  And then it’s got its great hook: That Bell, as Eleanor, has died… and gone to ‘The Good Place,’ a heaven for the best of the best, overseen by architect Michael (Danson).  As she gets the tour, we chuckle at the over goodness of it all, wondering where its going, which is when the show gives its first of several clever winks – that this isn’t the right Eleanor.  She’s actually a pretty nasty person.  But, sh, don’t tell anyone.

By starting us in and keeping us (mostly) set in this utopia, and by withholding the pitch from us until after we’ve gotten the tour, The Good Place sets a good tone: it avoids a lot of outright snark that would come from dragging us through reality and then into heaven, and deftly humanizes Eleanor – we’re not perfect, and we’d want to stay in this place also – before filling us in on all the obnoxious stuff she’s done.  But I’m positive I wasn’t alone in asking – But now what?  And while the show’s juggling of morality isn’t greatly complex or especially thought-provoking, the skill applied at successfully answering that question each and every episode, on through the cliffhanger finale, shows there are indeed some super smart people behind the writing of this thing.

The first key accomplishment was in giving Eleanor a confidant.  She confesses to her “soul mate” (because everyone in The Good Place is automatically paired with their soul mate, dontcha know) Chidi (William Jackson Harper) her deception, but Chidi, being a dedicated student of ethics, is conflicted over outing her and thus likely sending her immediately to The Bad Place, because there’s certainly no middle ground.  So the two butt heads and put on smiling faces while deciding what to do.  But now what?  So Chidi decides to teach Eleanor ethics; how to be a good person.  But that can only fill up so many episodes…

And I promise you, the show just keeps magically coming up with organic ways to move things along, while also introducing an element of danger – that Eleanor’s lie is corrupting The Good Place – which keeps things from settling into too serialized of a “moral quandary of the week” formula.  The fantasy element to things also allows for a fantastically direct and amusing way to deal with exposition, via “Janet” (D’Arcy Carden), sort of a living wikipedia for the place that can be summoned up for questions at any point in time.  Handy, yes?

There are some aspects which edge over into cutesy, and there’s a clear desire to keep this a comfortable viewing, so again, don’t expect to have your own questionable morals or ethics challenged at any point.  However, Schur’s admitted aim to blend a sitcom with Lost-style engagement makes for an impressive sense of scope for a comedy, and when things have gotten too PG, a suddenly bawdy joke will appear to give the show some bite.

I wouldn’t say The Good Place was a surprise, with its talented cast and fun concept, but I do think it’s amazingly plotted for a half-hour show, deserving of recognition for not taking the easy something-something-of-the-week way out but still functioning as a laid-back weekly viewing.