Is it ever too late to become a better person? What happens to us after we die? And where do our souls go, if souls exist? And if they do exist, which religion’s idea of the soul is correct, and do those souls wind up anywhere that remotely resembles the afterlives described in scripture? And will there be frozen yogurt there?
Some of these are questions the new NBC comedy The Good Place is interested in exploring. Some not so much. The yogurt one? Very much.
The Good Place presents an areligious afterlife that’s cleanly divided into two separate but not equal locations. The eponymous utopia is reserved for the very best people who’ve ever lived. The so-called Bad Place, meanwhile, is represented in the pilot by a brief audio transmission of screams, metallic clanging, and an implacable roaring that could either be flames or a horrendous hell beast. Admission to either is determined by a rolling point tally assigned to a person’s every action, which lays an underbelly of elitist-surveillance-state menace beneath the cheery taglines, sun-dappled squares, and tailor-made residences of the Good Place—Shangri-La by way of Omni Consumer Products.
It’s a lot of information to sort through in a pilot, creatively tackled through entrance interviews and orientation videos that reinforce the notion of the Good Place as corporatized heaven. And then there’s Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), the crusading attorney who acts as protagonist and entry point to this world. Only she wasn’t a crusading attorney—Eleanor was a two-bit shyster who hawked bogus medicine and regularly reneged on promises to play designated driver. The quest to pass herself off as a good person forms the spine of The Good Place, along with the mystery surrounding the clown-loving, hunger-strike-taking do-gooder whom she bumped off the list.
The Good Place has all the makings of a big-screen fantasy-comedy from the 1990s. But in the hands of Michael Schur, Alan Yang, Drew Goddard, and others, it’s a curious type of suited-for-TV serial, a supernatural mystery combined with a small-town comedy and a philosophical morality play. It’s Parks And Recreation taking place on the Lost island, The Prisoner substituting Stars Hollow for The Village. And in its bright colors, cliffhanger endings, and tricky subject matter, The Good Place calls to mind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the complicated, hysterical awards magnet that fled the NBC bunker for the bright lights and big subscription fees of Netflix two seasons ago. It’s the newest and most exciting evolution of that sitcom mutation, one that tells satisfying one-off stories and crams jokes into unexpected places, all while building to something bigger. The onscreen titles that label episodes by chapter are entirely justified.
The ensemble surrounding Bell includes one TV legend and a band of lesser-known scene stealers. The race for the title of breakout character is a tough one: Chidi (William Jackson Harper) is Eleanor’s Good Place-assigned soul mate and exasperated protector of her secret—a professor of ethics and moral philosophy during his time on Earth, he’s both the best and worst person for her in this situation. Condescending philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) lives in the gaudy estate next door with Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist monk living under a vow of silence. And then there are the tenders of the Good Place, eager-yet-hesitant Michael (Ted Danson) and Siri-made-flesh Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Danson and Carden are a hoot working through Michael’s and Janet’s adjustments to corporeal forms and human customs, while well-meaning Tahani gets summed up in one of the pilot’s biggest laughs, with Bell approximating Jamil’s posh mannerisms: “Ooo, helloo, I’m just a big beautiful utterly perfect cartoon giraffe!”
Eleanor’s no slouch, either. Well, technically, she was a slouch before dying, but as a sitcom character in an outlandish paradise, she’s the ideal focal point, and Bell is at her best when she’s playing someone who’s magnetic in spite of her jagged edges. Eleanor bent the rules and fucked other people over when she was alive, but she’s now locked into a system where she must stay in line and think about others, lest she be sentenced to… whatever those sounds from the Bad Place are, a situation rife with comic tension. And Eleanor’s exaggerated delight in performing even the slightest of human kindnesses signals that Bell just might’ve found a role to rival her signature TV character. (The same goes for Danson and the childlike curiosity he brings to Michael—interesting first name for a guy who’s constructed a fanciful world from scratch.)
While the enigma of Eleanor’s delivery unto the Good Place ought to stoke fan theories and online sleuthing, the setting itself is also worth getting lost in. And not just the points system, but the Epcot World Showcase set design and the writers’ inventive work within the Good Place’s profanity filters. (“Fuck”s become “fork”s, “shit”s become “shirt”s, and so on.) Opportunities for jokes never go to waste, be they Eleanor’s continued disappointment in the life Michael and crew think she led or the Lost-like flashbacks to her actual life and the lives of those around her. The show’s premise has so much potential for musing and puzzling that it’s a relief it remembers to be funny, too. The Good Place can rest easy knowing it’s the only new comedy on TV that can land jokes based on utilitarianism and the stage outfit of festival-headlining EDM night-light Deadmau5.
Of the questions left hanging after the show’s first five chapters, the most nagging is this: How does The Good Place sustain itself past its first season? It has a full head of cliffhanger steam at the moment, but are these the opening pages of an epic novel, or is Eleanor becoming a better person a story more suited to a single-season novella? Schur has said he hadn’t conceived of the complete first season before he could identify what a second season of the show would look like, and given his track record as a TV creator and showrunner, The Good Place is worth the benefit of the doubt. That just might be the one place where faith has a role to play in The Good Place.