There’s world-building and then there’s world-building, something no doubt in the minds of NBC and The Good Place creator Michael Schur in the decision to air the first three episodes of Schur’s new sitcom in one week. (Episode three will air in The Good Place’s regular time slot on Thursday.) After all, it’s one thing to set up the premise of a wacky government office or a wacky police precinct, as in Schur’s other shows. It’s another creative endeavor entirely to craft Heaven.
Or, if not Heaven, then the good place of The Good Place, the shiny, purportedly perfect afterlife where Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop winds up after she’s killed in a Rube Goldberg-ian traffic accident. “In case of traumatic or embarrassing deaths, we erase the memory to allow for a peaceful transition,” explains Ted Danson’s Michael, the bow-tied, eminently reassuring guide who eases Eleanor into her new situation with the practiced ease of a really good H.R. rep. In his recent A.V. Club interview about his new show, Schur said of his decision to cast the TV legend, “If you got to the afterlife and Ted Danson was there, you’d be like, ‘This is going to be fine.’” And to the shell-shocked Shellstrop, the new plane of existence described and shown off by Michael indeed does look fine—if only she were supposed to be there.
Schur’s vision of the afterlife as presented in these opening two chapters is a comic goldmine, the good place’s rules and eccentricities fairly bursting with comic ingenuity and fiddly little bits of weirdness that promise a renewable supply of laughs and interest. If there’s a criticism of Schur’s vision, it’s that The Good Place—like the good place, with its harmonious hodgepodge of dwellings based on each of its 322 residents’ ideal homes—is derivative of other fictional afterlives. The scrubbed, corporate smoothness of the good place hearkens back to Judgement City from Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, with Danson’s Michael a more benign version of Rip Torn’s garrulous advocate. (Plus, as boozehound Eleanor discovers, she can drink and eat as much as she wants without ill-effects, there’s video playback of everyone’s lives, and there’s even a running joke about the inexplicable prevalence of frozen yogurt shops.) Eleanor’s role as wisecracking outsider, skeptical of the strange new order of things recalls the heroine of Dead Like Me. And the fact—revealed when Eleanor’s accidental entry causes inexplicable disruptions to the good place—that this is Michael’s first assignment, and that he’s a lot more human in his insecurities and failings than he lets on, is pulled from Buck Henry’s officious but slightly incompetent guardian angel from Heaven Can Wait. (Or Edward Everett Horton if you want to go back to the source.)
But Schur’s touch as creator of all is all over The Good Place. Apart from in-jokes about Schur’s well-known sports affinities (the points-based life-scoring system docks you for rooting for a particular baseball team), the two-part premiere derives endless fun from laying out this new world’s rules. As presented in Michael’s orientation film, we’re judged throughout our lives on our actions, with every deed ranked with a positive or negative score. And while the criteria can basically boil down to “don’t be an asshole,” an examination of the lists shows a delightfully witty and eccentric moral code. (For example, “fixing a broken tricycle for a child who loves tricycles” earns significantly more good points than “fixing a broken tricycle for a child indifferent to tricycles.”) But, even before neophyte world-builder Michael is revealed to be much less capable of coping with the mounting imperfections Eleanor’s presence brings on—mining her negative thoughts for inspiration, the universe starts spitting out destructive special effects—there are hints that the good place has a darker side.
Danson takes the merest of beats in his otherwise boosterish orientation before addressing the flip side of the universe’s judgement system. (“What happens in the other place? Don’t worry about it.”) And when we do hear a snatch of what’s currently going on in the totally-not-Hell bad place (thanks to D’Arcy Carden’s cheerfully omniscient “information assistant,” Janet), the resulting cacophony of screams and screeching metal sounds an awful lot like those recordings of the hell dimension from Event Horizon. (There’s almost certainly no fro-yo there.)
And then there’s the fact being part of this super-select cross-section of humanity’s finest doesn’t preclude being sort of a pill, as embodied by Jameela Jamil’s Tahani. A condescendingly effusive philanthropist prone to humblebragging and nose-booping, Tahani is the sort of glad-handing do-gooder who, it’s implied, gained entry by running up her “good” score so high through ostentatious helpfulness that her irritating self-absorption was simply overwhelmed by the numbers. Everyone in the good place is paired up with their soul mate, making Tahani’s yoking to a saintly monk under a vow of silence (Manny Jacinto’s Jianyu) another sneaky hint that there are more complicatedly compromised principles at work here. (Attempting to match his exasperating-to-her serenity, Tahani manages to stay silent for all of 5 seconds before praising herself for how cleansed she feels.)
But The Good Place wouldn’t work without Bell, who finds, in the brashly awful Eleanor, her best role since Veronica Mars. Eleanor is truly the pits. Instead of the intended invitee, who spent her life getting innocent people off of death row, Eleanor’s the sort of person who lists “Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed” as her favorite book. As we see in judiciously deployed flashbacks, Eleanor’s casual selfishness saw her weasel her way out of being designated driver, earn top sales numbers at a company that sold scam medicines to old people, and gleefully tell an environmental activist, “eat my farts” as she hurled her trash on the ground. (“Pick it up if you’re so horny about the environment.”) Bell is the perfect choice for Eleanor, as her innate brightness keeps us rooting for Eleanor to brazen her way through her mistaken admittance to paradise, even as she throws herself into her character’s consistently reprehensible self-centeredness. Sure, she doesn’t deserve to be in the good place, but since they did give her a glimpse of her heart’s desire, her beady-eyed greed to hang on to it has, in Bell’s performance, a certain, grimy admirability to it, and she seeds Eleanor’s actions with just the merest hint of inner pain.
Helping immeasurably is Eleanor’s supposed soulmate, Chidi, played with formidably reasonable befuddlement by William Jackson Harper. Thinking that a lifetime of good works and truth-seeking have led him to heaven (and the love of his life), the poor guy is, instead, saddled with a self-absorbed train wreck desperately trying to dragoon him into helping her game the system so she can avoid banishment to where she truly belongs. It’d be easy to make the open-faced Chidi a mere stick-in-the-mud or dupe, but Harper and Bell find a real, if reluctant, chemistry, with Eleanor appealing to Chidi’s former vocation as an ethics and philosophy professor. As a necessarily good person (look where he ended up), Chidi, in Harper’s hands, is conflicted (“I’m in a perfect utopia and I have a stomachache”), and is only won over when Eleanor—forlornly cleaning up after the latest trash-storm her presence has caused—appears to have shown the merest glimmer of decency. Bell and Harper make a fine team, his intellectual curiosity and innate decency making the prospect of helping Eleanor play her way into the heaven she doesn’t deserve both a challenge and yet another good deed in a life made up of them.
Throughout these two episodes, Michael Schur’s signature nimble comic sensibility is everywhere, making The Good Place feel a lot more assured than the world created by Danson’s other Michael. The first episode’s rapid revelation of the chaos being wrought by Eleanor’s presence comes as a shock (giant ladybugs, flying shrimp, and all), but it also throws off our expectations that the show will take a leisurely path toward defining its high-concept world. Nope—Eleanor’s mistaken admittance means the show is going to have to fill out its loopy world on the run, a prospect that bodes well for The Good Place’s pacing. When the second episode ends with someone slipping a note under the door of Eleanor’s oddball house (designed to someone else’s tastes, there are lots of creepy clown pictures) saying “You don’t belong here,” it doubles down on the idea that the hilariously inventive The Good Place has no intention of slowing down.
- The film laying out the whole “good vs. bad” points system is meant for freeze-frame analysis, but basically the theme of “just don’t be a dick” covers it.
- Some specifics (in order of goodness or badness) as far as I can discern are as follows. Good: End slavery; save a child from drowning; purify water source (village: pop.>250); remain loyal to the Cleveland Browns; plant baobab tree in Madagascar; remember sister’s birthday; hug sad friend; pet a lamb; step carefully over flower bed; fix broken tricycle for child who loves tricycles; scratch elbow; eat a sandwich; fix broken tricycle for child who is indifferent to tricycles. Bad: Commit genocide; poison a river; be a commissioner of professional football league (American); harassment (sexual); tell woman to “smile;” root for New York Yankees; ruin opera with boorish behavior; disturb coral reef with flipper; overstate personal connection to tragedy that has nothing to do with you; fail to disclose camel illness when selling camel; use the term “bro code;” stiff a waitress; use “Facebook” as a verb; blow nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling; read a trashy magazine.
- The lady presented as an exemplar for entry into the good place had a score of 999,276.23.
- Her top scoring act seems to have been hosting a family of Syrian refugees. (Take that, certain presidential candidate.)
- As funny as Jameela Jamil is as Tahani, the character does present an interesting case of good place morality. If you do nothing but good works in your time on Earth, but only (or largely) from the desire to be thought well of, apparently that’s enough.
- People who didn’t make the cut: Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, and most other artists, all U.S. presidents except Lincoln, and Florence Nightingale (although that was a close one).
- One joke that looks ready to grow old already is the fact that Eleanor can’t swear, meaning Bell continually blurts out words like “fork,” “shirt,” and “ash-hole.” (She can say “butthead,” however. This means something.)
- Chidi explains that swearing was prohibited because “a lot of people in this neighborhood don’t like it.” That seems like exactly the sort of community action someone like Tahani would be behind.
- Eleanor also speculates that, since everyone’s voice is automatically translated in the good place, Tahani is willing herself to have her plummy British accent.
- Danson’s Michael keeps turning unexpected corners as Eleanor’s disruptions rattle his confidence in his first-ever neighborhood commission. Perhaps taking inspiration from that cat in The Matrix, he views an adorable stray dog as “a glitch”—and punts the innocent thing into the sun. Did not see that one coming.
- According to Michael, all world religions get about 5 percent of universal truth correct. Sounds about right.
- Eleanor, noting that Chidi is willing to forego flying lessons (you can fly in the good place) in order to help out in the cleanup: “You’re like the worst part of Superman!”
- Another hilarious touch is that one stoner (named Doug Forcett) got close to being right one night while he was tripping on mushrooms. Michael has a framed picture of him in his office. (“I’m pretty lucky to have that.”)
- Chidi, responding to Eleanor’s “gift” of actually remembering he’s from Senegal. “That’s not a present, that’s just common decency.”
- Also loved how Danson allows a little dissatisfaction to creep into Michael’s otherwise rosy introduction of the resident-inspired neighborhood when Eleanor comments on how many fro-yo stands there are. “People love frozen yogurt,” he murmurs, “I don’t know what to tell you.”