A while back (after years of people going on about how great it was), I sat down and watched Veronica Mars starring Kristin Bell. Since becoming a marshmallow (if you are a Mars fan, you’ll understand) I’ve taken it upon myself to check out anything starring Bell that even remotely sounded cool. This has led me to her latest NBC comedy series, The Good Place, along with her co-star and TV staple, Ted Danson. Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who is sent to the titular ‘Good Place’ by mistake after her death.
The Good Place comes from the mind of writer/producer Michael Schur. Shur has had his hand in many well known properties, including The Office, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but truth be told, I never got into any of these series, so this show is my introduction to the man, and I have to say, I’m impressed.
Bell shines as Eleanor, and for those familiar with her character Jeannie Van Der Hooven on House of Lies knows, know that Bell excels at portraying likeable, albeit extremely flawed and selfish characters with questionable morals. Eleanor isn’t a rehash of Jeannie by a long shot, but this is comedic ground Bell is very used to working with and it shows in how good she is in every scene. Eleanor isn’t truly evil, just self-absorbed, thoughtless, and slightly vindictive. She isn’t a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but Bell is able to make you believe that perhaps one day she could be, which is important, as without that feeling the show might fall apart.
The only one Eleanor confides in about the mistake of her being in the Good Place is her supposed soulmate, Chidi Anagonye, an ethics professor from West Africa played by William Jackson Harper. Chidi, as you might expect, does not take the news well, but decides not to turn Eleanor in even when her presence starts to cause the reality of the Good Place to go a bit screwy. Chidi is the perfect companion for Eleanor. While she does things without any forethought, Chidi is a man who has dedicated his life to the contemplation of how the actions of himself and others impacted society. He is the perfect person to try and help Eleanor reform, and saves the writers so much time having to explain why he happens to know things about several moral philosophies. Chidi’s exasperation at the situation and Eleanor’s bad behavior is one of the best bits in the show, by both keeping things on a close personal level and never letting Chidi get sanctimonious about the situation.
As good as everyone else is, the true treat in the pilot is Ted Danson. His character, Michael, is in charge of the design and upkeep of this section of the Good Place, and the chaos of Eleanor’s presence causes him to flip out in increasingly hilarious ways. This is a being that only understands and has experienced perfection. Michael in no way mentally prepared to handle the situation, and reacts with child-like fear and befuddlement that is laugh out loud funny. I’m so used to the dry witticisms and acerbic side of Danson, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t brilliant at playing a more outlandish character.
What I enjoyed most about the the show is the underlying subversive nature, which includes taking shots at today’s PC culture. Network television nowadays, for the most part, plays it about as safe as you can get, especially when it comes to so called “foul language.” This show quickly establishes that because people find certain words offensive, you can’t say them in the Good Place. When people try and say certain words like those that made George Carlin famous, they are automatically changed to similar sounding yet non-offensive words. They can use use childlike words like “poo-poo” and “butt,” but those terms only get you so far.
On the surface, this looks like a simple trick to avoid any situation where adult language might be used, but there is so much more going on here with that. The audience might hear one word, but we understand what is really being said, providing the show with a built in code for its audience to understand. Taking this one step further, it isn’t the elimination of the thoughts or intentions behind the words, be they mean spirited or vile, only that you can’t say them. You can however use a list of neutered words that have been designated by an outside force as okay to say. What that says about the nature of censorship and the USA’s preoccupation with “bad words,” I leave it to you to come to your own conclusions.
The show wisely makes its best effort to side-step the issue of religion. There are characters from around the world with several stated or suggested religious backgrounds, but in this universe, no religion got it all right. Ted Danson’s character even goes as far as to explain that the whole heaven and hell thing isn’t as we think it is, and that there is really only the Good Place and the Bad Place. This might anger the more hard-lined religious viewers as the show isn’t going to follow their chosen rules about what is considered good and who should be in the Good Place, but I wager that the majority of people, both religious as well as non-religious, will be able to watch the show without issue. The series may take place in the afterlife, but it doesn’t appear to be about that at its core. Instead, it looks to be an exploration of what is morality and being moral from a more universal morality perspective, using the backdrop of the Good Place to help facilitate this journey.
I like The Good Place a lot, but what gives me pause is the fact that this show could easily become overly confined by the limits of its premise and become stale very easily. Episodic television is hard enough, given the production time and the number of episodes that need to be completed, but today’s audience also expects constant shifts and changes to keep a show fresh, and this series might not be able change things up enough to maintain viewer interest. The closest thing I can compare the series to is the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which also stars a female protagonist with severe issues, trying to sort herself out in what initially seemed to be a rather slim premise. What saved that show, and turned it into a hit, was the beyond clever writing and presentation with layered characters that defied expectations. The Good Place is going to have to find its own way to do this, and avoid becoming too reliant on its own basic formula.
Despite my reservations, The Good Place put me in a good place while watching it, and if they can maintain that quality for an entire season, then the show will most likely find its way to a good place as well. You can watch the pilot right now on Hulu or watch new episodes on Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on NBC.