Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pilot Review: The Good Place

The Good Place (Thursdays at 8:30 on NBC)

NBC has really had a rough go of it in the comedy department of late. With the end of Parks & Recreation in the 2014-2015 season, they were left with only one returning sitcom last year, the low-rated Undateable. It was moved to Friday nights for live episodes, paired with the only new comedy NBC premiered in the fall, the swiftly canceled Truth Be Told. The winter months followed with the premieres of Superstore, a surprise success, and Telenovela, a surprising failure. Now NBC finds itself in much the same situation, with only Superstore returning to the fall schedule from last season and The Good Place being the only new comedy coming before midseason. It should help that the latter is a huge step up in quality from Truth Be Told, and its quirky, witty characters should match well with the ones on Superstore.

From creator Mike Schur, late of NBC's last great sitcom, Parks & Rec, The Good Place is a no-brainer on paper: Eleanor Shellstrop, played by America's sweetheart, Kristen Bell, wakes up in the heavenly afterlife only to find out she really should have been banished to "the bad place" due to her general awfulness in life. She's guided by a sort-of guardian angel in Ted Danson as she tries to play the system and stay put, all while realizing her presence is setting off the balance of things. Successful writer in Schurr: check. Beloved leading lady playing against type: check. Quirky side characters: check. It's the kind of show that could succeed even if it was terrible. Luckily for us, it's not.

Through its first few episodes, The Good Place is definitely more clever and fun than it is truly funny, despite the presence of some great lines. Gags like Eleanor being unable to use profanity are amusing, but not necessarily laugh-out-loud; hearing "bullshirt" and "what the fork" over and over is cute, for sure, but it's in the flashbacks to Eleanor's former life where the dialogue shines. For example, when Eleanor is confronted by a man asking her to discuss the environment, she responds, "Do you have the time to eat my farts?" before throwing an empty coffee cup at his feet and yelling for him to "pick it up if you're so horny for the environment." It's a brash moment that directly contradicts the serenity which came before it in the colorful, sweet Good Place.

Speaking of The Good Place, the location, Schur's world-building skills are masterful. The opening shot is both funny and creepy, the camera over Bell's shoulder as she opens her eyes to a yellow wall with the words "Everything is fine!" written across it. The rules of reaching The Good Place are quickly established via an endlessly screenshot-able montage of the points system a higher being uses to place the dead. Among my favorites in the "good" column are: eat a sandwich; remember sister's birthday; scratch elbow; and pet a lamb. (Maybe because by this metric, I would be good to go.) Some highlights in the "bad" column: poison a river; tell a woman to smile; and root for the New York Yankees. It's a hilariously arbitrary system which underscores just how silly theories of the afterlife are. Actually, according to Ted Danson's Michael, the architect of Eleanor's neighborhood and its facilitator, most major religions get about 5% right about the afterlife... a stoner from Calgary got closest to figuring the great mystery out once after taking mushrooms. That's the kind of amusing, fun humor to be found in The Good Place. It's not really the kind of thing that will make you belly laugh, but it is the kind of thing you appreciate and enjoy for its cleverness.

It's also the kind of high-concept sitcom that would probably soar on a streaming service where episodes could be binged. It's serialized enough to pique viewer curiosity about what's happening next and why (especially after Eleanor seemingly throws the place into chaos with giant ladybugs, flying cocktail shrimp, and garbage storms), but it can also be savored one amusing sight gag at a time. I do fear that it will not be able to grow through its freshman season, though, for this same reason: there's so much concept that it's impossible to explain itself to new viewers week to week. For those who do stick around, there's a lot to hang onto. Kristen Bell is utterly perfect, her natural likability contradicting how awful her character can be. Even though we should hate her, Bell is so radiant, even when she's being an asshole (sorry, "ash hole"), that we root for her anyway. She has perfect chemistry with Broadway actor William Jackson Harper as her soulmate, a selfless philosophy professor from Senegal who dedicated his life to teaching morality and helping others. Harper is a charmer, sweet as all get-out in the face of Eleanor's rudeness. There's also a Buddhist monk who is observing a vow of silence even in death, and his wife, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who can't seem to shut up about how wonderful she thinks she is. There's Janet (D'Arcy Carden), a sort-of live-action Siri who can answer almost any question about life or death with a can-do attitude and a smile. And of course there's Danson as Michael, a novice architect who got his first solo assignment with this neighborhood, which he is watching crumble around him. Over the course of a mere 20-odd minutes, the characters in The Good Place are stunningly well-defined and round, not stereotypes or cardboard cutouts (*ahem*Kevin Can Wait).

All in all, NBC has a winner here. Between Schur and Bell, the likability factor is high, and the show itself delivers on that promise. It's easily one of the best new comedies of the season, if not the best.

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