Thursday, October 6, 2016

Stopping in at "The Good Place"

Minor spoilers for the pilot episode ahead.

I'm not going to be doing too many review of new shows, but there were a few that piqued my interest enough to check out. I watched four episodes of NBC's new sitcom, "The Good Place," starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson as denizens of the afterlife. So far it's very weird, existential, entertaining stuff.

Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who finds herself in a neighborhood of The Good Place after her death. Ten Danson plays Michael, an affable, bow-tied guide who reassures her that she's one of the few who did enough good during her lifetime to win a spot there, and not be sent to The Bad Place like everyone else for eternity. Eleanor discovers perks of being in The Good Place include being united with her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a West African ethics professor, access to Janet (D'Arcy Carden), an on-call personal assistant, and endless frozen yogurt. Unfortunately, Eleanor quickly realizes that Michael has made a mistake, and she's not the do-gooder he thinks she is. Even worse, her presence in The Good Place seems to threaten its existence. Desperate not to be sent to The Bad Place, Eleanor enlists Chidi to help her learn to be a good person, and to get along with new neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto).

"The Good Place" was created by Michael Schur, a veteran of "Parks & Rec" and "Brooklyn Nine Nine." It's really impressive how well the show ties a very high concept premise to the interpersonal dynamics of a small group of regulars. The Good Place is a fantasyland where anything can happen, where the visuals are whimsical, and the impossible is commonplace. However, the characters are very real, and the dilemmas they face are very real. Kristen Bell is a big reason the show maintains just the right tone - she's a selfish, inconsiderate, infuriating person - but in a very relatable way. And while the do-gooders like Tahani and Chidi might be very admirable for what they accomplished, they also have their not-so-insignificant flaws. Then there's Michael, a big, goofy, not-human idealist who seems to have all the powers in the universe, but Eleanor's neighborhood is revealed to be only his first solo assignment by whoever is running things upstairs.

And who is running things upstairs? And what is The Bad Place really like? The first four episodes have already slowly started chipping away at some of these mysteries, each ending with a minor cliffhanger. The show is so watchable because there's clearly a bigger story unfolding in addition to Eleanor's moral lessons of the week. While watching Kristen Bell try to talk her way out of sticky situations is always fun, I was so happy to discover that Eleanor's efforts to be a good person, with Michael's wacky hijinks as a B plot, wouldn't be the standard template for every episode. It's still very early in the season, and a lot of shoes that haven't been dropped yet, so who knows what the show is actually going to look like by the end of the year?

As with Schur's other sitcoms it's the ensemble that's its biggest selling point. It's calculatedly multiethnic, but intelligently so, and helps drive home the point that you can't judge people by first impressions. Bell and Harper are my favorites currently, squabbling over the finer points of moral behavior, but it's part of the show's DNA that new facets of the characters keep being revealed, and everyone is less perfect than they appear, so I'm not going to say anything definitive about any of the performances yet. However, with only five real regulars in the mix so far, the cast could do with some expanding. Then again, since the show is pretty free-form, there's plenty of places the series could go simply doing things like digging into everyone's past lives, a la "Lost."

While the show's visuals are a lot of fun, presenting a cheerful paradise full of bright pastels and silly puns, that reminds me a bit of "Pushing Daisies." I expect that we won't see much more of the expensive CGI eye-candy from the pilot, though. And frankly, the writing is good enough that it doesn't need them. The fundamental worldbuilding is so nicely thought out, with little details like curse words being automatically replaced with benign alternatives, and Michael unable to resist fiddling with the universe and the lives of his charges. And while all of the cast may not be fully revved up yet, they're clearly getting there quickly.

I expect I'll be seeing "The Good Place" through at least the first season.


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