NBC's new afterlife sitcom The Good Place is clever, funny, and pleasantly familiar — like a hybrid of multiple cult-favorite movies and TV shows, recombined in a way that suits the sensibility of its creator, Michael Schur. The man who helped bring Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to life has compared his new series to Lost, because it's about a group of strangers in a strange land, reckoning with their pasts. But fans of Albert Brooks's brilliant film Defending Your Life will also find similarities in The Good Place's depiction of the afterlife as sunny and bounteous, like an upscale suburb. And there are echoes of Better Off Ted and, yes, Parks and Rec, in Schur's half-satire-half-appreciation of the ways well-meaning folks struggle to get anything done within a maddening bureaucracy.
If you're an NBC executive, the above paragraph may give you cold sweats, because aside from Lost, none of those titles were huge hits. From a business perspective, the biggest strength and biggest weakness of The Good Place is the same: Though it feels so familiar, there's nothing else quite like it on TV right now. Viewers may find that refreshing and flock to the show. Or they may find the whole thing too weird, consigning The Good Place to the purgatory of Great Sitcoms Nobody Watched.
For now, we don't need to worry about the show's future. We can just enjoy its potential, richly represented in this two-part series premiere, even if a preponderance of TV ads spoiled the biggest twist in episode one.
"Pilot" starts by introducing the heroine, Eleanor Shellstrop, played by TV-comedy treasure Kristen Bell. Newly dead — having been hit by a convoy of runaway shopping carts and a freight truck with an erectile dysfunction ad on the side, all while buying a bottle of "LonelyGal Margarita Mix for One" — Eleanor wakes up in the office of Michael (Ted Danson), the novice architect of one of the afterlife's many "neighborhoods." Michael explains that the universe scores every one of our actions on a positive or negative scale, and that if the good significantly outweighs the bad, we get to spend eternity in a wonderful dream world where all our needs are met. Judged to be worthy of this "Good Place," Eleanor meets her eternal soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Nigerian philosophy professor to whom she confesses a secret: She actually didn't lead a saintly life of service. There's been a celestial filing error.
Naturally, the first episode is about establishing the Good Place. We meet Eleanor's new neighbors — the aristocratic Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) — and we're introduced to Janet (D'Arcy Carden), the neighborhood's omniscient concierge. We also get our first look at the community's many frozen-yogurt shops, which run the gamut from GPBY (a.k.a. the Good Place's Best Yogurt) to Yogurt Yoghurt Yogurté.
Very quickly, Schur and the pilot's director, Drew Goddard (a Lost writer), pivot from the basic premise of a misplaced soul to the larger implications of Eleanor's situation. Should the doggedly ethical Chidi expose her, or should he try to help her become the kind of person who deserves eternal bliss? Will the boozy, self-centered Eleanor ever be happy in the Good Place, surrounded by tediously nice folks and stores like the Adorable Animal Depot? And what will this slipup mean for Michael, who catastrophically botched his first chance to design a utopia?
"Pilot" ends on a cliffhanger, with Eleanor's minor misbehavior — like eating too much shrimp, and calling Tahani a "giraffe" — manifesting in a nightmare-blitz of shellfish and giant animals that trash the town. In episode two, "Flying," Chidi decides to give his soul mate a chance to prove herself by volunteering both of them for the cleanup crew while the rest of their neighbors spend the day zooming through the skies like birds. ("Now that you're dead, let's live a little!" Michael enthuses.) But Eleanor does a sloppy, rushed job, sparking another storm, this time with garbage raining down across the community.
Both episodes feature occasional flashbacks to Eleanor's pre-GP life, where we find out that she was a successful salesperson for a disreputable drug company, peddling NasaPro (and NasaPro Silver to seniors). "Flying" keeps cutting back to scenes of Eleanor purposefully shrugging off her responsibilities as a designated driver, suggesting that a big part of this series will be about its heroine's everyday awfulness. Schur also hints at a larger mythology throughout the two-part premiere, from Michael describing the Good Place as "the next phase of your existence in the universe" (implying that there might be more to come) to him not wanting to talk much about "the Bad Place" (hinting that he may be hiding something). Then, at the end of episode two, Eleanor receives a note that reads, "You Don't Belong Here," adding to the overall intrigue.
Teasing a few mysteries is always a strong way to launch a series, though The Good Place doesn't dwell on them at the expense of telling good jokes. A lot of the pleasures of "Pilot" and "Flying" are in the little touches, like all the examples in the orientation video of positive acts ("Remember sister's birthday," "End slavery," "Remain loyal to Cleveland Browns") and negative ("Use Facebook as a verb," "Ruin opera with boorish behavior," "Tell a woman to 'smile'"). The show already has a handle on Michael and Chidi, with the former an affable host who doesn't understand what it means to be human, and the latter a good-hearted pragmatist who's understandably disappointed by his new living situation.
If The Good Place succeeds, it's going to be because Schur and his writers have such a distinctive point of view on what "happiness" means. Everybody in the Good Place wants to believe they're in heaven (literally and figuratively), and yet the garbage bags still break, other people are still annoying, and the very concept of the Bad Place encourages residents to adopt attitudes of smugness and terrified gratitude.
That's why it helps so much to see Kristen Bell embody humanity at its most lumpen. Eleanor's a messy ball of envy, sloth, and incuriosity. She's also utterly relatable, because as she describes herself, she's really "a medium person," who neither deserves paradise nor damnation. (In her opinion, she should be spending her afterlife in "a medium place," like Cincinnati.) Eleanor's plan is to "lie low and hope that they don't notice me," which could describe how most of us hope to get through our living days, let alone the beyond. In the weeks to come — or years, if we're lucky — it should be fun to see if Eleanor keeps clinging so tightly to a reality she ultimately finds unsatisfying. It might even be enlightening.
- Eleanor Shellstrop is one heck of a name — like something out of a Preston Sturges comedy. Of course, Michael Schur is no stranger to great names.
- This may not be funny a few weeks from now, but Schur & Co. get a lot of comic mileage out of how the Good Place auto-translates Eleanor's profanity into something sweeter: "Somebody royally forked up," "That's bullshirt," "What a condescending bench," and "Teach me how to be good, not an ash-hole."
- I'll be curious to see how successfully the show can sustain its surrealism, which borders on the off-puttingly grotesque in the first two episodes. Having a character's head get transformed into a dada-esque painting? Wonderfully inventive. But the giant flying shrimp? Kinda gross. As for Michael kicking a stray puppy into the sun — and then explaining to its owner that it was just "the construct of a dog" — well, if nothing else, that's not the kind of scene we'll see on Kevin Can Wait.
- When Eleanor asks Janet if her services are confidential, Janet insists that they are and then cheerfully asks, "What kind of pornography would you like to see?"
- This show's Lost connection may not be limited to the flashbacks and to the "Guys, where are we?" awe. I'm guessing there's more to Eleanor's neighbors than meets the eye, and that we may find out that some — like the vain Tahani — are also there under false pretenses. And isn't it a bit suspicious that Eleanor worked for a pharmaceutical company and she was killed by a pharmaceutical delivery truck? Hmm ...