The Good Place Has the Best Acting Ensemble on TV

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The Good Place cast. Photo: NBC/Colleen Hayes/NBC

At first blush, Mike Schur’s blissfully demented, yet heartfelt sitcom The Good Place reads as a deceptively simple paean to ethics with a singular focus: the redemption of the craven Eleanor Shellstrop (a career-best Kristen Bell). In the series premiere, Eleanor wakes up in the afterlife in a saccharine utopia known as the Good Place, created by a powerful being in a human suit, Michael (Ted Danson). She realizes that a mistake has been made. She is far too selfish and underhanded to deserve heavenly bliss, so she ropes her designated soul mate, a frustratingly indecisive ethics professor, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), into teaching her how to be a good person so she can earn her spot and bypass eternal damnation.

The writers behind The Good Place have repeatedly detonated the show’s premise, beginning with the season-one finale revelation that Eleanor and her fellow humans — Chidi; the idiotic yet kindly Floridian DJ Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto); the vainglorious bombshell philanthropist Tahani al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) — have been in hell all along.

The Good Place synthesizes what makes sitcoms of this ilk so alluring, with a dollop of subversion: a sure-handed blend of the familiar with the surreal, an intelligent narrative, and a soulful quality that gives its cutting humor weight. And none of this would work without its cast.

When watching The Good Place I often wonder: How are they able to create such a cohesive ensemble, considering the memory wipes and narrative-breaking retooling that undercuts the familiarity required of sitcoms, and the type of self-realization that allows characters to show their evolution? How are these actors able to create such clear through lines for their characters in a show where the very premise is mutable? Part of this is a matter of craft.

The casting is note-perfect, especially when it comes to Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Both actors bring the weight of their previous, well-known roles. Bell, known best for the titular role in the wry Veronica Mars, has a sunshine-bright smile and natural warmth that complicates the selfish nature of Eleanor. Danson has a storied career, moving through legendary sitcoms like Cheers, darkly spun fables of society’s upper echelon in Damages, and inventive comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm. The breadth of his career is considerable, which grants The Good Place and the character he plays an approachability. The other denizens of The Good Place’s main ensemble — Jacinto, Jamil, and D’Arcy Carden, who plays the robot-like assistant Janet — may not have a cult classic in their rearview or lengthy, wide-ranging careers, but they’ve proven themselves to be prismatic performers, adding particular textures to the show’s interest in the dynamics of human ethics.

Through the styling of each actor, these characters become a crucial lens for the way specific human foibles mar the chance for connection, yet make such connections necessary for our survival, adding an emotional dynamic to the show’s ethical and philosophical terrain. Janet’s drive to please — which D’Arcy Carden lends a bright-eyed jovial quality — at points clashes with her own programming, causing the neighborhood to experience various cataclysms. Jason’s idiotic obliviousness — which Manny Jacinto wraps in a surprising charm and sweetness — makes the possibility of deeper connections dim. William Jackson Harper and Jameela Jamil have especially tricky roles to pull off: If Harper pushes Chidi’s rank anxiety too far he would grate, while Tahani could easily be a mere punch line as the beautiful socialite so wrapped up in name-dropping and the accoutrements of wealth that she reads as hollow. But Harper and Jamil show a remarkable ability to interweave the bizarre with the sincere in ways that feel seamless with the work of their co-stars, tapping into the underbelly of yearnings that make their characters more than punch lines.

The dialogue jumps from barbed to heartfelt often within the same scene. I find myself giggling at lines like “Are you going to talk or walk around like a nerd getting a personal best on his Fitbit?” and Michael solemnly advising, “Act unnatural,” before my thoughts return to the impossibility of these characters achieving the redemption they so desperately yearn for. The supporting cast is also remarkably strong: Maribeth Monroe as the cocaine-snorting horndog, 1980s exec Mindy St. Claire, who is the only resident of the Medium Place. Tiya Sircar as the demon, Vicky, whose doe eyes and small stature belie her pugnacious ambition to thwart Michael’s authority. Or what about Marc Evan Jackson as Michael’s boss, Shawn? He’s able to deliver lines like “Then I remembered … I’m a naughty bitch” and “I took the form of a 45-year-old white man for a reason. I can only fail up,” in a way that balances the stern with the hilarious all without disrupting the delicate balance the series needs to strike between its emotional undercurrents and its zanier qualities.

What makes the ensemble so strong is often found in the corners and background of the frame, small moments that can be easily missed but add to the careful complexity of the emotional terrain these actors create. I’m thinking of Jason’s muted elation behind Eleanor as she announces that she and Chidi will go to the Bad Place in the season-one finale, before revealing the deception. Michael’s giggle of delight when Tahani meets her surprising soul mate in the season-two premiere. Janet’s consistently placid demeanor while chaos erupts in the foreground. The Good Place also undoubtedly works so well thanks to the skills of its writers, but no amount of clever writing and directorial touches can suffice if an ensemble is lacking in chemistry and balance. As Jacinto put it in a GQ interview, “I think the biggest reason why this show touches people — for one thing, is the writing — but also we have such a good energy. That good energy translates through the screen, that chemistry.” If one of the main actors tended toward grandstanding or sacrificed the emotional through lines for the sake of outlandish humor, the whole series would have come undone. The actors navigate a difficult tightrope act, balancing the bonkers and the empathetic, the horrifying and the tenderly humane. The grace with which they pull this off is never more clear than in season two’s standout episode, “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent.”

The episode finds this ragtag group venturing into the Bad Place in order to reach the Judge, an impartial interdimensional being who can hear their case and offer passage to the real Good Place. The title nods to the personas that Tahani, Eleanor, Jason, and Chidi adopt in order to navigate demonic territory without arousing suspicion. “Rhonda, Diane, Jake, and Trent” is divine. The dialogue thrills and reveals fresh layers in the emotional landscape of the characters. The pacing crackles. The production design delights. The world-building gains new dimensions. And the actors lean into the more arch characteristics of their roles — Chidi’s nervous indecision, Jason’s good-natured idiocy, and Tahani’s ego — without tipping into self parody. It’s deliriously joyful to watch. But what’s made me revisit the episode more than any other is how these flourishes build to an emotional crescendo when Michael seemingly sacrifices himself to ensure Eleanor makes it to the Judge. Here is the greatest strength of The Good Place’s ensemble: It crystallizes a surprising soulfulness as it meditates on the human desire for community that undergirds all sitcoms.

Television is currently brimming with a host of unique, astounding ensembles: Jane the Virgin’s tight-knit family within a meta-telenovela framework; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s workplace compatriots performing ornate musical numbers, while never losing sight of the poignant consideration of mental health at its core; and Bob’s Burgers sweet-natured take on a dedicated family running a restaurant between outlandish escapades. But The Good Place stands out for its meditation on loneliness and need for community, which is nestled into the show’s philosophical musings. Even with the myriad obstacles in their way, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani are drawn to each other with the certainty of gravity itself. As James Poniewozik wrote in the New York Times, “The most refreshing thing about The Good Place, in an era of artistic bleakness, is its optimism about human nature. It’s made humane and sidesplittingly entertaining television out of the notion that people — and even the occasional immortal demon — are redeemable.” That the series’ very premise and outlook argues for the necessity of interpersonal bonds and beauty of human nature grants its ensemble a dimension that feels unique.

Isn’t that what drives sitcoms? The form, traditionally, is based on a sense of familiarity rather than the purposeful chaos that fuels The Good Place. Sitcoms are rooted in workplaces, classrooms, beloved bars, and ramshackle restaurants. They return to locations, characters, and structures with a practiced ease driven by familiarity rather than invention. In destabilizing the typical traits of the sitcom, The Good Place exemplifies the desire to be seen, to be loved, and the dizzying loneliness that comes when that’s out of reach. It argues for community better than any sitcom in recent memory. On the show, friendship isn’t just a common human need, but a matter that can determine the fate of your eternal soul within its universe. The Good Place’s attention to loneliness is often most apparent in quiet moments and in the back half of episodes. Watch as Eleanor’s face crumples when Chidi muses aloud about his hope that the real Good Place has soul mates. Notice Michael’s pained expression as he ensures Eleanor’s journey to the Judge while putting his own fate into question; he’s both wistful and touched by regret over the only real friendships he’s ever known falling out of reach.

The penultimate episode of the second season isn’t as bracing and spunky as its predecessors. But there is a moment nestled in its story that shows the care put into its ensemble. “The Burrito” depicts the team’s failed meeting with the Judge, played by Maya Rudolph. Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason are each tested in ridiculous yet strangely poignant ways in order to determine whether they merit entry into the Good Place. Tahani is challenged to walk down a hall, bypassing rooms in which people she knows are gossiping about her, and enter into the red door at its end. Jason must play against his beloved Jacksonville Jaguars in a round of Madden. Eleanor and Chidi are told by the Judge that they are both going to the Good Place, but their comrades won’t make it. Should they reconsider the plan to be judged together to save themselves? Eleanor realizes that this is her test: The Chidi she’s been talking to isn’t the real Chidi. (The real Chidi’s test is merely to choose a hat, any hat, between two options.) When they all sit in front of the Judge after their tests, Eleanor cuts her off before the revelation that she’s the only one who passed. It’s a moment that’s both stirring and hilariously odd. This brief moment highlights that The Good Place’s ensemble isn’t just artfully crafted and spectacularly acted, but bolstered by the trait that encapsulates what draws us to sitcoms in the first place: a warmth that reminds us of the tenderness we hold for those we love.

The Good Place Has the Best Acting Ensemble on TV