tv review

Mike Schur’s The Good Place Is Irresistible

The Good Place - Season 1
Kristen Bell as Eleanor. Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

Imagine a show with the smart, character-driven comedic sensibility of Parks and Recreation, the storytelling style of Lost, and a touch of the whimsy that defined Pushing Daisies. Now you have some sense of what The Good Place is like. The heavily hyped new NBC comedy from Mike Schur, who also created Parks and Rec (hence the similar comic sensibility), begins with one unscrupulous dead woman’s arrival in a heaven referred to as “the good place.” Once there, Eleanor Shellstrop, played with infectious energy by Kristen Bell, quickly realizes she must have landed in this post-life utopia by accident since, given her earthly lack of regard for others, she definitely belongs in “the bad place.” (While the word hell is used sparingly, it’s clear that the bad place is a heavily populated terror pit located on the afterlife’s basement level. So, yeah, it’s Hades, and apparently every dead president except Lincoln is down there.)

That setup leads to plenty of comical scenarios in which Eleanor faces increasing pressure to keep her lack of saintly credentials a secret. It’s also an excuse for Schur and his fellow creators to build a version of paradise that’s hilariously specific (so much of heaven looks kinda like Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, and there’s so much frozen yogurt there!). It’s also sometimes wonderfully bizarre. In the pilot — the first of two back-to-back episodes airing tonight at ten before the show moves to its permanent 8:30 Thursday time slot — a teensy bit of bad behavior unleashes a Dr. Seussian form of chaos in which shrimp swim through the sky, giraffes rampage through the streets unchecked, and Ariana Grande songs boom at high volume from unseen loudspeakers.

There’s a go-for-broke sense of inventiveness in all this that makes the show irresistible and flat-out fun to watch. But each episode also reveals unexpected details about its characters and setting in ways that constantly push the story forward and deepen our investment in it.

Schur has said that he modeled The Good Place after the aforementioned Lost, and after watching the first handful of episodes, it’s clear he wasn’t kidding. Like Lost, The Good Place focuses on a group of people unexpectedly dropped into a strange land from which there is seemingly no escape. Some of that drama’s narrative conventions — the use of flashbacks, the viewing of orientation videos — have been effectively repurposed here, too. And just as the Lost writers — one of whom was Drew Goddard, a co–executive producer of The Good Place and the director of its pilot — had to come up with certain rules that governed how the island functioned, the writers of The Good Place have done the same for their version of divine living.

Swear words can’t be uttered in the good place, which is why Eleanor frequently finds herself saying “fork” and “ash hole.” Everyone has a soul mate who lives in the very same neighborhood in heaven so they can spend eternity together. As explained by Michael (Ted Danson), the man in charge of operations in this pearly gated community, only the very cream of the deceased crop are admitted, based on the number of points they’ve accrued throughout their lifetimes. (Selfless deeds add to a person’s total, while bad ones subtract. Oh, and for future reference, using Facebook as a verb qualifies as a minor deduction.) But as that previous mention of sky-shrimp chaos implies, it becomes clear early on that there may be several glitches in that system.

The brilliance of the writing and world-building on The Good Place is taken to another level by its cast. Bell hasn’t previously had the opportunity to flaunt her comedic chops in such a high-profile way on a major network, and she seizes it, going full Lucille Ball when Eleanor imbibes too much wine and routinely bathing her words in the kind of wry sarcasm that would make Veronica Mars proud. Danson, starring in an NBC sitcom for the first time since Cheers, looks like he’s having an absolute blast as a celestial CEO who exudes a Zen-like confidence but also delights in mundane experiences like wearing suspenders. (“So dumb!” he says gleefully of the pant-supporting accessory. “So much dumber than belts!”)

Bell and Danson may be the marquee names, but they’re surrounded by an ensemble of equally game and refreshingly diverse performers, including William Jackson Harper as Eleanor’s alleged good place soul mate, the ultra-ethical Chidi; Jameela Jamil as Eleanor’s seemingly perfect neighbor Tahani; and Manny Jacinto, who does more than you might expect with the role of a monk who’s taken a vow of silence.

In the first scene of the pilot, Eleanor, who’s just learned of her own death, asks Michael which religion has come closest to accurately explaining the good place. He tells her that almost every religion got about 5 percent of it right, but that a stoner from Calgary named Doug Forcett blurted out a theory while high on mushrooms that turned out to be 92 percent correct.

I’m no Doug Forcett, and I have no idea what happens to any of us after we die. But I do know that if there are people who can’t be convinced to watch a show as terrific as this one, every one of those motherforking ash holes is going straight to hell.

The Good Place Is Irresistible Comedy