The latest comedy series from Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation) is his boldest, most imaginative yet, but is this new narrative remarkable enough to stand out from the crowd of conventional comedy…?
Author’s Note: I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, since I think part of the fun of the show is discovering The Good Place for yourself. That said, I will be mentioning basic details from ‘Chapter One’, so you may want to watch that first.
There’s been a lot of buzz about certain categories of comedy recently, most notably around the Emmy candidacy of shows like Orange is the New Black, Shameless and Transparent. It’s becoming increasingly unclear what qualifies as ‘comedy’ rather than ‘drama’. These kinds of shows, alongside FX’s brand of new tragicomedies such as You’re the Worst or Atlanta, represent a turning of the tide, a shift towards a new kind of comedy about more than just scoring laughs.
While this may seem like a strange angle to approach the lively The Good Place from, it’s yet another example of a comedy show attempting to do something far more ambitious than be entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis. This may be a beautiful, optimistic and funny show from the get go, filled with the familiar crazy characters that Michael Schur and Greg Daniels have become known for, but its basic DNA is very different from usual.
The formula of the classic sitcom is simple – each episode the characters face a major problem that teachers them a moral lesson, they all become better people, and by the end the status quo has been restored. While the new brand of ‘serious’ comedy has cast these tropes away, The Good Place works so well because it takes them, re-mixes them, and serves them up in a new concoction every episode.
Kristen Bell portrays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who dies and is sent to an afterlife for those who have accrued sufficient good karma in their lifetime, known as ‘The Good Place’. The morally questionable Eleanor soon realises that she has been mistaken for someone much better than herself, and must pretend to be ‘good’ in order to hide the mistake and remain in the good world, rather than going to the hellish ‘Bad Place’.
From that premise, the show develops the simplistic categorisation of the world into the muddled grey moralities of You’re The Worst or Orange is the New Black, a cut above the cheery goodness of more conventional sitcoms such as Modern Family or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And the ambiguous nature and philosophical questions about ‘goodness’ only become more confusing as the show goes on, pulling influences just as much from philosophical doctrine as from the tropes and narrative of the sitcom.
That’s not to say that The Good Place doesn’t have great joke-based humour, which it absolutely does. It’s just never the main reason to be excited for the next episode. This is heavily-serialised television where each and every chapter of the 13-episode long season ends on a cliffhanger and segues smoothly into the following instalment. And the appeal is about finding out what will happen next. This wouldn’t work if this wasn’t such a bizarre and inventive show, but as it is, it’s incredibly compelling.
The cast have a lot of credit for this. Eleanor may not be the most interesting character on the show, but her level of self-preservation and the arc her character undergoes always play excellently off of the ‘good’ people around her. Newcomer William Jackson Harper is subtly great as Eleanor’s other half and mislabelled ‘soul mate’ Chidi, a crippingly-indecisive moral philosophy professor. Socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her silent monk soul mate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) also have arcs that start slowly but become a lot stronger as they become more tied into the main plot.
It’s Ted Danson’s architect Michael who is perhaps the best performance in The Good Place, and for reasons that might only become obvious on a second viewing. He’s a strange god-like figure who’s experiencing humanity for the first time, and brings an amazing energy to the role that elevates everyone in a scene with him to an entirely new level. In the later episodes, he is given some wonderfully nuanced moments that allow Danson to flex some awe-inspiring acting muscles, and will hopefully put him in Emmy contention when the time rolls around.
However, the break-out character and most consistent provider of laughs has to be the world’s automated guide Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a source of endless delight in a brilliant comic performance. The writers seem to love playing around with the limits of Janet’s personality, taking complete advantage of having a bizarre omnipresent entity around by playing up her ridiculous smiley-ness and self-defence protocols. She’s a hugely integral part of The Good Place, although her pairing works far better with some characters than others.
It’s no coincidence that Schur was advised on his original idea by Damon Lindelof of Lost and The Leftovers fame. They’re huge inspirations in The Good Place, not only through the subversive twists and revelations but also in the setting. The small town community atmosphere makes every mistake all the more pertinent, and watching Eleanor and her friends scrambling to gain control over a situation becomes all the more amusing as a result. The show also uses sets of three flashbacks to explore the insightful, if often not as funny, events from the characters’ lives before death, adding further moral pieces to the mix.
And I’d be remiss in not remarking how utterly game-changing the final events of the season are. This is one season of television that benefits incredibly from being able to view each episode as part of a bigger picture – as everything fits together throughout the series, The Good Place transforms from a very good show into one of the most clever on television. And above all, one that is so completely unpretentious. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the dour, plodding broken bad people who populate Shameless and You’re The Worst.
It’s an optimistic show but not blindly so. The Good Place is willing to go to the same dark depths plunged into by Orange is the New Black or The Leftovers, but it’s always filled with such good will and charm in the face of adversity that it’s engrossing in an entirely different way. This is a fast-paced wacky and inventive show that defies the status quo – it wants to be something you’ve never seen before. And it totally succeeds.
Trust me – you need to pay a trip to The Good Place.
Score: +9060.78 pts. (Deliver a hugely compelling and entertaining series of television.)
By Tom Besley