Michael Schur's choice of TV subjects started out very small, growing over time until his latest show is about life, the universe, and everything.
Schur started out writing for Greg Daniels on The Office, telling obscure stories about obscure people whose lives and dreams rarely grew beyond a paper company branch office in Scranton. Then he and Daniels created Parks and Recreation, which began almost as small, focusing on the staff of an Indiana town's parks department, before expanding outward until Leslie and Ben both had prominent national government jobs (one of them perhaps becoming President by the end). Then he and Dan Goor did Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is about New York cops, focusing mainly on squadroom goofiness but occasionally showing the detectives taking down drug rings, mobsters, and even a serial killer.
Now, though, comes the Schur-created The Good Place (it debuts Monday at 10 on NBC with back-to-back episodes, before moving to Thursdays at 8:30 later next week), which is as big as a TV comedy – or any kind of story – can get: a tale of what happens after you die, and the true purpose of existence. It's heady stuff – at times, the show literally turns into a series of lectures on ethical behavior, as if Schur were trying to see how far he could test NBC's patience after previously doing shows for them about a paper company and civil service – but from one of the best comedy minds in the business, so that the humor and the philosophy can comfortably co-exist.
Kristen Bell – blending her sunny and wicked sides as well as she has in any role since Veronica Mars – plays Eleanor, a woman who dies under humiliating circumstances and wakes up in a version of the afterlife that doesn't quite conform to anything she's learned about on Earth. As Michael (Ted Danson), the celestial architect of the neighborhood where Eleanor will spend eternity, explains, each organized religion got maybe 5% of it right at best.
“It's not the Heaven or Hell idea you were raised on,” he tells her, “but generally speaking, in the afterlife, there's a Good Place, and a Bad Place,” and the people who go to the Good Place are chosen by a complex moral formula based on every action they've taken throughout their lives and “how much good or bad that action put into the universe.” In a scene that will surely get the Zapruder film treatment from comedy nerds, Eleanor watches a Good Place orientation film that gives examples of behaviors that either earn you points (“hug a sad friend,” or “maintain composure in line at water park in Houston”) or cost you them (everything from “commit genocide” to “use 'Facebook' as a verb”), and we find out in time that the Good Place's standards are incredibly high: Lincoln is the only U.S. president who made it in, and even Florence Nightingale fell just short of entry.
The neighborhood Michael has designed for Eleanor and 321 other good people is sunny, colorful, and has yogurt shops on virtually every corner (Michael explains that fro-yo is the one thing all the Good Place's neighborhoods have in common). Though some aspects of the place are disconcerting – profanity is frowned upon, so whenever Eleanor tries to drop an F-bomb, it comes out of her mouth as “forking” – on the whole, it seems a wonderful reward for being among the best people to ever walk the Earth.
There's just one problem (spoiler, but something that's been in most of the ads, and it's revealed relatively early in the first episode): Eleanor has wound up here by mistake. Though she insists to alleged soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, an excellent nervous foil for Bell) that she was a “medium person” rather than somebody bad, the flashbacks we see of her life make clear she has no business being in this place – and her presence is, as Chidi puts it, smashing the perfectly-made Swiss watch gears of the Good Place into dust.
Over the course of the five episodes NBC sent out for review, Eleanor convinces Chidi – a former professor of ethics and moral philosophy – to teach her how to be a better person, so that she won't be found out and asked to leave. Some of this comes in the form of practical exercises when out and about with the neighbors, but most episodes feature at least one scene where Chidi is at the chalkboard explaining different moral philosophies – say, John Stuart Mill's theory of utilitarianism – and one can only imagine what the conversations between Schur and NBC's comedy executives must have been like about those. But Schur is still making a comedy, and knows exactly when and how to insert jokes into those scenes, like the shallow and easily distracted Eleanor ignoring most of Chidi's lecture about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, then asking, “It's like, who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” (“Plato!” wails an exasperated Chidi.)
At this stage of things, The Good Place is more often clever-funny than haha-funny. Thankfully, it's really forking clever, not just in all the little details of how the Good Place functions, but in the way it gradually reveals all the things wrong with the neighborhood beyond Eleanor's presence. If it were just a matter of giving one inappropriately-assigned resident the Eliza Doolittle treatment, the show's premise and comic scope would be terribly limited. Instead, there's a lot more lurking beneath the surface of perfection, in a way that should, in success, be able to drive many seasons of serialized metaphysical comedy, as a kind of Defending Your Life: The Series.
And thank the deity of your choosing for bringing Ted Danson back to an NBC Thursday night comedy. Danson's been doing great dramatic work of late on shows like Damages, Fargo, and even CSI, but it's such a pleasure to not only have him on the network and night that were once home to Cheers, but to witness the unabashed joy and goofiness he can bring to a role like this. Michael, we learn, has been part of the afterlife for a very long time, but he's brand-new both to creating a neighborhood and having a human body, and Danson's performance veers wildly and hilariously between unbridled optimism and overwhelming panic, with plenty of rubber-limbed physicality along the way as Michael adjusts to this new physical state. (Danson was a great character actor – with more than a little Dick Van Dyke in him – who fell into being a leading man, and you can tell how much fun he's been having of late, in both the dramas and in comedies like this and Bored to Death, finding the most specific and interesting takes on characters without having to worry about holding the whole production aloft on his own.) His delivery of the line “I'm a canyon full of poopoo!” (in context, it makes perfect sense) is a reminder that he's a national comedy treasure.
Director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and others make the most of the show's vivid color palette and surreality, using the abundant special effects in service of the story and jokes rather than to show off, and there are some very promising supporting characters and performances, including Jameela Jamil as Tahani, whose smug perfection in every way (including her ability to keep a perfect British accent in a place where everyone else sounds to our heroine like they're speaking unaccented American English) drives Eleanor nuts, Manny Jacinto as Tahani's silent Buddhist monk soulmate, and D'Arcy Carden as Michael's artificially intelligent aide Janet, a kind of Siri in physical form who is, like her boss, still getting the hang of interacting with people.
As Parks and Rec came to an end, the heads of NBC seemed eager to sever all connection to the network's 21st century tradition of smart comedies that attracted small but fiercely loyal audiences, favoring allegedly “broader” series, all of which wound up even lower-rated and shorter-lived than the ones NBC was so glad to be rid of. The new Thursday bloc of the Office-ish Superstore and this is a signal that NBC is trying to accumulate karma points again rather than throwing them away on the likes of Sean Saves the World and Bad Judge. It may be too late to get NBC back into a comedy Good Place like the one where Parks and Rec aired on the same night as The Office, 30 Rock, and Community, but at least the Peacock's trying again. Maybe, like Eleanor with Chidi, NBC can learn how to be good. This is a very promising start to the lesson.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com