Review: Kristen Bell gets a tour of ‘The Good Place’ in two-part series premiere

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
09.19.16 44 Comments

NBC

I offered some early thoughts on NBC's The Good Place in last week's review. A spoiler-filled review of the series' first two episodes coming up just as soon as my favorite book is Kendall Jennfer's Instagram feed…

NBC did The Good Place a favor by airing these two episodes tonight before the show moves to its regular timeslot on Thursday at 8:30. It's not just that getting to debut after The Voice is the best exposure any new NBC show can get right now, but that “Everything Is Fine” has to spend so much time establishing the rules of the Good Place – and how the presence of the decidedly non-good Eleanor begins damaging the neighborhood –  that it wouldn't have been a satisfying viewing experience on its own. (I know this because that's the only episode critics got to see in early summer, and it played much better on rewatch when I could go to “Flying” immediately after.) There are some fun flourishes as we learn more about this particular neighborhood, and Ted Danson is a wonder of joyous comic energy from the moment we first see him, but this is among the most premise-y of premise pilots I've seen in a long time, which is inevitable with a show involving a concept this big and strange.

Still, “Everything Is Fine” gives Kristen Bell a place to play amusingly drunk, and gives us some early doses of the ever-present panic in William Jackson Harper's performance as Chidi begins to comprehend what a raw deal the universe handed him with his “soulmate,” and the idea of the afterlife as a really swank part of Pasadena makes the show the kind of thing that, like The Simpsons or BoJack, I want to rewatch multiple times to take in all the visual flourishes and jokes. (See below for more on the orientation video, for instance.)

“Flying” offers more of a sense of how The Good Place will actually function as a series, even as it keeps telling us new things about the neighborhood (like the fact that you can't die there), and suggests that even the non-Eleanor residents aren't immune to very human flaws like smugness (Tahani suggesting that Cindy Crawford is short) or impatience and envy (Tahani growing annoyed that she can't connect with the silent Jianyu). The episode introduces a clear and workable structure for the show going forward: Chidi tries to teach Eleanor a lesson about morality and ethics, Eleanor is slow to learn, cosmic hijinks ensure (in this case, a trash storm), and while Eleanor is slightly wiser by the end, she still has a looooooong way to go before she remotely qualifies for a non-fraudulent residency here. Obviously, that can't be how the show works every week (and it isn't, based on the three episodes I've seen past tonight's), but having a basic template is useful, particularly for a show this out-there, even if the plan is to deviate from it frequently.

And the combination of Michael's panic at seeing his first neighborhood go awry and his newness to having a human body gave Ted Danson all manner of delightful bits to play in that second episode, from licking his own sweat away to dubbing himself “a canyon full of poo poo” before Jianyu can calm him down.

As I said last week, the non-Danson parts are more funny-clever than funny-haha at this stage, but it's clever in so many different ways and areas that I'm okay waiting for the bigger belly laughs to come. These episodes were a good start to The Good Place.

Some other thoughts:

* I screencapped the two pieces of the orientation video where you can see examples of actions that add or deduct points to your lifetime score.

* Given that admission to the Good Place is based on a points system that seems to have cumulative value, it seems odd that the great majority of the residents we see look to be 40 and under. We'll have to wait for an explanation on this (maybe who die older wind up in their own neighborhoods?), or perhaps some older neighbors once the show has a chance to build up its cast of recurring characters ala Pawnee or Dunder-Mifflin.

* Something else to ponder is the way everyone is granted a soulmate, but at least in the examples we see, it's someone they never knew in their life on earth. This brings up the dilemma Robin Williams faced in What Dreams May Come: How can Heaven be a perfect place to be if the one you loved most on Earth isn't there to share it with you? Eleanor's zen attitude about being dead in the opening scene suggests Good Place residents are able to let go of earthly attachments, but she's also probably not the best test case here, given that she was a lousy person whom no one had reason to care about.

* Then again, the fact that Janet is used to fulfilling requests for porn in a place where everyone is theoretically matched with their soulmate – not to mention the matter of the fake Teacup not really being capable of loving its master – raises other questions of how perfectly the system actually works, Eleanor aside.

* My hope is that the special effects required for the giant frogs and ladybugs were expensive enough that the show doesn't go there again. Creepy.

* Having seen additional episodes, I know who left the “You don't belong here” note for Eleanor, but I'm curious whom you guys think it was.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Around The Web