‘The Good Place’ Is A Smart, Fun Comedy That Has Lots Of Room To Get Even Better

A review of the new NBC comedy, The Good Place, in five parts.

1. The Good Place stars Kristen Bell as a woman named Eleanor Shellstrop, who a) wakes up in a heaven-like place after dying in an accident that involved a speeding tractor trailer containing erectile dysfunction products, b) was not a very nice person and ended up there by mistake, and c) has a really great name. (Try shouting her last name like an angry high school gym teacher. It’s quite fun.) Upon opening her eyes in this flawless magical wonderland where you can get fro-yo every 500 feet and your cuss words are replaced with less vulgar options (ex. – “What the fork?”), she meets Michael (Ted Danson), the person responsible for designing her afterlife experience. Michael introduces her to her “soul mate,” an ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who matched up with her based on the same algorithm and incorrect information that got her there.

She also meets her neighbors, Tahani and Jianyu (Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto), a couple that appears to be perfect in every way (which drives her insane almost immediately), and Janet (Darcy Carden), a kind of living, peppier embodiment of Siri, who pops up any time you call her and answers any question you might have about the universe (except one).

Then, everything gets royally forked up. There are giant bugs and ominous notes and, no you don’t understand, I mean ***giant*** bugs. Let’s stop the summary here. Any more and we run the risk of spoiling the good parts.

2. It is a fun show. And it’s pretty good so far, through the five episodes NBC released to critics. It’s smart and light — light in tone, not in substance — and a promising step in what appears to be a return to that kind of show from NBC. (This is a good time to remind you that NBC once had a Thursday night lineup of Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock.) None of this should surprise you. The show is the brainchild of Michael Schur, who was an executive producer on The Office during its creative heights, and the creator of Parks and Recreation, and one of the minds behind the greatest baseball website of all time, Fire Joe Morgan. Admittedly, this last thing doesn’t have much to do with whether he can make a good television show, but neither does the very true fact that Regis Philbin is his father-in-law, and look at that, I just shoehorned that in, too.

Anyway, specific highlights include: Bell, both individually and in her character’s relationship with Danson’s character, which is kind of, to over-simplify things, like a bizarro version of Leslie and Ron’s from Parks (instead of an virtuous optimist and a self-assured realist, now we have a manipulative narcissist and a mystical worrier); Carden, who is delightful in her brief appearances; and the supreme amount of joy everyone seems to be having with the blank slate of a heavenly afterlife.

3. At one point in the first few episodes, Ted Danson says the phrase “canyon full of poo poo.” I was originally going to include that in the “specific highlights” paragraph, but I feel like it probably deserves its own numbered entry. So here’s that.

4. If there is a criticism to be made, it would be that this is all some very high-concept, philosophical stuff from a light half-hour sitcom, and a lot of world-building needs to get done before they can start paying off the jokes. This is an issue all new shows have to deal with, to one degree or another. Once you know all the characters and their motivations, goals, and the place in the world they inhabit, you can understand why things are funny without having them explained to you. But because The Good Place takes place in an unfamiliar setting that has different rules than the one we’re familiar with, the show also has to explain all of that, too.

(Also interesting: Unlike The Office and Parks, this Schur-produced show doesn’t use the mockumentary format, so they can’t just show something and then cut to a talking head to fill in the blanks. It’s probably the right decision because mockumentaries are starting to feel stale at this point, but it means everything has to get covered within the context of the show, which also ratchets up the level of difficulty a bit.)

And all of that is fine. It just means that the first few episodes spend a significant amount of time setting things up and slowly revealing new information, and you might not get all the belly laughs you’re hoping for from a comedy with this sort of pedigree. It feels like one of those shows that’s really going to hit its stride in season two or three, once we’ve downloaded all the basic information and they’ve gotten a real feel for their characters. It’s still quite good now, but my point is that there’s a lot of room to grow.

5. So should you watch? Well, yeah. Probably. Although I hope you had already gotten that far based on “new comedy from the creator of Parks and Recreation, starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, the latter of whom plays a character who dies in an accident involving a boner-supplies truck and mistakenly ends up in heaven.” That’s a pretty great piece of business, just on its own. And it’s also nice to have another straightforward, nice comedy on the air. God knows I love BoJack Horseman and Louie and all of our newer, often sad comedies, but it’s also fine to feel good and laugh sometimes, too, you know?

And if I’m being honest here, even my one small nitpick isn’t that bad, because half of the fun of Parks was watching that world slowly grow out and out until Pawnee became as much of a character on the show as Springfield is on The Simpsons. This is how we ended up with Perd Hapley, after all. Everyone involved in this process — Schur, Bell, Danson, etc. — has earned some leeway. From the way things are shaping up, I don’t think they’ll need to use too much of it. But it’s there, just in case.