It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the network sitcom is dead. The best comedies are found on cable, or HBO, or streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and they don’t make you laugh; they make you laugh and cry. Think Zach Galifianakis’s show will be just like The Hangover? Nope, it’s actually a bone-dry and often tragic examination about how hard it is to be funny, to be a literal clown. All the Big Four networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC — have to offer are fart jokes and Kevin James, occasionally at the same time.
That’s how it seems, at least, until you take a closer look.
There’s some great stuff happening on network television. ABC, for instance, ushered in a new age of family sitcoms with Modern Family and The Middle in 2009, and built upon their success with The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and Speechless. Fox still uses The Simpsons — the greatest TV show in history — as an anchor for Bob’s Burgers, The Last Man on Earth, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which recently moved to Tuesdays, where it found a spiritual (and crossover) sibling in New Girl. Even CBS, which used to be synonymous with groundbreaking comedy thanks to I Love Lucy, All In the Family, and The Honeymooners, offers Mom, which is much better than you think it is. Then there’s NBC. NBC was behind the last great sitcom block, when Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock all aired on the same night. Nothing on TV now can compare to that — not even Game of Thrones into Silicon Valley into Veep into Last Week Tonight — but NBC, after some tinkering with The Slap and Heroes Reborn, has found a nice one-two pairing in Superstore and The Good Place, both of which return tonight.
The Good Place — which comes from Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Michael Schur — is about a woman named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who gets sent to “The Good Place” after she dies. The sort-of Heaven is overseen by Michael (Ted Danson), who, thanks to a comical misunderstanding, doesn’t realize he has the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop. Real Eleanor is a “perfect ball of light.” Fake Eleanor is a “wet pile of mulch,” to quote d-bag Trevor (Adam Scott). Or at least she was when she was alive. With assistance from her ethical mentor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Fake Eleanor is finally learning to be a decent human. Also, there’s a scene-stealing “information assistant” named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) who, despite having infinite knowledge of the universe, currently can’t tell the difference between a cactus and jalapeño poppers.
That’s the thing about The Good Place. It takes a potentially lame-sounding premise — “bad person tries to be good” — and surrounds it with enough weirdness to make the show subversive and (I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without using this word) great. The Good Place? More like The… well, you know the rest. The show excels at misdirections. In the midseason finale, Michael throws a party in Tahani’s house to impress Trevor’s goons — who can’t imagine eating without the sounds of hardcore porn — from the Bad Place. When it’s time for karaoke, the obvious song for them to play would be something by Nickelback, Limp Bizkit, or some other objectively terrible band. Instead, they put on the Nixon Tapes. (“It’s about damn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”) That’s a joke you’d expect to hear on Louie, not from a show that airs before Chicago Med.
The episode ends on a hopeful note, with Michael sticking up for Fake Eleanor and banishing Trevor back to the Bad Place, though not before he makes reference to Sean, “the wise, eternal Judge who sits on high and has the final say on all disputes between our two realms.” It’s a clever bit of universe-building that will hopefully pay off down the line. I say “hopefully” because ratings for The Good Place are not great, Bob — the series has already shed five million viewers from its September premiere. That’s a shame because The Good Place is the kind of show that doesn’t exist elsewhere. It’s a silly network sitcom built around characters learning lessons about themselves, not unlike New Girl, but with an underlying BoJack Horseman-like darkness. It’s never about the gloominess, though, the way You’re the Worst tackled depression or Lady Dynamite… also tackled depression. The Good Place is “first and foremost [a] comedy,” according to Kristen Bell, but “once you capture someone’s attention with the laughter, you do find these spots where you can insert these moral or ethical examinations.” You won’t find classic sitcom punchlines on Girls, or moral examinations on The Big Bang Theory. The Good Place exists between conceptual extremes — it’s Fake Eleanor’s Medium Place.
With so many great and buzzworthy shows on cable and streaming services, it’s easy to write off musty ol’ network television — the rock ‘n’ roll to Netflix’s hip-hop. But there’s some exciting stuff happening on the Big Four, including The Good Place, an introspective FX soul trapped in NBC’s goofy body.