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‘The Good Place’ Promises a Good Time

By COURTESY OF NBC
By Michael J. Yue, Contributing Writer

With “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” under his belt, it seemed that writer and sitcom creator Michael Schur could do no wrong. Now, Schur attempts to add to his illustrious track record with “The Good Place,” an NBC sitcom whose premise of life after death is perhaps harder to translate to the sitcom structure than his other TV successes. But while “The Good Place” does indeed get bogged down in trying to maintain a recognizable format, there are still frequent moments of high-spirited whimsy that lighten the subject matter and convey an infectious sense of fun.

Here’s the basic idea: Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, has died and been chosen by Michael, a cosmic city planner played by legendary sitcom star Ted Danson, to become a part of his select afterlife community, a picturesque neighborhood filled with spacious gardens and immaculate pastel décor. She meets her appointed “soul mate,” a likable Senegalese ethics professor named Chidi, played by William Jackson Harper, and attempts to settle into the idyllic community. But here’s the problem: Eleanor has been mistaken for someone else—she’s actually a horrible person who has the potential to quite literally destroy the Good Place at its core. With Chidi’s help, Eleanor must learn to coexist in a society replete with an almost nauseating amount of virtue and selflessness.

These first episodes (written by Schur and Alan Yang of “Master of None” fame) clearly have a lot of exposition to get out of the way. Although the velocity of jokes remains high, it’s obvious that the show is sticking to typical sitcom dialogue and plot, with Eleanor and Chidi often trading inane banter about moral redemption and getting into rather predictable misunderstandings. A few laughs scattered throughout the hour fall flat; the show relies too much on pop culture references and surface-level characterization (Tahani, an antagonist, is simply a haughty upper-class stereotype, and Danson’s character is given far too many fish-out-of-water jokes as an omnipotent being in a human body). Over-the-top flashbacks depicting the depravity of Eleanor’s past life and several other recurring jokes yield quickly diminishing returns.

That said, the jokes that land really work. When the show briefly contemplates the unspeakable horror of the Bad Place below (which the Good Place residents cheerfully gloss over in their daily lives), Schur introduces a gleefully dark sense of humor to his pastel world, promising a bit more edge than what the traditional network show might offer. Fascinatingly odd and cartoonish sight gags (although some are hindered by the rather unrealistic effects) are also littered throughout, and the genuine chemistry between Eleanor and Chidi shines through most of the show’s pitfalls.

It’s evident that the high-concept nature of the show allows a lot of opportunity for worldbuilding, which provides many of the more colorful jokes. The show also holds a mirror to contemporary society in rather subtle ways, as everything from casual remarks on the ubiquity of frozen yogurt to Tahani’s narcissistic behavior seems like passing jabs at us as a whole. The show is relatively uninterested in the critiques of religion that one might expect from its premise; its preferred target seems to be the hollow altruism and narcissism of today. If “The Good Place” continues to dig into this treasure trove of material over the course of the season, the show promises to be not a forgettable diversion but instead a thoughtful, whimsical journey toward moral virtue and inner fulfillment that can’t fail to leave a grin on your face.

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