NO ONE KNOWS what happens next. If we could, well it would change everything. Let’s be honest though, it would ruin the fun if we did know. It certainly would make writers’ jobs less interesting. It’s natural to wonder though, where do we go when we die? Is anyone actually close to what the afterlife is like? And most importantly, if there is a heaven, have I been good enough to get in?
This brings us to The Good Place, NBC’s latest collaboration with Michael Schur (Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), a half-hour comedy series that sees Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) discover from Michael (Ted Danson), a Good Place Architect, that she was died and gone to The Good Place for all her work as a lawyer fighting the death penalty. Only she isn’t that Eleanor Shellstrop, she was a selfish, insensitive fake medicine salesperson. After things start to go wrong in The Good Place, Eleanor, as taught by her appointed soul-mate Chidi (a relevatory William Jackson Harper) must learn to be a better person to avoid detection and more importantly, avoid being sent to the bad place.
What works so well about the series is that it’s sit-com length, it’s written by a normally sit-com writing staff but it’s not written like a sit-com. There are no wasted ‘filler’ episodes, everything is plot and character first with the jokes just thrown in because hey, it’s not that difficult to do both if you’re clever. Beyond the immediate character growth of Eleanor, played with a winning charm by Bell, we also see the apparently perfect residents of The Good Place unravelled and reveal they’re just as broken as normal people in many ways. Even Michael, the closest thing this show about the afterlife has to a God, is shown to be a being of unknown age and power but is also riddled with anxieties as he’s worried about doing a bad job and screwing up the neighbourhood. The ability of this show to advance its entire cast’s stories every week, even in small ways is well mirrored in the (not always literal) cracks beginning to show in The Good Place.
The direction, as standard set by Cabin in the Woods‘ Drew Goddard in the pilot (which should be your first hint that there’ll be a big mystery coming), is clean and simple but effective and works well with the styling of The Good Place as a place that is almost disgustingly nice to the point of having literally every possible frozen yoghurt flavour. While Bell and Danson are typically great, the real honours go to the aforementioned Harper, Jameela Jamil as socialite and philanthropist Tahani, Manny Jacinto as buddhist monk Jianyu and D’Arcy Carden as super computer assistant droid Janet. These four (at least to me) previously unknown bring their A-game standing up to and matching the more seasoned pros with Harper able to produce some exasperated expressions the kind not seen as hilariously since, well, Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt in Schur’s previous show.
With only 13 episodes and a standard Commercial channel length of about 21 minutes per episode, you only need put aside about 4 1/2 hours to enjoy the entirety of The Good Place. Especially with the apparent signs that the show might not be back for a second season (UPDATE: I was wrong, it is), it’s a perfect enclosed story (with little threads left hangng to pull at if they get the chance). But the show is very much the sum of its parts. Every episode taken on its own may not be flawless television, though the final three episodes are pretty damn close, and especially some of the middle stretch of the season while it feels necessary to the plot isn’t always as enjoyable. Sometimes it can start to get so invested in its plotline that it sacrifices the joke-per minute ratio of say, Brooklyn Nine Nine but what works is the realisation that everything has been planned and links in its own small way. Finding out that Schur consulted Damon Lindelof makes sense in how the central mystery plays out in such surprisingly compelling form for a half-hour comedy series. Put aside an afternoon and (to quote one of Schur’s other shows) treat yo’self, you won’t regret it, I’m sure you’ll leave the show feeling that you’re definitely in The Good Place. Seriously, I have to stop with this puns, they’re getting worse.