Bell and Danson make a winning pair in “The Good Place”

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 9:02pm

“The Good Place”

“The Good Place” Buy this photo
NBC

 

What does the afterlife look like? Is it dark and barren? Do we get to see our loved ones who have passed already? Are any religions correct in determining what it’ll be like? These kinds of questions have been asked and thrown around for years in philosophical debates, college classrooms and laid back stoner sessions. But in the world of NBC’s clever new comedy “The Good Place” — created by “Parks & Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” mastermind Michael Schur — the afterlife might simply be a place that mirrors our own flawed society, except with a few thousand more frozen yogurt shops.

Without ruminating too much on the complicated, religious-heavy nature of Heaven and Hell, “The Good Place” pulls no punches in establishing an amiable yet thought-provoking idea of the world to come. Even more so, the show offers an intriguing plot about grappling with past mistakes and working to become a “good” human being, even in the afterlife.

The hapless female lead Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, “House of Lies”) attempts to be this better person after her tragicomic death sends her to the Good Place, a paradisal, corporatized hereafter filled with millions of deceased do-gooders. Enter Michael (Ted Danson, “Bored to Death”), the befuddled, bow-tie wearing architect of the Good Place, who explains to Eleanor that she’s in the Good Place due to her good deeds of getting innocent people off death row and helping starving children in Ukraine. Problem is, Eleanor didn’t do any of that — there’s been a mixup, and she’s been put in the Good Place by mistake. Now, Eleanor must avoid being found out and subsequently sent to eternal damnation, known as the Bad Place.  

For a traditional sitcom with a high-concept, supernatural twist, “The Good Place” is fascinating and even quite cerebral, thanks to Shur’s assured direction, writing and talented collaborators — “The Martian” screenwriter Drew Goddard directed the pilot. The witty dialogue alone makes “The Good Place” stand out as a comedy aiming to take risks and often hitting the targets. At one point in the pilot, Eleanor asks, “Who’s in the Bad Place that would shock me?”

“Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, basically every artist ever. Every U.S. president, except for Lincoln,” Michael deadpans.

“That sounds about right,” Eleanor responds.

The main plot, though somewhat formulaic, also proves to be an effective and intelligent story, tracking Eleanor’s journey from being a horrible, insufferable person on Earth, showcased through darker toned flashbacks, to someone with a slightly improving moral compass in a utopic eternity. Along the way, Eleanor gets reluctant help from ingenious ethics professor and chosen soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper, “True Story”), who has promised to keep her secret from Michael and the rest of the Good Place townsfolk. Bell and Harper’s banter and chemistry is also surprisingly pleasant and refreshing, propelling “The Good Place” into something that’s more than just an ordinary comedy about the afterlife.        

In the midst of the show’s brilliant writing and storytelling, the acting is what truly certifies the brilliance of “The Good Place,” which makes sense considering how Schur has incorporated similarly talented, diverse casts in his other shows. Following her comedic leading part on Showtime’s now-defunct “House of Lies,” Bell returns to the small screen to deliver yet another nuanced and charming lead performance. Danson also makes a welcome comeback to network television, still hilarious and sharp at 68 years old. Additionally, Jackson Harper performs admirably in what might be his breakout role, along with Michael’s Siri-like assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden, “Broad City”), Eleanor’s beautiful, uppity neighbor Tahani al-Jamil (newcomer Jameela Jamil) and her mute monk soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto, “Once Upon a Time”).   

While “The Good Place” certainly delivers, a part of me fears for its fate. It reminds me of another somewhat similar, high-concept sitcom that I used to watch: ABC’s promising, short-lived “Samantha Who?” That show, which lasted only two seasons, followed a blonde-haired female lead (Christina Applegate), who wakes up with amnesia and seeks to make a fresh start to separate from her past mean self. Fortunately, “The Good Place” possesses a much stronger position in this newly emerged era of “peak TV.” But considering the crowded network schedule and the tendency for networks to cancel shows with middling ratings despite high acclaim, let’s hope the NBC heads keep “The Good Place” from going six feet under.