‘The Good Place’ is Michael Schur’s best work yet

NOSELL

NBC

 

Sunday, January 7, 2018 - 5:14pm

Can Michael Schur do any wrong? From “The Office” to “Parks and Recreation” to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” his particular style of comedy sitcom manages to outclass nearly every other show of its genre, excelling at being optimistic but not sappy and featuring memorable ensemble casts. Yet somehow, even when compared to the legendary aforementioned shows, “The Good Place” may just be his best work of all.

“The Good Place” returned from its winter break with the episode “Leap of Faith,” in which Michael (Ted Danson, “Fargo”) faces an unexpected visit from the all-powerful judge of the afterlife, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson, “22 Jump Street”). However, he somehow manages to leave the meeting unscathed, actually in a better position than when he came in. Nonetheless, Shawn’s verdict renders Eleanor (Kristen Bell, “How to Be a Latin Lover”), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper, “Paterson”) and Jason (Manny Jacinto, “The Romeo Section”) in a spot of bother.

And I’ll leave it at that. Seriously, there is no better way to go into any episode of this show than completely blind. Unlike most major network sitcoms, “The Good Place” is highly serialized, speeding through its plot at a breakneck pace. Lesser shows may stretch moments, such as a montage of Michael’s failures earlier in the season or the initial plot with Shawn into who-knows-how-many episodes, but as Schur proves repeatedly, this show does not play by any of our rules. The infamous twist at the end of season one lent itself to thousands of fan theories which Schur ripped apart and tore down in the space of one episode. Amazingly, even the simplest gags are present in the show’s premiere, such as “The Good Place”automatically replacing profanity with words like “fork” and “shirt.”

Like always, the characters of “The Good Place” are captivating and marvelously portrayed. It’s hard to see anyone but Danson convincingly play Michael, a character that can make anyone fall for his charm while being a literal personification for evil. Bell’s Eleanor is much more clever this season and the most perceptive of the bunch. Jason, the show’s “Andy Dwyer,” makes a character who on paper is rather annoying into (like Andy) one of the show’s most loveable characters — shame he couldn’t be alive to witness his beloved Jaguars have a winning season. Meanwhile Janet (D’Arcy Carden, “Crazy Ex Girlfriend”), the personified “foundational mainframe” of the afterlife is more advanced than ever and provides some of the show’s best gags. We see her vomit coins, play the role of a trophy wife and even feel jealousy, all while cheerfully reminding characters at every turn that she is not a human and doesn’t actually eat or feel or die.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the show is the fact that it tackles and introduces important philosophical theories and works them into the show in such a light-hearted, accessible way. After all, though modern philosophy is still viewed as a detached, academic discipline, “The Good Place” reminds us that studying philosophy may actually be a worthwhile venture. In one of the best episodes of the season, Chidi (the resident moral philosophy professor) teaches Michael and the others about the infamous “Trolley Problem,” which Michael proceeds to simulate in graphic reality. In an effort to make Michael actually care about learning ethics, Chidi makes him come to grips with the fact that he too can actually die (although in a more gruesome manner ironically called “retirement”), causing Michael to spiral into an existential and, subsequently midlife, crisis.

The fact that Michael Schur has wrapped all of these strengths into a major network sitcom is a testament to his immense skill as a writer. Few shows on TV are as original, funny, thought-provoking and deserving of more viewers as “The Good Place.”