NBC’s new comedy The Good Place feels like a female entry into high-concept comedies like My Name is Earl or Last Man on Earth, and I say that with the intention of offering high praise. Both of those are two of my favorite entries into a specific kind of comedy…high-concept shows which not only focus on unlikable characters, but where the overall premise is about the redemption of said unlikable characters. We have a lot of TV with unlikable anti-heroes (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Always Sunny in Philadelphia), but to actually try to redeem an unlikable protagonist is a balancing act. Don’t go too schmaltzy or too dark, commit to them being bad people but also make their redemption the character’s evolution. Make that change into their hero’s journey. It results in some inspiring, wonderful TV when done well, and The Good Place has the potential to be the next in line.
It isn’t insignificant to note The Good Place’s main character, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), is a rare character for a network comedy. We’ve had a number of unlikable leading men (they’ve almost become cliche), but to be an unlikable woman in the lead is harder to pull off with general audiences. Bell is more than capable of winning over audiences. Here she shows those too often underused comedic skills that made her so incredibly watchable in Veronica Mars (and too many movies unworthy of her talent). She has a remarkable ability to be daffy while still having an edge, which results is some incredibly strong humor; her pint-sized stature yielding unexpected snark.
In the first episode, Eleanor arrives in The Good Place (something kind of like heaven), a place that people can only get to if they have enough good points to earn access. Considering the candy-colored look of the show, the dark aspect that only a small number of people get in while everyone else ends up in the torturous other place suggests darker places and ideas that the show could get to in future episodes. Eleanor is guided into the afterlife by Michael (the great Ted Danson), the creator of this new perfect place who took a human form. Danson, like Bell, is so good that the show serves as a reminder that he’s an actor just not used enough. His alien curiosity over what to do with sweat is one of the show’s biggest laughs.
The land also promises to offer Eleanor her soulmate, Chidi (the excellent William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor in his earthly life—only he knows Eleanor isn’t the good person everyone believes she is. After Eleanor hears what it sounds like “down there” from the town’s living computer database Janet (Broad City’s D’Arcy Carden), she doesn’t want to admit she should be there. After a night out with all the other recently departed (pocketing too many jumbo shrimp, drinking too much and showing her bad behavior to her fellow dearly departed), things go haywire in the town because of this unwanted presence. Realizing that her staying will throw off the whole equilibrium of this perfect place (with oh so many frozen yogurt shops…talk about heaven), she realizes the only hope of staying is to become a good person.
The first episode sets up the background and premise, but the potential of the show shines in the second episode. In order to stay, Eleanor surmises that she needs to prove one can become a good person and needs Chidi’s guidance. The first task is to volunteer to clean up the cartoonish mess left by monster shrimp when everyone else goes flying. But being a bad person she takes a shortcut, hides the trash and tries to go flying anyway, causing another mess…a trash storm. Finally feeling remorse for the first time, Eleanor actually does what’s right and cleans things up, suggesting there is potential for her after all.
The show is smart to use the production design they have, which almost seems like something Tim Burton would have done during his Beetlejuice/Pee Wee era. It’s big and ridiculous, like a living cartoon, but more engaging and pleasing to look at than an actual cartoon (like Son of Zorn) and suggesting a real world building on the show. Bell is so good at anchoring her zany character that the show ultimately feels like it will be capable of balancing the broad comedy with the sincere moments. Michael Shur, the creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, is excellent at not only balancing cartoonish comedy with genuine heart but is a master at creating big worlds full of characters to surround the leads. That is one of the few things still missing from The Good Place; Jameela Jamil’s character isn’t as well developed or as funny as the others and has the potential to become an annoyance. But I trust Shur enough to believe he can get to that point with this show, and I’m more than happy to invest in the show while he does.