The Good Place: Off to a good-but-not-great start

I wasn’t at all sold on The Good Place based upon the previews, but it looked just weird and whimsical enough that I felt like I had to check it out anyway. I’m glad I did, because The Good Place is genuinely good, with the potential to be great if it continues to play upon its strengths and gives up on a couple of it’s more irritating quirks and doesn’t avoid delving into some of its darker themes.

Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, an asshole who dies (tragicomically, of course) and is mistakenly sent to The Good Place because she shares a name with a woman who works as a lawyer rescuing inmates from death row. Hijinks ensue as Eleanor is introduced to—and promptly confesses the clerical error to—her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics who is now faced with a major ethical dilemma. Ted Danson is Michael, the neurotic architect of the theoretically-perfectly-designed afterlife town in which they find themselves residing, and Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto are Tahani and Jianyu, the next-door neighbors. D’Arcy Carden rounds out the main cast as Janet, a sort of magical Google whose perfect discretion seems to have her slated to be Eleanor’s sometime-accomplice as Eleanor tries to ensure that she gets to stay in The Good Place. It’s a decent cast, and Danson and Bell both do a good job of performing without overshadowing the relative newcomers they share scenes with.

The pilot episode is largely dedicated to exposition, starting with Eleanor’s death and launching right into a tour of the neighborhood, the introduction of her soulmate, and a hilariously informative orientation video that details some of the point system by which souls are judged. It’s a lot to take in, and it does at times feel a little info-dumpy, but it’s a worthwhile use of time that gets a lot of the important exposition out of the way right up front, hopefully keeping it from getting in the way of storytelling later on. It’s also very, very funny, with the exception of the running joke about Eleanor not being able to curse, which wasn’t even very funny the first time.

In addition to giving us the outlines of the show’s high concept, the pilot also introduces its big idea, which is a simple question: What does it mean to be Good? It’s obvious from the start that the show intends for us to understand goodness as something far more complex and nuanced than any numerical score can really calculate, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to keep examining and reexamining such a simple idea in interesting ways week after week. Eleanor’s road to redemption as she works to earn her place in paradise promises to be a rocky one, with plenty of laughs along the way, but I’m not entirely certain it merits a television series.

Secondary ideas like the concept of “soulmates” have been introduced as well, and the exploration of that idea could be fascinating. Bell and Harper have an easy, if somewhat sexless, chemistry, and it’s obvious that Eleanor stimulates Chidi on an intellectual level; I loved the scene where he is gleefully planning out a curriculum for Eleanor’s ethical education. Even more interesting is the relationship between Tahani and Jianyu, both of whom seem to be completely miserable in their assigned partnership. They’re obviously mismatched, and Tahani in particular has a sort of subdued desperation when it comes to her interactions with her soulmate that is at odds with her otherwise garrulous personality. I’d love to see that looked at in more depth, in no small part because it would rescue Tahani from being little more than a caricature of clueless philanthropic posturing.

Honestly, my biggest concern with this show is that I don’t know if the half-hour sitcom format is going to give these characters and themes the time they need to grow in the depth they’ll need to keep being interesting. There’s not a whole lot going on here, which is fine—I like a show that knows what it wants to be and sticks to it—but is twenty-ish minutes going to be enough for it to be successful? The jokes are funny, but barely enough for a half hour. However, the themes have enough potential that they could easily drive an hour-long dramedy.

Also of concern is the sheer derivativeness of every aspect of the show so far. Charitably, I could call it a mash up of a lot of beloved tropes and aesthetics. Uncharitably, I’d say it relies far too much on its similarities to other shows in order to build good will with the audience. There are shades of Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and every other death-related show or movie of the last fifteen years. The kitsch of the setting is fun, but it doesn’t do enough so far to set itself apart visually from either common conceptions of heaven or bucolic television small towns like Star’s Hollow. It’s fine, if you like that sort of thing (and I do), but it’s certainly not winning any awards for originality.

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic about this show’s prospects. I don’t think we’ve got a hit on our hands, but I do think it’s going to be a few hours of fun that probably won’t make its audience think too hard (although perhaps it ought to). There are some amazing comedic moments in these first two episodes, and the capable cast seems to be having fun, which is infectious and endearing. So far, The Good Place is likeable enough for me to want to watch more, even if it doesn’t have me terribly excited.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • That orientation video begs for frame-by-frame analysis.
  • I really hope the show continues to let Tahani’s rather desperate unhappiness peek out from time to time.
  • I feel like The Good Place is obviously a dystopia, and I hope that this is proven out over the next few episodes. The sort of enforced cheer of the place’s residents needs to be looked at.
  • Ted Danson kicking that dog into the sun was genuinely surprising and probably the biggest laugh of the first two episodes for me.
  • I like that Chidi is blunt with Eleanor about her terribleness, but I do worry a little that this sort of cheerily calling out of racism understates the issue. I’d like to hear what POC think about the way Eleanor’s racist behavior was handled, so if you have an opinion or have seen an opinion, let me know.

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