The Good Place Finds Laughs in the Afterlife
A new comedy from the Parks & Recreation creator Michael Schur goes to deeply philosophical places with its stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.
Michael Schur, the creator of Parks & Recreation, is a sitcom writer who excels at wringing jokes from his characters’ inherent goodness. In an age of more cynical or downbeat TV comedies, Parks was different, celebrating the positivity and can-do spirit of its ensemble even while gently poking fun at it. So it follows that Schur’s next TV effort, The Good Place, dives even further into the nature of human kindness. Set in a sort of non-denominational heaven, Schur’s new show is a network comedy that can discuss Aristotelian ethics in one moment and have its protagonist shove shrimp down her dress in the next; it’s a laugh-out-loud sitcom that nonetheless strives to investigate its storylines on deeper metaphysical grounds.
If that sounds a tad dry, it helps that The Good Place also has the visual feel of a vibrant, live-action cartoon, taking advantage of its prime-time network budget to depict its heavenly realm as a place where anything—really anything—can happen. After watching the first episode, it’s hard not to wonder how long a show with this ambitious a plot could really run—sitcoms are usually about reverting to the status quo at the end of every episode, while The Good Place’s storytelling feels more like that of a serialized sci-fi drama. But for this season, it’s hard not to be thrilled by Schur’s original vision.
Schur has said he was inspired by The Wire, HBO’s great drama of cities, government, and urban crime, when creating Parks & Recreation, a much more whimsical take on the challenges of trying to effect change in a community. For The Good Place, he’s citing another serialized drama: the unfairly maligned cult hit Lost, which wrestled with the philosophy of free will and determinism on the landscape of a magical desert island. Like Lost, The Good Place seems fascinated with testing the moral boundaries of its characters in a fantasy world, prodding at the underpinnings of American society, though it’s obviously funnier (and lacks a terrifying smoke monster).
In the pilot episode, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) wakes up after her death in a charming modernist village, a sort of swankier Ikea, where her every desire is granted and her home is custom-built to fit her personality (she liked clowns, so the walls are covered in pictures of them). Her guide is Michael (Ted Danson), a celestial middle manager who helps run the “good place,” the friendly afterlife she made it to thanks to all of her good deeds. Her new soulmate is Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a recently deceased fellow who’s been specifically matched to her. The only problem, Eleanor quickly notes, is that she’s not the do-gooder they think she is: In some cosmic filing error, she’s ended up in paradise on the back of someone else’s kindness. Horror of horrors—she doesn’t even like clowns.
It’s a cute premise, and Schur has fun matching Bell’s naturally sunshiny on-screen presence with a flippant, rotten-egg personality. Eleanor admits that she isn’t the selfless type and may well belong in the “bad place,” the unseen flipside to this paradise, but she doesn’t want to leave. The story arc of the show is about her trying to become the good person Michael mistook her for, with the assistance of her beleaguered, altruistic soulmate, Chidi. Harper is a revelation in a complicated role—Chidi is an endlessly chipper straight man who will digress, at length, about the history of morality in philosophy, summing up the positions of Kant or Aristotle to a disinterested Eleanor.
But he feels like more than a helpful sidekick; he and Bell have an unusual chemistry that extends past the typical will-they-won’t-they of many sitcoms. Eleanor wants to avoid whatever hellish existence she imagines awaits her in the “bad place,” but Chidi seems intrigued by the challenge of making her goodness more than performative, like it’s one last trial in his journey toward true enlightenment. Danson is a total delight as Michael, clearly relishing the challenge of playing someone so upbeat when his comic legacy was built playing grumpy protagonists on shows like Cheers and Becker. Michael feels like a fleshed-out version of the “helpful” Clippy cartoon from old editions of Microsoft Word—an avatar of customer service who starts to feel grating, but is bizarrely amusing as Eleanor’s presence in the “good place” makes things go haywire.
It’s unclear early on how Schur’s main influence, Lost, will impact the season. That series was an instant sensation that faded when it began confusing its fans with layers of mysterious plotting that sometimes ended up going nowhere. It’s almost underrated at this point, but there’s no doubt Lost was occasionally undone by its ambition. In creating a similarly enigmatic show with lower dramatic stakes (no one’s getting picked off by shadowy “Others” here), Schur has set himself quite the storytelling challenge.
He’s helped by the limitless parameters of his setting—in the “good place,” anything is possible, and the pilot ends with the kind of cacophonous CGI spectacle most sitcoms would never dream of. Ultimately, The Good Place depends not on a vast ensemble or plot reversals, but on the outlook of its protagonist and whether her more negative attitude toward life can be undone in death. On Parks & Recreation, Schur often proved he could mine humor from harmony, rather than conflict; on The Good Place, he’s setting that standard as his heroine’s ultimate goal. She’ll either find peace, or destroy heaven trying to.