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.