This week marks a bit of a departure from my usual review. Over the years, I’ve drifted from strictly theatrical films to streaming films, or even, on rare occasions, a streaming series, such as “Jessica Jones” on Netflix. This week, however, I’m going to recommend the first regular network series. TV has gotten better and better over the last 10 years, and this week’s show proves the trend isn’t only on exclusive platforms like Amazon or Netflix. “The Good Place” on NBC is as funny and smart as some of that network’s best, which has included high points in “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” What makes it different, however, is that it also has the scope and subversive perspective that are usually confined to pay-to-play channels.
Full disclosure — even though the first two seasons of “The Good Place” aired regularly on NBC, I did watch them all over the course of a couple of weeks on Netflix. The story revolves around Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop, a self-obsessed, selfish lout who happily sells worthless supplements to unsuspecting rubes over the phone. That is, until she’s unceremoniously flattened by a combination of shopping carts and a Viagra truck in the parking lot of her local grocery store.
Eleanor finds herself in a comfortable waiting room and is ushered in speak to Michael, a friendly managerial type played by Ted Danson. “Eleanor, you’re in the Good Place,” he announces much to her relief. Apparently, she is told, it is exceedingly difficult to get into the Good Place, and the vast majority of humanity’s historical population is languishing in the Bad Place, undergoing any number of insidious tortures. Eleanor is taken outside to meet, not only her fellows, but also her actual soul mate, a Senegalese ethics professor names Chidi Anagonye. However, after listening to details from the valuable lives led by Chidi and her fellow Good Place denizens, including British socialite/philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil and silent Tibetan monk Jianyu Li, Eleanor realizes there has been a terrible mistake. She doesn’t belong. She tells Chidi and, after convincing him that there would be no ethical upside to reporting her, she agrees to take ethics lessons in order to become the kind of person that would be allowed to stay. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s subterfuge is causing ripples that could shake the Good Place to its very foundations.
One of the things I like most about this show is that it is able to expertly balance humor and cosmic scope without relying on special effects. Sure, there is the occasional CGI bit, but those are few and far between. And yet, the show doesn’t feel small. The showrunners nail the tone the way Albert Brooks did in “Defending Your Life,” a film that surely influenced “The Good Place” even though their story lines are completely different. The humor is sweet, but surprisingly sharp, and the show goes dark in interesting and unexpected ways. Bell anchors the show expertly and is in nearly every scene. Despite being the sort of everyman character, she gets lots of opportunities to play it delightfully deplorable. Taking place in the afterlife, the show exists out of time, and the writers have a lot of fun with flashbacks and resets. In addition to Bell, the principal cast is great, including William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D’Arcy Carden as Janet and Manny Jacinto as Jason. None of these actors are currently household names, but the show provides them with ample opportunity to shine and it’s no doubt this will make their careers. Rounding out the cast is Ted Danson who is doing really great work here. He’s become so much more animated in his later years, similar to the way Alec Baldwin has grown into a fully comedic actor. Danson’s Michael is, in some ways, the most complex character in the show, even though he is supposed to be playing an archetype.
I’m going to be interested to see where this show goes, and if it has the legs to stay in the race. The new model for shows on pay platforms is to run somewhere between two and five season, but the old network shows ran much longer than that. “The Good Place” started season three this year and I find it kind of remarkable that the show is able to maintain its freshness and creativity as well as it has. Every episode ends with a surprise and season two had such a satisfying finale that I wouldn’t have been sad if the show had ended there. I hope it is able to maintain, if only because I really enjoy spending time with the characters, but honestly, I have no idea how it can keep up the kind of surprising and insightful output. There is a ton of good TV out there, I know, and you just can’t watch it all. But if you’re looking for a light, 22-minute commitment that is able to sneak some very insightful philosophy in amongst the comedy, “The Good Place” is where you want to be. Grade: A
“The Good Place” includes some adult themes, including discussions of sex and violence, though in a relatively gentle tone.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.