In this job, a lot of TV shows come over the transom, and I regretfully admit that I don’t get to all of them as quickly as I’d like, if I get to them at all. Such was the case with NBC’s The Good Place, which finished its second critically adored season last month.
I saw the reviews calling it a masterpiece, I heard word-of-mouth that it was terrific, but I didn’t get around to actually, you know, watching it until I had a long flight. After binging most of season 1 on that flight, and catching up on season 2 on Sling (where it will be available until March 7), I can confirm that this show is fantastic and well worth the time. Here’s seven spoiler-free reasons why:
It feels good
The Good Place is the story of the recently-deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who soon learns in the afterlife, there is a Good Place and a Bad Place. Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of her neighborhood within the Good Place, soon introduces her to her soulmate (everyone meets their soulmate in the Good Place), an African ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper). She also meets a mute Buddhist Monk named Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) and his soulmate, a wealthy philanthropist named Tahani (Jameela Jamil). The trouble is, Eleanor knows she was an awful person in life and can only be in the Good Place accidentally, so Chidi agrees to teach her ethics in hopes of getting her permanent status in the Good Place.
Though it frequently shows in flashback what a horrorshow Eleanor was on Earth, its major themes have to do with ethics, and the specter of the Bad Place and the ceaseless, unimaginable torture that goes on there hangs like a shadow over all the characters’ actions, The Good Place manages to keep a sunny attitude and a cheery feel, frequently reminding its characters they can do better, be better, and become happier in the process. Considering the show was created by Mike Schur, whose last project was the relentlessly optimistic Parks and Recreation, this makes perfect sense.
In Eleanor, Chidi, Jianyu, Tahani and Michael, Schur has created five nearly perfect archetypes, plus an all-knowing, nigh-omnipotent being-slash-assistant called Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who illustrates the good and the bad in people (and nigh-omnipotent beings). But Schur is also smart enough to use those characters to undermine the same truths he’s underlining, which somehow makes them ring that much truer. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling, and I am trying really hard not to do that.
It is no surprise Kristen Bell, who’s been reliably charming, funny, and believable since Veronica Mars, carries those qualities into her rendering of Eleanor, a deeply flawed, selfish woman trying to get better — she’s loose and game and litters her lines with ‘dude’s and ‘man’s in a much more authentic 21st-century vernacular than is typically permitted in a leading role — and, even less surprising, Ted Danson just Ted Dansons all over this thing like the GOAT he is. But while Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, and D’Arcy Carden are all totally new to me, they each inhabit their characters like seasoned pros.
I promised myself I would not be the reviewer who spoils the show he’s reviewing in the reviews so I will not mention any details — suffice it to say that, as boring as a show built around ethical debates might sound, it is a rip-roaring good time with plot to burn, constantly rearranging its status quo and finding new ways to explore its themes while also being consistently hilarious.
I know I mentioned him above but I can’t say enough about how much he brings to this show. Ted Danson has been around for so long, starting with his iconic role on Cheers (arguably the greatest sitcom of all time) that some of us may have been taking him for granted, but here he reminds us exactly why he’s the greatest. The role of Michael allows him the widest range of tones to play possibly in his entire career, and of course, he crushes every one of them out of the park. Enjoy him while he’s here because you’ll miss him when he’s gone.
It’s about something
There was a recent quote in an interview with Atlanta creator Donald Glover about how he “Trojan Horsed” the weirder elements of his show by emphasizing some more traditional (and, as it turned out, quickly discarded) elements to network executives. I don’t know what strategy Mike Schur used, but somehow he managed to get a show that, at bottom, is a debate of ethics, philosophy, spirituality, and the afterlife onto a broadcast network. (My guess is he just said “Ted Danson” and NBC wrote him a blank check.) If you’re not careful, you might learn something!
Season 1 of The Good Place is available now on Netflix; Season 2 is available on Sling until March 7.