Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dead On: Speechless and The Good Place

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in The Good Place on NBC.

With many of the new network shows yet to air their first episodes, the 2016 fall television is still young, but comedy has already scored two solid wins: NBC's The Good Place and ABC's Speechless.

The Good Place (NBC) is a fantasy/comedy that stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Eleanor Shellstrop, a perfectly terrible person who, after suffering a premature (and markedly humiliating) death, wakes up in an afterlife deemed to reflect a life lived in self-sacrifice and moral loftiness. As Michael (Ted Danson, Cheers, Damages), the region's designer and current administrator, tells her, only very few human beings ever earn such an agreeable eternity – with the remainder ending up in "the bad place." (Of the bad place, we learn tantalizingly little, except that that's where every artist, all American presidents except Abraham Lincoln, and a shocking disproportion of deceased professional basketball players end up.) For the rest of eternity, Eleanor will live in this posh, upper middle class hereafter, along with 300+ of the world's most morally impeccable individuals. But it quickly becomes apparent that, in this "good place," things aren't quite that simple. For one, Eleanor is clearly there by mistake: some sort of clerical error seems to have swapped her selfish, decidedly unaltruistic life for that of self-sacrificing death-row lawyer. Together with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the bookish philosophy professor picked as her "soulmate," as her unwilling accomplice, Eleanor has to figure out how to keep herself from being discovered or risk being resettled to the "other" place.

Frankly, I wasn't immediately compelled by The Good Place. I found myself distracted by its high concept premise, and slightly irritated by what initially seemed like a too-clever sidestepping of even minor religious controversy with its pointedly inoffensive non-denominational afterlife. (In its first minutes, Michael tells Eleanor – and us – that "every religion guessed about 5 percent right.") I also anticipated a frustratingly bland wider cast of innocuous smiling do-gooders. With its vision of a bright, bureaucratic hereafter, I had already half-written the sentence "All the worst aspects of Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life and Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying" during the few minutes of the pilot. I shouldn't have worried.

From the mind of Michael Schur (co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the premise had barely been formed before The Good Place began to pull at it thread by thread – much like the presence of Eleanor slowly begins to tear away at the Good Place's delicate moral ecosystem.(She turns out to be less of a minor glitch in the system than a bull in a metaphysically fragile china shop.) With Danson playing him with the same late-life innocence that marked his delightedly hedonistic character from HBO's Bored to Death, even Michael is revealed to be a novice afterlife architect, with little experience and even less confidence – less archangel than a celestial middle manager promoted beyond his capacities.

A wise tweaking of the comedy genre, The Good Place is also emphatically serialized, with every half hour closing a cliff-hanger reveal that further complicates the on-going story – the latest being the implication that perhaps few, if any, of the place's residents might actually belong there. For a story that began with clear cut-and-dried rules, The Good Place has already taken us into unfamiliar territory.

The cast of ABC's Speechless.

With the premiere of Speechless last Wednesday, ABC completes its full domination of the family sitcom genre, with the new show joining Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, and the not-nearly-celebrated-enough The Middle. (Speaking of The Middle: just how is it that this consistently smart and funny show will be launching its eighth season in October without ever garnering a single significant Emmy nomination? No, a nod for "Outstanding Nonprosthetic Makeup" doesn't count.)

Created by Scott Silveri (who previously gave us NBC's Go On in 2012, another in the growing list of Matthew Perry sitcoms that deserved far more one season), Speechless centres on the brash DiMeo family as they move to an upscale neighbourhood so that the eldest son, 16-year-old J.J., can find a fully integrated classroom to accommodate his advanced cerebral palsy. With only one episode airing so far, Speechless has already demonstrated the same self-assurance and energy that both Modern Family and Black-ish had in their earliest episodes. Like the best and sharpest family comedies (and in this it builds on the model The Middle has been perfecting since 2009), Speechless offers an eminently watchable glimpse into a notably imperfect but still loving family.

The ensemble cast gels immediately and Micah Fowler, who plays J.J., is undoubtedly going to be the show's breakout star. The actor, who has cerebral palsy like his on-screen counterpart, is the beating heart of the show, dominating every scene he's in without having to say a word. But he's also in great company, with Minnie Driver (The Riches) as his put-upon mother Maya, John Ross Bowie (Kripke from The Big Bang Theory) as his father Jimmy, Mason Cook as his quirky brother Ray, and Kyla Kenedy (The Walking Dead) as his young sister Dylan – though admittedly first episode hasn't yet given us enough to fully flesh out the characters of Jimmy or Dylan. Cedric Yarbrough (Reno 911!) completes the main cast as Kenneth, the wiseass and unflappable school janitor who finds himself chosen by J.J. to be his 'voice' after the school-appointed caregiver flails partway through the first half hour. (J.J. communicates by way of a screen and pointer, requiring someone to translate for him at all times.)

Like The Good Place, Speechless also painlessly avoids any of the didactism risked by its premise. As irreverent and full-hearted as its central family – J.J.'s first on-screen communication is an implied profanity – Speechless takes on the absurdity of recent fads of awkward inclusivity (with shades of Community, the high school's mascot is a sea slug, "which has both male and female genitalia," the principal reveals with self-congratulatory enthusiasm to the new family) and easily replaces them with flawed, compassionate, and fully human faces.

The one-hour premiere of The Good Place aired on September 19 on NBC – its fourth episode will air this Thursday. Speechless premiered on September 21 on ABC – its second episode airs this coming Wednesday.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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