Saturday, September 23, 2017

One Hell of a Show: NBC’s The Good Place Returns

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell

Warning: This review covers the entire first season of The Good Place, as well as the premiere of Season Two. It contains extensive discussion of plot points from throughout the show’s run thus far.

Setting a television comedy in the afterlife seems like an excellent way to set yourself up for failure. Since there is, by its very nature, a distinct sense of finality about the place, it’s hard to see how you might tell a long-running story that’s set there. Furthermore, since most religious traditions view existence after death as primarily a matter of receiving one’s just reward or punishment for their actions on the mortal plane, it’s not clear how you might develop a sense of character, or achieve any sort of narrative progression or tension. However, that’s just what Michael Schur and the creative team of NBC’s The Good Place achieved on the first season of the show.

As Mark Clamen noted in his initial review of The Good Place’s premiere, Schur’s metaphysical comedy had a rather tentative beginning. I found myself watching the first few episodes primarily out of curiosity as to how – or if – the show’s premise would develop, as well as for the performances by Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. However, as the larger scheme behind Schur’s premise began to reveal itself, and as the characters who inhabit this decidedly off-kilter version of heaven became more fully realized, The Good Place became far more than a pleasant-enough entertainment with a veneer of philosophical sophistication.

The Good Place begins as a fish-out-of-water comedy about Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), a prematurely deceased woman with an apparently boundless capacity for insensitivity and nastiness towards her fellow humans. After a gruesome incident involving margarita mix, shopping carts, and “a mobile billboard truck advertising an erectile dysfunction pill,” Eleanor awakes in the afterlife to find that she’s unexpectedly been welcomed into The Good Place, an exclusive club (of all the deceased U.S. presidents, only Abraham Lincoln has made it in so far) whose inhabitants are all far closer to perfect than she is. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that someone’s made a mistake, and that she’s accidentally swapped places with a selfless humanitarian with the same name as hers. Everyone in The Good Place is paired with a soulmate, and hers, philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), tries to school her in ethics in order to turn her into the kind of person who deserves to stay in her current situation. Meanwhile, she butts heads with former socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and tries to figure out what’s going on with a silent, inscrutable Buddhist monk (Manny Jacinto), both of whom have also arrived in The Good Place and seem troubled by their supposedly good fortune.

Ultimately, Eleanor manages to ferret out the truth about her post-mortem existence, realizing that affable, bumbling Michael (Danson), the spirit in charge of her particular slice of heaven, has actually devised a new form of Hell, a Sartre-esque world where his four test subjects – Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and the monk, who turns out to be a failed DJ from Jacksonville named Jason Mendoza – torture each other. Michael reveals his plan and prepares to reset the experiment, erasing his subjects’ memories, but before he does so, Eleanor manages to slip a note into Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the cheery but non-human information system who serves as a sort of mainframe for The Good Place. The note, which simply says, “Find Chidi,” will help her to unravel the mystery again when she wakes up. The new season opens with an episode that shows just how quickly both Michael and Eleanor’s plans unravel: his attempt to stretch out the psychological torture over a much longer span of time fails almost immediately, but that leads him to start over yet again, this time without giving Eleanor sufficient time to warn herself in advance.

William Jackson Harper as Chidi

As you can tell from that plot summary, this is a comedy that’s remarkably reliant on serialization to tell its story, and its creators no doubt acknowledge their debt to more serious-minded shows, such as Lost, that ultimately strayed into similar territory. It’s also, as Mark noted, a high-concept show that, due to its subject matter, could very easily have become either oppressively didactic or so eager not to offend that it felt neutered. Instead, it’s turned into possibly the most high-minded expression of the communitarian ethos that drives Schur’s shows, such as Parks & Recreation or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In this vision, people are flawed and irreducibly complex (arguably to a significantly greater degree than the characters in the other two shows that I’ve cited), and it’s their ability to come together as a group that helps them to overcome their individual failings. Rather than simply advancing this as a thesis, the show invites us to explore it by showing us the budding connections between Eleanor and her fellow denizens of what ultimately proves to be The Bad Place.

Crucially, it also uses that constantly developing sense of the characters and their relationships with one another as the main engine to drive the humor. Consider, for instance, the episode in the first season where Chidi – who’s been sentenced to eternal damnation because of all the harm he’s caused by endlessly weighing the ethical implications of his slightest action – finds himself besieged with professions of love by practically every single woman he’s met in the afterlife. This functions as both a way to drive the plot of the episode and a commentary on the seemingly inevitable will-they-won’t-they dynamic that characterizes romantic relationships on most mainstream television shows.

Ultimately, The Good Place works because of its cast. Danson alone makes the show worth watching. Prior to the second season’s premiere, I went back through the first one again, now that I knew the twist at the end, primarily to watch how he played his scenes. They’re marvels of comic timing, and the change in circumstances brought about by last season’s finale has managed to add new layers to his performance: Michael now knows that his initial failure means that he’s on thin ice with his otherworldly superiors, and there’s a paradoxical blend of malice and vulnerability that Danson manages to convey almost effortlessly in the second season’s opening episode.

Kristen Bell, D'Arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinto

Bell’s also fantastic, giving us a sense of Eleanor as a person who’s capable of steely resolve but also deeply wounded by a past that caused her to shun any sort of substantial connection with another human being. She’s also marvelous at playing the more absurd comic moments, as when she discovers that her (supposed) residing in The Good Place means that any time she means to utter an expletive, it comes out as something innocuous (“Holy motherforking shirtballs!” she exclaims when she figures out Michael’s game in the first season’s finale). She also plays well off Harper, who’s less well known than Danson or Bell but who’s very fine as the tightly wound Chidi. He’s able to make the ethicist’s torment simultaneously believable and manically hilarious.

Carden’s playing a broader, more blatantly absurd, role, but she does so with an impeccable comic sensibility and a blithe, vacant air that’s both very funny and unsettlingly inhuman. Jamil and Jacinto are also both entertaining, although their characters still aren’t as fully sketched out as the leads; the fact that the writers mainly used Tahani as an antagonistic force for Eleanor to overcome in the early episodes has left a lingering deficit in our understanding of her character, while Jason’s defining characteristic is his utter vapidity.

I’ve been alternately thrilled by and skeptical of The Good Place’s ability to develop its premise over the course of its first season, and the apparent restoration of the status quo – Eleanor and her friends reawake in what they think is The Good Place, ignorant of what’s just transpired in their previous two journeys through the afterlife – at the end of Season Two’s premiere hasn’t helped me move in one direction or the other. Regardless, it’s a show that’s operating on a different level than Schur’s other, already excellent shows, and I’m immensely curious to see where this unique comedy goes next.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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