It’s easy to make meanness funny. Television is full of characters — like the casts of Veep, Archer, and You’re the Worst — who’d be intolerably cruel if they weren’t hilarious. But as TV comedies get darker, sadder, and nastier, Mike Schur’s shows have stuck to their radical agenda of niceness and decency. Parks and Recreation featured the sweetest and most selfless government office ever imagined, while Brooklyn 99 takes place in the goofiest and most wholesome police station outside of Mayberry. With his latest series, The Good Place (NBC), which debuted with a two-part premiere last night (September 19), Schur’s given himself his biggest congenial-comedy challenge yet: making heaven hysterical.
The Good Place’s godlike architect, Michael (Ted Danson), would be the first to argue that his handiwork isn’t the Judeo-Christian version of heaven. But the analogy’s close enough. Seemingly modeled after Main Street in Disneyland, protagonist Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) neighborhood in The Good Place boasts pastel-colored frozen-yogurt shops and fastidiously pruned greenery. A big part of this auspicious new show’s original sense of humor comes from its utopian optimism: the yogurt flavor du jour is a full cell-phone battery (so comforting!), and Michael’s attempt at making something “more perfect than perfect” led to the creation of Beyoncé. And because humanity’s “cream of the crop” is apparently made up of a bunch of prigs, Eleanor is stuck blurting neutered curses like, “that’s bullshirt,” “she’s a bench,” and “somebody forked up.”
For those dorky lines to land, they need a performer who can be cute and vinegary at the same time, and so Bell and The Good Place are lucky to have found each other. Eleanor is like the snarky do-gooder Veronica Mars in reverse — a shitheel trying to become a better person, if only for selfish reasons. Eleanor discovers in the pilot that she’s only in The Good Place because of a bureaucratic mix-up; there’s another Eleanor Shellstrop who spent her life helping orphans and getting innocent prisoners off death row instead of selling pills filled with chalk to the elderly ill. The more Eleanor acts like herself, the more things in The Good Place go awry: shrimp fly, tulips duel, and sinkholes yawn open. Disneyland starts looking like Disneyland on acid.
Bell and her exasperated one-liners could be their own show, but The Good Place also enjoys a strong supporting cast of nearly all unknowns. The obvious exception is Danson, whose flustered deity is both endearingly clueless about humans (“My armpits are leaking. What is that called again? What do you do with sweat? You lick it away?”) and ominously controlling toward them (he’s loath to reveal too much about how The Good Place — or The Bad Place — works). An even more novel character is Michael’s invention, Janet (D'Arcy Carden), a Google-like machine whose friendly matter-of-factness makes the high-concept setting that much more fantastical. Save for the fact that this slice of heaven is distractingly populated only by people in their twenties and thirties, the first five episodes display delightfully thought-out world-building; every detail I learned about The Good Place made me want to know even more.
But the most promising developments are the human relationships, especially as Eleanor discovers that she isn’t the only mediocre person to have been gifted eternal happiness by mistake. The first one to discover Eleanor’s secret is her assigned soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and the deceased ethics professor’s quandaries about whether to report Eleanor or to help her become someone who belongs in The Good Place — among other moral concerns — give the show its significant intellectual aspirations. Taking a side in the ethical debate over what counts more, deeds or thoughts, The Good Place seems to tally up only actions — a fact that unnerves not just misplaced individuals like Eleanor, but even the people who do belong in heaven, like Eleanor’s neighbor, Tahani (Jameela Jamil). The “soul mate” situation — essentially a marriage arranged by The Good Place — stresses out Chidi, who didn’t have love on Earth and will be denied it forever if he doesn’t rat out Eleanor, as well as Tahani, whose mysterious Buddhist-monk husband (Manny Jacinto) refuses to break his vow of silence for reasons that’ll soon make sense. A riddle wrapped in a philosophy lesson dunked in frozen yogurt, The Good Place will have you somehow rooting for the worst person in heaven — except when you’re not wondering with her, “Are [these people] really that much better than me?”