The time has come again. The summer sun has set. The days grow colder and the nights grow longer and we fill those nights with new fall TV. As happens every autumn, the five major networks have unleashed a flurry of new programs to entertain us into these dark, frigid winter months and beyond. So many choices. So much risk! How will you know what to watch? That’s where I come in. I watch every new fall pilot episode so that you don’t have to. I take one for the team, so you can watch the… screen(m). It’s time for…
THE PILOT PROJECT (2016 Edition)
The Good Place (Thursdays on NBC)
The Good Place first came onto my radar early on when I heard people mentioning it in the same sentence as Lost. For the uninitiated, Lost is the greatest show of all time, so take all my reviews with a grain of salt, I guess. According to legend (or the Vulture piece that I read), Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Mike Schur (who you might recognize as Mose Schrute from The Office, which Schur also wrote for) approached Damon Lindelof, the much-maligned co-creater of Lost, to help him develop the idea behind The Good Place. He didn’t want his high-concept story to suffer the same fate as the criminally-misunderstood Lost, and for good reason – despite the many things Lost did right, in most circles it’s only remember for what it got wrong (and while I’ll defend it to my dying breath, I will admit that there were… missteps along the way). Lindelof’s advice? “You just need to know where you’re going.”
By this point you’re probably wondering what exactly The Good Place’s high-concept premise is, so I’ll explain it as simply as I can. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead. She is now in “the good place”, which is a nondenominational approximation of Heaven (the show strays from associating with any one religion or belief, insisting that everybody was about 5% correct). The Good Place is comprised of a multitude of distinct neighborhoods, all perfectly designed to be the most appealing to the people living within them, of which there are exactly 322 (in each). Each of those 322 people is matched up with a perfect soulmate that they’ll spend the rest of eternity with. Oh, and every neighborhood has a frozen yogurt place, because everyone loves froyo. Now comes the twist – Eleanor wasn’t actually supposed to come to The Good Place. She was not a good person. She wasn’t the WORST person, but she was not a good one, and now her presence is causing havoc in The Good Place, like a glitch in a heavenly system. Now she needs to figure out how to become a good person in order to avoid being sent to “the bad place”, which we are meant to believe is basically Hell. I could get into more detail, but it’s already a lot to take in, especially for a sitcom.
Thankfully, it works. The premise is creative and unique, and while the jokes aren’t laugh-out-loud funny (yet), the humor is fun and endearing. Bell is adorable enough that even when Eleanor is being a total ash-hole (there’s no swearing in The Good Place, for fork’s sake), you still root for her. Opposite Bell is William Jackson Harper, playing Chidi Anagonye, Eleanor’s soulmate. In his previous life, Chidi was a professor of ethics, so Eleanor recruits him to teach her to become a person worthy of The Good Place. The real highlight of the performances, for me anyway, is Ted Danson’s Michael, the architect and facilitator of Eleanor’s neighborhood. He’s perfectly cast as an otherworldly administrator who is frantically trying to maintain control over the first neighborhood under his purview. Rounding out the cast are Jameela Jamil as Tahani, a former globe-trotting philanthropist, Manny Jacinto as Jason, Tahani’s Buddhist monk soulmate who has taken a vow of silence, and D’Arcy Carden as Janet, who is a heavenly version of Siri, able to provide anything and everything the citizens of The Good Place require. It’s a solid cast delivering solid performances.
Furthering the Lost comparison, there’s a hint of an underlying mystery to everything. Michael appears to be hiding something from everyone, and the only thing Janet can’t provide any information on is The Bad Place. We don’t know how Eleanor ended up in The Good Place and we don’t know why her presence there is causing the havoc that it is. Plus, there’s the allure of possibly visiting other neighborhoods in The Good Place further on down the line. Oh, and Drew Goddard, who wrote episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Lost, is an executive producer on the show and actually directed the pilot. So… Lost.
If all of these Lost comparisons are scaring you off, let me reassure you that apart from the fact that both shows are about a bunch of dead people in the afterlife, they’re really nothing alike.
That was a joke. Lost was not about people in purgatory you stupid idiots, it was about – no. I’m not going to take the bait.
I realize that this sort of quirky, high-concept comedy might not be everyone’s cup of tea, so while I want to tell you to “Watch it”, I’ll downgrade my recommendation.