Where do we go after death? That’s a mighty big question to be answered with sunshine and copious amounts of frozen yogurt. Yet “The Good Place,” created by “Parks and Recreation” creator Michael Schur, succeeds by doubling down on optimism and happiness. It’s not just the buildings in the Good Place that are sunny and candy colored, the same could be said for the good-hearted jokes that all land with aplomb.
The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), as she finds herself navigating the afterlife. She’s introduced to the Good Place in the afterlife by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the neighborhood. Michael informs her that every action a person has done in their life (i.e. “Stopped Slavery,” “Remained Faithful to the Cleveland Browns,” “Hugged a Friend in Need”) had a positive or negative point value. Only those with a high enough score get in to the Good Place. The rest go to the Bad Place (including Elvis, Picasso and Florence Nightengale). The only problem is, Eleanor isn’t the social justice lawyer who saved people from death row. Instead, she was a much more flawed person and there was a huge mistake in the system.
In the Good Place, each person is grouped into a small community of like-minded people and given a house made to their specifications. In this home, they live with their “soul mate.” Eleanor is paired with Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor from Senegal. Eleanor confesses to Chidi that she isn’t the moral person Michael thinks she is. From there, Chidi has to decide whether to teach Eleanor to be moral or turn her into Michael. Things are further complicated as every bad decision Eleanor makes literally upsets the balance of their utopic world.
This only scratches the surface of the nuances that lead to the best laughs of the show. As the overly optimistic, condescending neighbor Tahani, Jameela Jamil lands every punchline with a wide smile and unfailing energy. The show uses her aggressive happiness almost as a weapon against Eleanor. It’s an interesting way to approach conflict in a place that isn’t supposed to have conflict. Even better is pairing chatty Tahani with Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist monk still committed to his vow of silence.
The other side character that quickly becomes a favorite is Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an encyclopedic guide to any question the characters want answered. Carden is an expert at delivering hilarious deadpan with a warm, yet disarmingly vacant smile. Touches like these add heart and character to an already vibrant world.
Still, the show revolves around the natural charisma exuded by Bell as Eleanor. She has just enough flaws to be fun to watch, but not too much that we don’t believe she can be good. In many ways, her character is reminiscent of Christina Applegate from “Samantha Who?” Like Applegate, Bell deftly plays both the more moral, cheery version of Eleanor in the Good Place and the more rotten version back on Earth. The frequent cutaways back to Eleanor’s past life are hilarious in their unabashed self-centeredness. No, Eleanor isn’t a sociopath. She’s just a self-absorbed narcissist who loves to drink and get into bad situations.
The other thing the show nails is the visual humor. The designs of this version of a Good Place are riddled with little sight gags that absolutely land. From the Disney-esque design of the variety of yogurt shops, to the clown murals around Eleanor’s home, the world is brimming with fun detail. The main concern of the show involves the longevity of its concept. While the bad girl in a Good Place act is funny now, the show will have to reinvent itself at some point soon to avoid becoming stale. Luckily, with many “good places” specific to different groups of people, hopefully we will be able to explore more lands and get further doses of great visual humor.
Who says originality is dead on network TV? The high concept nature of “The Good Place” may run thin over time. However, hopefully the talented writers will find more lands and humor to explore over many more episodes. At the core, the show has Bell firing on all cylinders. It’s worth continuing, if for no other reason than to see what other shenanigans Eleanor was able to get into on Earth, or how many frozen yogurt shops one neighborhood can hold.