by Coop Cooper
With the majority of new and returning shows coming to TV this month, critics have singled out “The Good Place” as the best new 30-minute comedy of the season.
Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop who awakens to suddenly find herself in the afterlife. Eleanor is greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the afterlife community administrator, who explains to her that she has been accepted into the very exclusive part of eternity reserved for only the best people on Earth… as opposed to being exiled to ‘the bad place’ with everyone else. She is admitted into a tailor-made utopian community of 300 people and introduced to her assigned soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Sudanese humanitarian. All of this would be perfect except a clerical error has been made and the self-absorbed Eleanor knows she is not the saint everyone expected. Fearing exile to hell, Eleanor tells Chidi the truth and appeals to his generous nature to help her earn a place in heaven before she is found out. As Chidi tries to find some redeeming qualities in Eleanor, the fabric of heaven begins to break down, showing that it is not as perfect as everyone suspects.
There is a lot to like in this cleverly-written pilot, mostly regarding the rules of this version of heaven. According to Michael, all of the major religions got about five percent of the idea of the afterlife right. The only prophet who actually figured it all out on Earth was a stoner in the 1970’s who pieced it all together while high on marijuana. In Eleanor’s community there is a frozen yoghurt place on every corner, it’s physically impossible to curse (which results in some hilarious substitutions) and everybody is too self-righteous and goody-goody for Eleanor to stomach. It’s not her ideal heaven like it’s supposed to be, but she figures it’s a much better alternative.
The story frequently flashes back to Eleanor’s former Earth life where we find out some ugly truths about her. She’s rude, she takes advantage of friends, she drinks constantly, she steals and she’s a telemarketer who sells fake vitamins supplements to elderly people. She remembers these things as she tries to convince Chidi she is worth redeeming, but although she initially tries to con him, she soon realizes she feels bad for being so selfish.
Some of the other residents in her community don’t seem so perfect either. Her uppity neighbor, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) never stops talking and condescends constantly with backhanded compliments. Her poor soulmate, a Buddhist monk (Manny Jacinto), still practices his vow of silence, unable to counter her overbearing personality. Other residents spend every conversation bragging about their accomplishments and others seem to get masochistic pleasure from performing undesirable tasks. Even Michael, who we learn is a rookie administrator and very unfamiliar with his newly-acquired human body, has a nervous breakdown when things in the community begin to go awry.
On the surface, “The Good Place” appears to appeal to a very liberal and politically correct audience that has a cynical view of religion. I’m hoping that, deep down, this already clever show is smarter than it appears and will thoughtfully explore all facets of the version of heaven it has created. I fear the idea of future episodes where Eleanor visits a heaven community full of offensive Southern stereotypes or worse… learns that some American cultures are automatically ineligible. If the show goes where I think it’s going, it will ultimately show this version of heaven to be woefully unfair and judgmental in the wrong ways, even to those with whom the writers may disagree with.
The other aspect of “The Good Place” is that it has that cookie-cutter, mass-produced feel to it that plagues most of the shows on the major networks. While this is usually an indication of quality and comfort to general audiences, it’s commonly a mark of predictability, repetition and stagnant creativity with critics. “Lucifer” started out strong and fell into the cookie-cutter trap rather quickly. I’m hoping “The Good Place” stays fresh enough to avoid it.
“The Good Place” airs on NBC on Thursdays at 7:30.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars