Review: The Good Place 1×1-1×2 (US: NBC)

There's a snake in the Garden of Eden already


In the US: Mondays, NBC, 10/9c

We’re all going to die. Well, maybe not the Scientologists and at least one person from the Planet Zeist is going to live forever (if he wants). But the rest of us are going to kark it at some point.

What happens next is a matter of debate, with numerous religions promising all manner of outcomes, most of which are incompatible with one another. Who’s right? After all, it’s kind of important, don’t you think?

Well, according to The Good Place, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam et al have got it about 5% right. The person in all of recorded history who managed to guess most accurately was a Canadian stoner called Doug who got high on mushrooms in the 70s and got it about 92% right.

It turns out, though, that it’s not whom you worship or how many blood sacrifices you make each week that counts – it’s the quality and number of the good things and bad things you’ve done that on balance contribute to your final destination. And to get to The Good Place, you have to have done an awful lot of extremely good things, because it’s very, very exclusive. Unlike The Bad Place. And you don’t want to go to The Bad Place.

This is the dilemma facing Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, Party Down, House of Lies, Frozen) when she dies and finds herself in The Good Place. She actually wasn’t a good person at all, having been rather selfish, as well as impressively good at selling fraudulent medical products to the elderly. But a mix-up with a human rights lawyer who also did volunteer work in the Ukraine means that she’s now gone to a much better place than she deserves – an exclusive new neighbourhood in The Good Place created by newly promoted afterlife apprentice Ted Danson (Cheers, CSI, CSI: Cyber, Bored To Death), one that’s filled with whatever your heart desires, particularly frozen yoghurt outlets. Here, she can learn to fly, go to parties and never have hangovers, and live with her soul mate in her dream home. Well, someone else’s soul mate and dream home – it is a mix-up, after all.

Trouble is that this utopia is precisely engineered for good people, but before even a day’s passed, Bell’s stealing things, thinking bad thoughts and generally doing the sorts of things that should have had her going to The Bad Place. She is the snake in this particular Garden of Eden, and before you know it, it’s raining garbage, giant stolen shrimp are hurtling through the sky, giraffes are roaming free and everyone’s dressed like bees.

If she’s to avoid being found out and sent ‘elsewhere’, Bell has no choice but to work together with her alleged soulmate, Senegalese ethics professor William Jackson Harper, to learn how to be a good person. But it’s going to be hard going – and somebody else already knows she doesn’t belong there…

Here’s a trailer. I promise it’s not stolen. Much.

About
From Executive Producer Michael Schur (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation and Master of None) comes a smart, unique new comedy about what makes a good person. The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, House of Lies, Veronica Mars), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael (Ted Danson, CSI, Cheers), the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.

Helping Eleanor navigate her new surroundings are Chidi (William Jackson Harper, Paterson), her kind, open-hearted “soul mate” who sees the good in people but finds himself facing quite a dilemma; her seemingly perfect new neighbors, Tahani (Jameela Jamil, Playing It Straight) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto, The Romeo Section); and Janet (D’Arcy Carden, Broad City), the go-to source for any and all information in the Good Place.

In addition to executive producing, Schur also serves as writer and showrunner. David Miner (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 30 Rock), Morgan Sackett (Parks and Recreation, Veep) and Drew Goddard (Oscar-nominated writer of The Martian) also executive produce. Goddard directed the pilot.

The Good Place is produced by Universal Television, Fremulon and 3 Arts Entertainment.

Is it any good?
Episode one is loaded with funnies and ideas; episode two shows up some of the show’s fundamental problems that it has to overcome.

This is, as you might have noticed, a high concept show. The trouble with high concepts is that sooner or later you run out of high concept and have to start dealing with fiddly details. Episode one passes extremely pleasantly thanks to the concept, the cast and the juxtaposition of utopia with everyday ordinariness. Most viewers will be more like Bell than the hypergood denizens of The Good Place, and it’s easy to side with Bell in wanting bad things to happen to good people.

But once all that’s out the way, the show has to deal in the second episode with the question of how to make Bell a better person but also how to make all these good people bad. After all, it’s one thing to want bad things to happen to good people, it’s quite another to see it happen without feeling sorry for them as they continue to be good. And if drama is conflict, can you have drama in utopia?

So the show starts to become as much about bringing the good down to Bell’s level as vice versa and finding flaws in perfection that really shouldn’t be there. Is it really a perfect after-life if your soul mate is continuing with the vow of silence he took as a Buddhist monk? If you have taken a vow of silence, do you really wanted to be partnered with someone who never stops talking and won’t stop for the rest of eternity? If you are superhumanly good, why would you participate in one-upmanship and look down on people less fortunate than you – if even Florence Nightingale didn’t make it to the Good Place, how come someone like that would?

As well as that intellectual and increasingly mean-spirited problem, The Good Place also seems very impressed with CGI, filling every scene with some piece of supernatural fun, whether it’s a dog being kicked into the sun or a giant ladybird walking on a lawn. New joke? Cue some new CGI. It starts to get wearing after a while.

But The Good Place does demonstrate that it’s more than capable of filling two episodes will a lot of smart comedy. Bell and Danson are as great as you’d expect and the show is at least different and about something. 

It looks promising, but let’s hope we don’t get thrown out of paradise too soon.