‘The Good Place’ review: Ted Danson, Kristen Bell bring laughs to the afterlife
THE SHOW “The Good Place”
WHEN | WHERE Previews Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC/4, then airs in its regular time slot, Thursdays at 8:30
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wasn’t exactly good in life, but after her tragic death, ends up in The Good Place anyway. It’s the place where only good people go, and where they are greeted by the good and decent Michael (Ted Danson), and have all their questions answered by a Siri-like know-it-all, Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Eleanor is promptly matched up with her soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professional ethicist from Senegal who is appalled to learn that God has a sense of humor after all. Created by Mike Schur, of “Parks and Recreation.”
MY SAY Prime time hasn’t made death this much fun since “Pushing Daisies,” Bryan Fuller’s whimsical oddball about the pie maker who reanimated dead things. It hasn’t looked this good either. Like “Daisies,” “The Good Place” is blessed with a big budget and passion to spend it. Colors abound, special effects, too. A giant ladybug appears over rooftops. People fly. Dogs — at least one in particular — do, as well. (And don’t worry — no animals were hurt in the show, appearances to the contrary.) Schur doesn’t want you to just imagine the afterlife, but wants you to see and experience it, too.
“The Good Place” also drew inspiration from Tim Burton, especially “Beetlejuice.” In “The Good Place,” the afterlife is ruled by a crisply dressed bow tie order-freak with a passion for rules. The boss of the afterlife in “Beetlejuice” was also sartorially resplendent, but otherwise the demonic opposite of Danson’s Michael. That’s part of the joke here: “The Good Place” is an inversion of the chaotic afterlife in “Beetlejuice.”
In fact, there are lots of jokes and gags in “The Good Place,” many good, a few laugh out loud funny (those entirely belong to Danson). In fact, it’s a veritable listicle of jokes, or jokes embedded within jokes. Even the rules that determine how one gains entry are one-liners: If in life, someone “never discussed veganism unprompted,” or “gracefully ended a conversation about the weather,” or resisted the urge to “compose a social media post” about the death of David Bowie “because the world doesn’t need to hear my thoughts about David Bowie,” then points would be earned toward entry. Points pile up like airline points, and just like that free plane ride, points are earned toward that free ticket to “The Good Place.”
What’s not entirely clear after the three episodes I watched is whether a series of jokes will ultimately form a sturdy basis for an actual series. How Eleanor got here by mistake — and she’s not the only one, by the way — and how she stays is the basic story. “The Good Place” also pivots between time frames, to when Eleanor was alive and to her (umm) life in The Good Place. There are more rules to be learned, more vistas to be explored (including the not-good place).
Meanwhile, a larger, provocative question hangs over the whole affair: What is “good” after all?
But “The Good Place” also flags, especially when Danson’s not around, and wrestles with a concept that’s initially better engineered for sight gags or one-liners than an actual story.
That could change, and likely will. Schur, one of TV’s best comedy showrunners, usually figures a way forward.
BOTTOM LINE Fun, colorful, lively — but is there a real show here, or just a good joke?