The greatest strength of “The Good Place” may lie in what it is not. It doesn’t explore a recognizable workplace, nor does it follow the rhythms of the typical family sitcom. Rather, this earnest, pleasant half-hour from “Parks and Recreation” co-creator Michael Schur portrays an afterlife in which no one plucks a harp or reclines on a fluffy cloud, and its sprightly tone and unusual setting help it stand apart from the crowd.
In its first five episodes, the show is more gently amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, and no character pops as much as Ron Swanson did in the early days of “Parks and Rec.” That said, “The Good Place” is more polished than the first few installments of that earlier series, which evolved into one of the best comedies of the past decade. “The Good Place” may need a bit more time to find its footing and truly become must-see TV, but, in part due to its exceptionally versatile leads, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, it deserves a fair amount of breathing space. Along with the worthy returning comedy “Superstore,” “The Good Place” contributes to NBC’s ongoing efforts to revive its upscale, intelligent, and accessible comedy brand.
Despite the show’s even-keeled vibe, the world of “The Good Place” reveals a surprisingly stressful set of pitfalls for characters navigating life after death. Michael (Danson), the architect of the subsection of heaven depicted in the show, inhabits a human body but doesn’t appear to have originated in one. Yet, even for someone who may never have been tied to this mortal plane, day-to-day existence can be bewildering.
It’s not supposed to be that way, of course. But unfortunately for the ever-chipper Michael, the presence of Eleanor (Bell) throws off the balance of the tidy community he has built. It’s his first big solo project, and it’s supposed to offer its few hundred post-life residents all the restful and fulfilling pursuits they could possibly want.
But Eleanor, via an unexplained mistake, is an interloper who has made it inside his colorful little world, and that glitch keeps causing surreal problems. Shrimp fly through the air after she gets drunk and steals some fancy food at a party, and a plant she receives as a present begins to die when she says mean things about the gift-giver. Cause and effect are still factors in this particular conception of the afterlife, which complicates Eleanor’s quest to keep her secret from Michael and avoid a Much Worse Place. Turns out she wasn’t that nice in her previous life, a truth reinforced via a series of flashbacks that paint her as selfish and thoughtless.
Even if Eleanor wasn’t all that popular back when she had a pulse, the great minds behind her new home assume that every new arrival wants to be immediately set up with his or her true soulmate. Luckily for Eleanor, hers is the sincere and caring Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics before his demise. Under his tutelage, she hopes to become the kind of person who might actually deserve a spot in “The Good Place,” which takes people of all belief systems and backgrounds, but sets a high bar for admittance.
Eleanor’s quest to both hide her secret and become a better person gives some narrative momentum to the comedy, which is moderately serialized but not in a burdensome way. And it’s clear that the show’s writers are having fun with the show’s world-building, which generally holds together but occasionally raises as many questions as it answers.
In the early episodes, anyway, “The Good Place” seems to assume that being single or dating around are not preferable lifestyle choices — but wouldn’t Heaven’s version of Tinder theoretically be full of great choices? And what about residents who had hoped to spend eternity with loved ones with whom they already had deep bonds; are they just out of luck? There are quite a few small businesses in the center of the quaint little town that Eleanor inhabits — does money change hands inside them and does anyone wash dishes in the restaurant named “The Good Plates”? Will Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a human-looking entity that shows up to cheerfully answer questions whenever residents are perplexed, do everyone’s dishes and laundry if asked?
All these things are uncertain at first, and the early installments of “The Good Place” spend a sizable chunk of their running time laying out various ground rules, which sometimes give the show a vibe that is more explanatory than overtly humorous. But figuring out the guidelines along with Eleanor, Chidi, and their neighbors can give the comedy an unpredictability that is frequently energizing; these newbies are regularly flummoxed and challenged, especially when seafood is flying through the air. Whether or not the Fox comedy “Son of Zorn,” which unites live-action characters and animated characters, and “The Good Place” ultimately succeed, you can’t accuse either of falling back on visual clichés. That’s especially true of “The Good Place” when giraffes are roaming around the town or when garbage is raining down from above.
It’s all quite amiable, and even if some of the supporting characters are still a little bland around the edges, by the fifth episode, the show has built up a moderate sense of urgency about Eleanor’s big secret. Even more important, “The Good Place,” for all its fanciful elements and whimsical flourishes, has a rock-solid foundation: It is devoted to questions and scenarios that percolate with moral urgency. At one point, Chidi scolds Eleanor for a selfish thing that she’s done, and she tries to hide behind a lax, self-serving defense, but he cuts her off: “You made a bad choice.” Given how good Bell is at revealing the many layers of regret, selfishness, and aspiration that can co-exist inside morally conflicted characters, and considering how charming and personable a host Danson can be, the choice to stick with this promising comedy will, more likely than not, be a wise decision.