The Good Place sounded too “good” to be true. Kristen Bell? Ted Danson? I love them both, for totally different reasons. Bell played one of my favorite characters ever, Veronica Mars, and Danson is a magical silver fox. As a result of this pairing, I was suspicious. This had to be one of those algorithm-derived shows that has no heart! After all, I had heard exactly zero buzz about it.
But when we went to Greece, we downloaded it on Netflix, and it quickly became our favorite way to wind down after a day of swimming, walking and pastry-gorging.
The pilot surprised me with the show’s mixture of cultural literacy and whimsy. In a sense, it reminded me of Pushing Daisies, but for the Master of None era. Like Pushing Daisies, it focuses on what happens to people after they die, but in a fun, self-aware way.
In The Good Place, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a simple office with Michael (Ted Danson), who explains she’s been good in life and wound up here. The real afterlife is not quite like any religion’s version of heaven or hell, he says, but one stoned guy did get it right once, and his portrait is proudly displayed on the wall. As Eleanor settles into her new home in paradise with her soulmate Chidi, something feels off. Michael seems to have a misconception of who she is, and what she did on earth. He thinks she was noble, when she mostly spent her time selling false dementia cures and getting trashed on margarita mix.
As Eleanor’s time in The Good Place falls apart, so does that of a very charming cast of characters. There’s Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a “skyscraper” tall beauty who spent her life raising money for charity to “stick it to” her sister. Then there’s Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist monk who’s taken a vow of silence. And of course, there’s Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics teacher who tends to get caught up in decision paralysis.
The Good Place initially seems to be an earnest exploration of ethical philosophy. After all, Chidi teaches the audience quite a bit about it over many episodes. But this show’s a little too wry to be a moral tale. Over time, it pokes holes at the very idea of learning to be good at all. It’s smart, satisfying and, yes, philosophical.
But what really makes The Good Place great is its character development. Each character is carefully fleshed out over time to defy stereotypes, screw up and still be as lovable as possible.
The dialog is made awesome by some of my favorite comedians, like Megan Amram and Joe Mande. In one scene, Michael says he loves frozen yogurt, because it’s so human to take something perfect like ice cream and insist on making it worse. The humor is delightfully non-sequitur, but takes plenty of jabs at modern pop culture.
The new season premiered last week, so catch up on season one on Netflix while you can!