Sunday, September 18, 2016

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'The Good Place'

NBC will debut its new original comedy series The Good Place on Monday, September 19 at 10/9c. following the season premiere of The Voice. It moves to its regular time slot on Thursday, September 22 at 8:30/7:30c. The comedy stars Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, D'Arcy Carden and Ted Danson.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first five episodes.

The fall season is just getting started on the broadcast networks this week. And yet, NBC already has a winner in its new comedy The Good Place. That's something I can confidently say because the network sent out the first five episodes of the season for review. It's so archaic that the broadcast networks still regularly only send out the first episodes of the new series in the fall. It's hard for any audience to judge a show based on one episode. There's the hope that it will continue to deliver on its promise in future installments. But without seeing those episodes, it's very difficult to come up with a full opinion. Time is very important for audiences. And for too long, reviews have had to be incomplete. Audiences have to be patient to know if episode three is just as engaging as the pilot. That's why I appreciated what NBC did with The Good Place. Five episodes was enough to understand the style of the show, what its strengths are and where it's planning on going for the season. So, I'm fairly confident that this will be a strong overall season that will stand out even months from now when the fall season is in full swing.

Mike Schur has find a fantastic and interesting career journey. He started writing on Saturday Night Live and The Office before creating two of my favorite comedies Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It's a fun trajectory that focused on the mundane details of a simple job as well as the optimism that comes from local government and the great feeling that comes from doing a good job. But now, he has taken a turn for the existential. Gone are the days of simple lives in an office. Now, he is pondering some of life's biggest questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Can people ever change? And what happens to us after we die? These aren't easy questions to answer. They are even more difficult to frame a 22-minute episode of a comedy around. And yet, The Good Place handles all of these big ideas with such grace and smarts. This really is such a clever show that rewards the viewer for paying attention.

The series opens on Kristen Bell's Eleanor Shellstrop waking up and learning that she has died in a tragic and embarrassing accident. She doesn't find herself in the aftermath commonly believed by human existence on Earth. As Ted Danson's architect of the neighborhood, Michael, puts it, every major religion got about five percent right. And generally speaking, the aftermath is composed of a good place and a bad place. The good place houses the souls who were the very best of humanity on Earth. There's a proven system that calculates the amount of good and bad actions in a person's life. The highest scores get into the good place. Everyone else ends up in the bad place. Eleanor is in the good place. And yet, she doesn't deserve to be in the good place. She wasn't a good person on Earth. She wasn't a bad person either. She sees herself as medium person who should spend eternity in a medium place. "Like Cincinnati," she proclaims when making her point about the flaws in this weighted system. But that's not how this works. So, she's stuck in a complicated situation. Does she lie and stay in the good place even if her presence could ruin this utopia? Or does she tell the truth and spend eternity in the bad place and its unspeakable horrors?

Bell anchors the show with a terrific lead performance. Eleanor can be a tricky character. She's frequently selfish. That's her defining characteristic. She's never malicious with her actions. She's just always concerned about how any given situation will affect her. She doesn't like being surrounded by people who believe they are better than her. That leads to some pretty interesting and outrageous situations throughout these five episodes. She's trying to earn her place in this world. Her designated soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), attempts to teach her how to be a good person. Bell and Harper have some wonderful chemistry. Eleanor isn't the kind of soulmate Chidi was expecting. Nor is this how he would want to be spending his time in paradise. But it's the situation he has been given. He essentially plays the straight man to Eleanor's crazy hijinks. And yet, he gets in a couple of strong and funny moments as well. He shines when he gets to work opposite Bell. This essentially is her show. She grounds it. She makes you want to like Eleanor despite all of the horrible things she does. She holds the fate of this world in her hands. She needs to become a better person. The struggle for her to accept that change makes for a really compelling journey that gets more intense and unique as the season goes along.

Bell and Harper get some fantastic support from a strong ensemble of characters as well. The Good Place may be unlike anything Schur has done previously. But his shows are known for being strong ensembles and this one continues that wonderful trend. There are a couple of newcomers who will really surprise people - including Jameela Jamil as Tahani, who somehow still has an English accent despite language no longer being an obstacle of human connection; Manny Jacinto as Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who is more than he original seems; and D'Arcy Carden as Janet, the neighborhood assistant who can get absolutely anything for any of the citizens. Unsurprisingly though, this show may just serve as the latest remainder that Ted Danson is a phenomenal actor. He has played so many different and wonderful roles over his career. He's been the leading man on a traditional sitcom (Cheers, Becker). He has also been a supporting player on an intense cable drama (Damages, Fargo). He has also been a lead on a broadcast procedural (CSI). And now, he's just having a good time playing Michael as the gleeful and upbeat creator of this neighborhood. This is the first time he's had a human body with all of its great wonders and horrifying functions. He just steals every scene he is in and is so delightful throughout every episode so far.

NBC is airing three episodes of The Good Place during this next week. Two are getting the special preview treatment behind the premiere of The Voice on Monday while it makes its regular debut on Thursday. It definitely helps to see as much of this show as possible. The more time spent in this world the more special, unique and fun it becomes. The pilot is quite strong. It also somewhat plays as the first half hour of a ninety minute movie. It was unclear if there was a season length of story here. And yet, all future episodes eliminate that doubt. This show fulfills the promise that is apparent from that first second of story. It's definitely something you should check out this week.