Monday, September 19, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Eleanor Arrives in the Afterlife and is Surprised by What She Finds in 'Pilot' & 'Flying'

NBC's The Good Place - Episodes 1.01 "Pilot" & 1.02 "Flying"

Thanks to an error, Eleanor enters the afterlife and is sent to the Good Place - which is definitely not where she belongs. While hiding from Michael, she's determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome person within. Eleanor tries to prove to Chidi that she is worthy of his help. Tahani and Jianyu try to help Michael feel better about the unknown flaw in his neighborhood.

The Good Place has a lot of work to do in its opening episode. It is setting up an entirely new world with new rules. It's providing an answer to the big life question of what happens to humanity after we die. That's a lot to deal with. It sets up a version of the aftermath where the totality of one's actions have a value and only the best of the best make it into the good place. All of this is explained in some concise and hysterical fashion in "Pilot." Repeat viewing of Michael's introduction video to the neighborhood is completely necessary because you'll find something new to laugh at within it. Those are some solid jokes about what things have a negative value and which have a positive one. It's also just a light, breezy and fast way to drop the audience into this world. We are learning right alongside Eleanor. This is as alienating an experience for her as it is for us. Even more so considering Eleanor technically doesn't belong here at all.

That's the core conflict of the show. Eleanor considers herself to be a medium person. She didn't see herself as good or bad on Earth. She was very selfish. She always put her needs above everyone else's. She wasn't considerate at all. And yet, she finds herself in the good place for some reason. It's cool for her. This is a perfect utopia where she'll live for the rest of eternity. She can drink as much as she wants with no consequences the next mourning. Limitless resources are at her fingertips. She can do absolutely anything that she wants. And now, she can do so with her soulmate, Chidi, by her side. Of course, this utopia is terrifying to her as well. Michael got her name right but nothing else. The memories she can call up aren't hers. And more importantly, she finds herself living in a quaint house filled with pictures of clowns. That's random and absolutely terrifying. It's hilarious when Chidi closes the bedroom door only to reveal a bigger clown accompanied by music. That's so not Eleanor at all. And yet, this is the existence she is living.

Of course, there are greater consequences to Eleanor being in the good place when she shouldn't be. The mistake is seemingly made because this is Michael's first ever neighborhood. He lets that small detail slip during the first day of orientation because he's just so excited. He has been an apprentice for over 200 hundred years. And now, he's the architect. He's the man in charge. He's giddy with excitement. It's a fantastic use of Ted Danson. He basically steals the show in these opening two episodes with his reactions to various things. Things aren't going according to plan. Utopia isn't as great as it is suppose to be. Eleanor's presence isn't the thing throwing the balance off though. Instead, it's her actions. Whenever she does something bad, it is then amplified throughout the neighborhood. She spends the entire welcome party being judgmental of the other citizens and stealing all the shrimp. So the next morning, she wakes up to flying shrimp, giraffes wandering around, ladybugs destroying houses and Ariana Grande's "Break Free" blaring. It's total chaos. It's a spectacle for the show. It's in that moment where the audience sees just how fragile this neighborhood really is. But it shows just how ambitious this show actually is. Those are some crazy visuals. They mostly work too because of the outrageousness. It's so random but it really helps inform the story in some significant ways. It's not chaos just to be chaotic. Eleanor seeing all of this happen means she has to change.

"Pilot" is an introduction to the good place and learning that Eleanor doesn't belong there. "Flying" focuses on Chidi having to decide whether or not Eleanor can be taught how to be a good person. He is a professor of ethics and morals. So, he has the skill set to actually teach. He just has to know if it's worth it. Can he lie to Michael and the rest of the neighborhood just to help Eleanor? Does she deserve to be in this place? Is she capable of changing? Those are the questions that are weighing on his conscience. It's easy to understand why it takes him away to come to a decision. But the second episode really is about him getting to that point. Of course, he's going to help her. Otherwise, there simply is no show. Eleanor is a fish out of water. That's the foundation of the show. She has to remain in this place and keep causing problems because of her selfish behavior. Her character arc will be interesting to watch this season. Is she capable of change? Can she be a good person like everyone else? But more importantly, it will be just as nice to see if her fellow citizens are really good people too. Chidi ultimately decides to help Eleanor. But he only does so after he believes she has done a genuine and selfless action.

The cliffhanger at the end of "Pilot" is resolved fairly easily in "Flying." It was chaos when the neighborhood was being destroyed. Everyone was wearing the same outfit. Eleanor wasn't. It's clear the system knows that she's a problem. And yet, she is able to blend in thanks to Janet. It's going to be so important that everything that is asked of Janet will stay completely confidential. That means she can help Eleanor and Chidi on their personal mission while still serving as a chief aide to the rest of the neighborhood and Michael. Developing the ensemble will be key for the enjoyment of future episodes as well. Eleanor is a strong focal point. But it's just as interesting to see Michael slowly freaking out about the glitch in his first neighborhood. It's also just delightful to learn that this is the first time he's been in a human body and still doesn't know how to react to regular bodily functions. Elsewhere, Tahani and Jianyu are an interesting pairing because she talks way too much while he has taken a vow of silence. Jianyu represents a potential compelling perspective as well. How does religion play a role in the good place when all of the questions have been answered? He no longer has to be a Buddhist monk. And yet, he is still observing his vow. That silence is what ultimately helps Michael pull himself together again. Tahani was struggling to do that. She was lifting his spirits through words and that did nothing. These two are soul mates but they don't seem to have much in common so far.

The main plot of "Flying" centers around Eleanor having to clean up the neighborhood instead of learning how to fly. It's a choice between doing the fun thing or the responsible thing. Eleanor has always opted for the fun option. She wants to fly because it'd be cool. It's exactly what this utopia should be. All it takes is focusing on one happy thought. Most people choose special and memorable moments in their lives. Eleanor instead focuses on the idea of people throwing up on roller coasters. That's what brings her joy. That highlights just how far she has to go in order to be a good person. She blows off cleaning up the neighborhood and the neighborhood reacts badly once again. Trash starts falling from the sky. It can't kill any of the citizens. They've already died. But the visual of trash falling on top of people is a really startling image. It's enough to get Eleanor to change a little bit. Sure, it's not the purely good action that it's suppose to be. She wanted to throw all of the trash into the house of a couple who really love picking it up. But it's the feeling of remorse that ultimately convinces Chidi to teach her. The episodes follow a pattern of Eleanor being taught something then messing up and chaos ensuing only for her to fix everything in the end. That could get tiring after awhile. But these two episodes are so strong that I have trust in the creative team to keep things interesting and varied moving forward.

"Pilot": A-
"Flying": B+

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Michael Schur and directed by Drew Goddard.
  • "Flying" was written by Alan Yang and directed by Michael McDonald.
  • Flashbacks are used in both episodes to show just how selfish Eleanor was in her life on Earth. Those are good character-building moments. But will this show take the Lost approach and do the same for the entire ensemble? Or will it just be Eleanor?
  • It definitely is suspicious that Tahani is able to keep her English accent when everyone else doesn't. That's being done with a purpose. Through her interactions with Michael, it's clear she lived an extravagant life. But there's clearly an insecurity to her as well that's worth exploring.
  • There's a cliffhanger at the end of "Flying" as well. This time someone slips a note under Eleanor's door proclaiming that "She doesn't belong here." I wonder who knows her secret and what will happen next to keep things quiet.
  • Eleanor to Michael: "One question. Where am I? Who are you? And what's going on?"
  • Eleanor: "I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place. Like Cincinnati."
  • Chidi to Eleanor: "Well, I've narrowed it down to two possibilities: Yes and No."
  • Eleanor to Chidi: "All you wanted to do is talk about morals. You're like the worst part about Superman."
  • Michael: "I'm a canyon full of poo-poo."
  • Actions with a negative value as featured in the orientation video - Buy a trashy magazine; Disturb coral reef with flipper; Poison a river; Use the term "bro-code"; Use "facebook" as a verb; Be commissioner of professional football league (American); Blow nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling; Tell a woman to "smile"; Ruin opera with boorish behavior; Commit genocide; Harassment (sexual); Root for New York Yankees; Fail to disclose camel illness when selling camel; Steal copper wiring from decommissioned military base; and Overstate personal connection to tragedy that has nothing to do with you.
  • Actions with a positive value as featured in the orientation video - Hug a sad friend; Save a child from drowning; Plant Baobab tree in Madagascar; Eat a sandwich; Fix broken tricycle for child who is indifferent to tricycles; Fix broken tricycle for child who loves tricycles; Pet a lamb; Remain loyal to Cleveland Browns; Remember sister's birthday; Scratch elbow; End slavery; Maintain composure in line at water park in Houston; Step carefully over flower bed; Purify water source; and Politely tolerate stranger recounting New Yorker article at cocktail party.
  • Actions of someone in the good place as featured in the orientation video - Hosted refugee family; Rehabilitated abused pit bull; Attended cousin's friend's child's jazz dance recital; Ignored text message during in-person conversation; Drove to out-of-state disaster site to help with relief effort; Donated 16.36% of lifetime income anonymously to charities; Began to compose social media post about David Bowie dying and then thought "The world doesn't need to hear my thoughts on David Bowie"; Researched West Indies cricket tournament results to facilitate conversation with father-in-law; Gracefully ended a conversation about the weather; Helped a hemit crab find a new shell; Saved a person from house fire; Helped mom with her printer; Gave out full-size candy bars at Halloween; Ate vegan; Never discussed veganism unprompted; Carefully put spider outside; Donated blood; Self-monitored potentially nauseating mouth-sounds while chewing; Held door for person behind you; Brought own bags to grocery story; Installed solar panels; and Let someone merge in traffic.