Imagine a place where there are frozen yogurt shops on every corner. You get to live in your dream house, with a person who is guaranteed to be the perfect match for you. Every day, for the rest of eternity, is spent in this paradise as your reward for being a good person. This is where we find Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) at the start of “The Good Place,” and it’s pretty much exactly that.
As its architect Michael (a perfect Ted Danson, using his history in sitcom to its fullest) explains, “The Good Place” isn’t exactly the biblical heaven per se; it instead mixes the ideas of the afterlife from different cultures and religions. There’s just one small hitch: Eleanor is not supposed to be there. In fact, on earth she was the exact opposite of what her supposed human rights lawyer title would imply. She was a selfish, abrasive jerk who willingly sold seniors fake supplements and died in a parking lot picking up margarita mix.
Fish out of water story? Yes, and there’s a generic version of this that would probably use that hitch as a formulaic claptrap. Not this one. As envisioned by Michael Schur, creator of “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The Good Place” is a surprisingly philosophical show that frequently asks questions about the nature of being a good person and the complications of the existence of an afterlife that includes a “Bad Place”. It’s also frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it mines a lot of comedy out of the peculiarities of the “Good Place” and its inhabitants, especially Michael’s fascination with humans.
The cast outside of Bell and Danson also nails their roles: William Jackson Harper as a nervous ethics professor Chidi (who, as Eleanor’s soulmate, decides he has an obligation to help her avoid going to the “Bad Place”), Jameela Jamil as the braggadocious philanthropist Tahani and Manny Jacinto as her Buddhist monk soulmate.
The breakout star, however, is D’Arcy Carden as Janet, a Siri-like personal assistant who appears out of thin air on command and cheerfully fulfills the requests of all residents of the “Good Place.” Carden perfects Janet’s bright helpfulness, best exemplified when she cheerfully plays Eleanor a clip of screaming from the “Bad Place.” A later gag involving cacti is the funniest thing in the whole show, best experienced blind.
For a comedy on a broadcast network, “The Good Place” has shown a remarkable confidence in its plot and the strength of its world. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger of some sort and no plot point has been wasted. Though it takes until about episode four for the plot to really kick in, there’s a never-ending stream of jokes and background gags, as well as ethical quandaries aplenty to consider. Though “The Good Place” is easily the most philosophical show on television, it excels because of its weird sense of humor and total confidence in its plot.