Schur provides ‘Good Place’ for television

The mind behind Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has accomplished something wonderful with NBC's new 30-minute comedy 'The Good Place.'

You can’t swear in The Good Place. In this heaven-but-not-quite-Heaven, each unapproved word or phrase has a friendlier alternative, like “bullshirt,” “motherforker” and “ash hole.” If you’re negative at all, the universe responds in kind, sometimes creating sinkholes, sometimes sending shrimp flying through the air. There is a frozen yogurt store on every block.

Details like these provide NBC’s newest sitcom The Good Place with a comfortable feel, so that the location itself, a religionless afterlife, can take somewhat of a backseat to its inhabitants, but never completely fades into the background. Creator Michael Schur, the mind behind Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is an expert in interesting characters living in an uninteresting place. The Good Place allows him to develop engaging people and settings.

The show opens with Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop awakening in The Good Place after her death. While there are several Good Place neighborhoods, her particular locale was constructed by architect Michael (played with expert comedic timing by Ted Danson) who helps Eleanor adjust to being dead. Only the best of the best arrive in The Good Place after dying, he tells her, and her on-Earth occupation as a death row lawyer and volunteer work with Ukrainian orphans solidified her place there.

Eleanor keeps her cool through their entire interaction, and it’s only when she’s alone with her new assigned soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) that she lets slip the fact that she’s not supposed to be there – she wasn’t a death row lawyer, and she’d never left her home state of Arizona. There are two dead Eleanor Shellstrops, apparently, and she is by far the worse one – a revelation that supplies the otherwise light sitcom with a sense of urgency and suspense.

With this, Schur has accomplished something wonderful in The Good Place. Sitcoms generally avoid mystery for longer than an episode or two, and even when they last longer the problems are never meaningful enough to keep viewers truly wondering about the outcome. Eleanor’s situation, and whether or not Michael will find out she’s a veritable Bad Placer, gives this sitcom stakes. The characters, which are all incredibly well-constructed, are able to carry the show on their shoulders, but thanks to this plot development, they don’t have to.

Certain characters might echo other Schur creations – Michael, an eternal being, speaks in the same stilted manner as Andre Braugher’s Ray Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, (though with more inflection) and Eleanor has hints of the same selfish laziness as Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer early on in Parks and Recreation. But each citizen of the Good Place is ultimately their own person, as evidenced by the flashback episodes given to the few central characters so far this season.

Bell is solid as Eleanor attempts to learn, through former ethics professor Chidi, how to be good to earn her spot in the Good Place. The ambivalent egotist-turned-reluctant hero trope has the potential to be played out, but she lends a the role an interestingly veiled tenderness. The show’s standout, however, is Danson, who consistently delivers the biggest laughs every episode, and he plays the best off of Bell. A memorable exchange comes in the sixth episode, where Michael is trying to understand the concept of friendship, so he watches all 10 seasons of Friends. Later, when he and Eleanor are eating frozen yogurt, he says, “Since we’re becoming friends, like Ross and Phoebe–” She then interrupts with, “Weird combo to pick, but OK.”

Fun dialogue like this, combined with a captivating setting and actual suspense, propels The Good Place above the average new sitcom launch. It’s been some time since a primetime comedy has delivered this kind of anticipation, and if it continues as it has, the rest of The Good Place will be worth the motherforking wait.

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