Have you ever wondered what happens when you die? You may already know, if you practice any specific religious faith. Though I imagine even though most steadfast of believers may sometimes wonder whether everything you’ve been taught or whether everything you believe is exactly right. Or, if you’ve done everything you possibly can to make sure you go “up there” instead of “down there.”
What happens after you die is the very thing The Good Place tackles on NBC. Season one premiered and wrapped up in early January. It’s written by Michael Schur, whose name you may recognize from other stand-out comedies like Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’m a huge fan of all of these comedies, so for me, it’s no surprise that I ended up enjoying the hell out of this series: the only surprise is that it took me so long to sit down and actually watch it.
One teeny-tiny spoiler that literally all the previews spoiled before the pilot after the cut, but no more after that!
The premise: If you saw any of the previews at all, the initial surprise of the pilot was spoiled before you even watched it, so teeny-tiny spoiler: Eleanor Shellstrop, played to snarky and energetic perfection by Kristen Bell, wakes up and discovers she’d died and gone to the good place. Everything is perfect in this afterlife: she’s even paired up with her soulmate! The problem? She quickly realizes she was put here by mistake, and she’s terrified that she’s going to get kicked out. And of course, as a result, shenanigans ensue.I don’t want to spill each and every single detail of this series. At thirteen episodes, thirty minutes a pop, it’s an easy show to binge on, and beyond the initial reveal of the premise, why spoil all the fun? But I do want to talk about what makes this show worth watching, so I promise: no more spoilers!
The Characters: I’ve never sat down to watch Kristen Bell in anything. No, not even her staple Veronica Mars. However, she is delightful in The Good Place, alternating between someone you’d love to hate (especially in the flashbacks), someone you really feel sorry for (in both flashbacks and the afterlife), and someone you really wanted to root for. Bell has great comedic chops, and when you’re watching her, don’t just listen for her line delivery: her facial expressions are the best.But joining her is Ted Danson, whom I finally got to appreciate after watching the entire eleven-season run of Cheers last year. Danson plays the Architect of this particular neighborhood of the good place, and it’s his very first design. He’s super excited about it and super worried about making sure everything goes perfectly. Danson plays a completely different character from Sam Malone from Cheers (as you can well imagine) and some might even feel he’s wasted in this role, but oh, there are some fantastic moments here and there that make me itching to see what he does in season two. But my favorite parts of this cast are the rest of the supporting ensemble, which is wonderfully diverse: you’ve got Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), who plays Eleanor’s soulmate, and in life did nothing but examine and study and write about ethics. Then there’s Eleanor’s neighbor Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), who raised billions and billions of dollars for charity and those in need. Lastly, there’s Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto) who is Tahani’s soulmate in the afterlife, but before passing away, was a Taiwanese monk who’s taken his vow of silence in life right into the afterlife, with some hilarious results. What’s wonderful about the supporting cast is how (and this often happens with a good television series) each person might seem like a stereotype at first glance (Jianyu in particular), but it doesn’t take long for each character to bloom into something more layered and three-dimensional. I am specifically enamored of the relationships built between each of the cast members. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Janet (D’Arcy Carden), who isn’t a girl (her words, not mine) and isn’t quite Michael’s assistant, but basically the A.I. who runs the good place and makes sure all the residents have all the comforts they require. Janet, whom we see in various forms thanks to some clever writing, is an absolute hoot no matter what incarnation she’s in.
The Setting/World-Building: So what makes this speculative? Right from the start, The Good Place writes off any one religion as being mostly right (though one stoner dude came so close that he’s very, very revered), putting us clearly into fantasy, and with that firmly set in place, everything IS kind of magical: the way Janet appears out of no where, and how she can literally get anything you need out of thin air. There’s also the frozen yogurt stands, which are everywhere, with all kinds of flavors, including “fully charged cell phone,” which apparently tastes like pure relaxation.
The setting itself, being the afterlife (and the good place) is bright and sunny, cheerful with its colors, which contrasts nicely with the flashbacks into Eleanor’s life on Earth, as well as those flashbacks we get for Chidi, Tahani, and Jianyu, which are never so bright and vivid.
The Story: NO SPOILERS! I PROMISE! But I do want to say one thing that I really appreciate: the story doesn’t lollygag. The reveal (that I’ve already told you in the premise) that Eleanor doesn’t belong in the good place? Happens before the first commercial break. The story moves along at a great, organic pace, while also fleshing out deeper stories not just for Eleanor, but for Chidi, Tahani, Jianyu, and even Michael as well. Each character gets their own little arcs within these thirteen episodes, so the focus isn’t solely on Eleanor’s mission to become a better person (so that she can earn her spot in the good place and not get discovered and subsequently booted out). There’s also enough twists and turns to keep the audience engaged and wondering what’s going to happen next.The writing is also smart, snarky, and very, very clever. In the very first episode, when Michael is explaining the point system that lands people in either the Good or Bad Place, please take the time to pause the show when it gives you the infographics of what gives you positive and negative points. Some of the items listed are obvious. Some of them are not, which makes them forking hysterical (yes, forking: in the good place, everything is censored). But beyond some of that specific social commentary, we get broader social commentary that distinguishes the good place from the bad place, so suffice it to say, pay attention to the dialogue. It’s funny very often, but it’s also socially on point when you don’t expect it. There’s a very poignant moment between Eleanor and Tahani in “Chidi’s Choice” that nearly made me burst into applause for how the writers treated the friendship between these two very different women. Also, and I won’t spoil anything, but the season one finale? Fan-forking-tastic. Well-written, well-acted, and it set up season two beautifully. Will the gambit pay off in season two, or for the life of the show? Only time will tell, but I’m definitely on board. In Conclusion: The Good Place ended up being absolutely delightful. Funny, yes, but funny in various ways: you had some smart humor, some social humor, some mean humor, and some very, very clever humor. And, yes, some slapstick humor too. The writing was smart, the show is incredibly well-acted and not just by the big names you recognize; the diverse cast added a wealth of depth to the show. With any story you want to see some real progression, and The Good Place delivered that in spades while simultaneously delivering a twist that not only stuck the landing, but will leaving you wondering, “What the fork?” and wishing season two was at your fingertips already. I know I do. Season one is waiting (with extended cuts, even!) on Hulu if that’s available to you, and believe me when I say, it’s more than worth your time to check out this cheeky vision into the afterlife.