Tuesday, September 20, 2016

NBC's The Good Place is Off to a Good, Quirky Start

(Photo credit: NBC)

I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a little while to get into Parks and Recreation. Everyone raved about the series, and I had watched scattered episodes after Community on Thursday nights for quite some time. But when I sat down to binge-watch it on Netflix, I really had to force myself to power through the first season. The show, thanks to the writers strike, was struggling to find its footing and voice detached from Schur’s former project, The Office, and it showed. But once the series returned for its second season, Leslie Knope began to be more realistic, less Michael Scott-ish, and more endearing in her awkwardness and positivity. Slowly but surely — thanks in large part to the additions of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe to the cast — the show formed its own identity and became one of the most hilarious, beloved, poignant sitcoms on television. Though never dazzling by Nielsen standards, Parks and Rec was the kind of comedy that just made you feel good and hopeful about humanity. Where The Office often fixated on monotony and cynicism, Parks and Rec focused on positive change, silly shenanigans, and love. That’s not to say that one comedy was better than the other, as The Office is one of the most oft-referenced and acclaimed comedies of my generation, but Parks and Rec distinct look and feel to it.

(Aside: I tried to get into Brooklyn Nine-Nine two or three times, but could never make it past the third episode. Apologies, Mike Schur, because I wanted to love it for you!)

When I heard that NBC would be returning to Schur for a new comedy and that the aforementioned comedy would star real-life Disney princess Kristen Bell and the hilarious delight known as Ted Danson, I knew that I had to check it out. The Good Place is, in typically Schur fashion, bright and tinged with the kind of subtle humor (take a look at the names of all of the stores in the good place) and life lessons that Schur’s comedies are known for. Moreover, the promise of some real character development and heart drive the first two episodes.

In case you don’t already know, here’s the premise of the show: a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell) dies, and is sent to “the good place.” There, she meets the architect of her neighborhood, Michael (Ted Danson). Everyone in the good place has a soulmate, and Eleanor’s is a man named Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who was an ethics professor while he was alive. On her first day in the good place, Eleanor confesses something to Chidi: someone made a clerical error, and she shouldn’t be in the good place. All of the memories and accolades associated with Eleanor aren’t actually hers.

The pilot of The Good Place establishes Eleanor as this self-centered character who pretends to be deserving of the good place, while secretly wondering how she was able to get there. When she confesses her secret to Chidi, she asks him to help her fit in and belong so as to not cause any problems. Unfortunately for Eleanor, the good place knows that she doesn’t belong and is starting to retaliate against her. With every bad thing Eleanor does, the neighborhood fights back in some way or another. It’s crucial, then, for all of their sakes that Chidi help her fit in.

A lot of the pilot was basically given away in the trailers for the show. It wasn’t a bad thing that NBC chose to reveal a lot of the plot, necessarily, because... well, that’s what a pilot is: a set-up for the rest of the series. So while there aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the first episode, the pilot does a good job of establishing its characters. (And, as Connie pointed out so astutely on Twitter, establishing a really awesome set of diverse characters in the good place.)

“Flying,” meanwhile, picks up right where the pilot left off, after a crazy storm of shrimp and giant lady bugs set to the tune of Ariana Grande attack the good place. I wasn’t expecting the events to be real (I thought for sure that Eleanor was dreaming), but they are. Because of her decision to do bad things in the good place, Eleanor is realizing that those actions have consequences. She’s disrupting a place where everyone is good by being bad. We get flashbacks of just how selfish Eleanor is through her life on earth, which are good to set up her character but felt oddly spliced into the episode, in my opinion. When the newly-dead are given the opportunity for flying lessons, Eleanor tries to jump at the chance to take them, but Chidi volunteers them to clean up the mess in the good place — the mess Eleanor made — instead.

When she takes shortcuts in cleaning, Eleanor realizes yet again that the people around her are going to pay for her mistakes. “Flying” builds upon the Chidi/Eleanor relationship. They’re supposed to be soulmates, but Eleanor is clearly only interested in herself and all of the perks of being in the good place. So how will the two learn to work together as a team and grow? Through Eleanor practicing to be less selfish. She does so a little bit in this episode at the end, but Chidi is right: she’s going to have to REALLY work at being a good person if she wants to stay in the good place and not draw any suspicion. Everyone else there doesn’t have to work to be good — they just are.

That’s what will be interesting to watch throughout the rest of the season: will Eleanor learn to be better, or will she constantly fall back into her old habits? While the premise of The Good Place is pretty outlandish, the character development and heart is what’s going to make this show strong. And though the first two episodes weren’t exactly laugh-out-loud funny (more chuckle-worthy than anything), I know that Mike Schur comedies are the kind that grow funnier over time. Hopefully NBC gives The Good Place the chance to shine, because I really do think that it could. With a stellar cast, an interesting premise, a lot of frozen yogurt, and Mike Schur at the helm, it would be hard not to.

Extra points:
  • I loved reading through the credits and noticing the crossover in staff between Parks and Rec and The Good Place (specifically Aisha Muharrar, who penned “Ann and Chris,” among others).
  • Kristen Bell is a national treasure, and her facial expressions are what make her comedy so fantastic. With just one look, she can have you laughing.
  • “I have to just go upstairs real quick and steal a bunch of gold stuff.” “Don't... don't do that.”
  • I love reading through all of the points that actions are assigned to that are revealed in the good place. Check out EW’s interview with Mike Schur for an extensive list of them and why he chose the point system.
  • “What country am I from?” “Is it racist if I say Africa?” “Yes. And... Africa isn't a country.”
  • “I... kind of kicked your dog into the sun.” I was cackling at this point.
  • “All you wanted to do is talk about morals. You're like the worst part about Superman.”
Grade: B+


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