September 20, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Good Place”


THE GOOD PLACE:  Thursday 8:30PM on NBC – In the Queue

Originality, imagination and sheer strangeness are rare network TV commodities these days, so it seems fair to give NBC’s THE GOOD PLACE some time before deciding whether it’s actually, you know, good.  It’s the creation of Michael Schur, who gave us Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but it’s got far more metaphysical things on its mind than those shows, and it’s not clear at this point whether its ambitions will outstrip its reality.

Although a few forebears come to mind (Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life is an obvious one), Schur’s series is unlike anything on TV.  It takes place in a nonsectarian heaven known as The Good Place, where Eleanor (Kristen Bell) awakes to discover that she’s dead, but per the Place’s architect Michael (Ted Danson), she was such a wonderful, charitable person in life (she was an attorney who saved the innocent from death row and volunteered to help the sick) that she’s earned her spot in a universe where all is peaceful and perfectly designed, where the people can fly and the to-go cups don’t leak.  Just one problem:  there’s been a glitch, because Eleanor was actually an awful, lazy narcissist back on Earth who sold bogus medication to the elderly, and if Mozart and most of the world’s other geniuses are spending eternity in The Bad Place, she certainly deserves to be there.

Eleanor is desperate to hide her terrible-ness from everyone around her, and she has one somewhat willing ally:  Chidi (William Jackson Harper), designated by the Powers That Be as her soulmate, and a genuinely compassionate, selfless human being.  He’s mostly horrified by her, but also sees a possibility of redemption, and decides to help her learn to be a better person.  However, whether it’s because of her deficiencies or due to a flaw in the design of The Good Place (Michael’s first solo gig as architect), Eleanor’s psyche starts leaking into the world’s reality, as images from her subconscious come to life and dream-like giant ladybugs, shrimp, giraffes, and bags of garbage maraud through town.

Schur, who wrote the first episode, and Consulting Producer Alan Yang (winner of an Emmy last night for Master of None), who wrote the second, have their hands full with exposition, since there are lots of rules to establish.  Some actions have consequences and some don’t; Eleanor can hide some things but not others.  At least in the early going, there seem to be inconsistencies, like the fact that Eleanor’s neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil), while truly charitable on Earth, appears to be at least as distasteful and selfish a person as Eleanor, but her presence doesn’t seem to be a glitch.  Or the amount that walking database Janet (D’Arcy Carden) does and doesn’t know about Eleanor.  Metaphysical consistency, for better or worse, is going to count on this show.

The Good Place faces plenty of potential mines in creating its universe.  There is an overabundance already of running gags, like the way the Place, refusing to let Eleanor curse, changes her words just enough to avoid profanity (and network censors), leading to lots of punchlines like “Motherforker!”  Tahani’s own soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a Buddhist monk who’s taken a vow of silence, is himself no more than a running gag, and how many frozen yogurt jokes are there going to be?  Then there’s the balance of scale between the dialogue scenes and the big CG sequences (handled by directors Drew Goddard in the pilot and Michael McDonald in the 2d half-hour).  And perhaps biggest of all, the amount of room that all this philosophy, fantasy and morality will leave for actual comedy.

Although Bell can handle mean-spiritedness just fine (as fans of House of Lies know), her presence as Eleanor seems designed to make her gradual betterment convincing, where a performer who specialized in dreadfulness might get more instant laughs.  Harper mostly plays straight man, and Danson is so far pitched at a very gentle level of humor, and will need at some point to be more than affably bewildered.

As a whole, The Good Place starts out in a sort of limbo, it’s placement in the TV afterlife unclear.  What is clear, though, is that we’re unlikely to see a more daring or audacious comedy on any network this season.  The network gave it a boost tonight with back-to-back episodes following The Voice, but once it arrives in its Thursday home, it will likey have a moderate lead-in from Superstore, and will face a tough timeslot that includes CBS’s Thursday Night Football and then its Big Bang Theory-led hour, and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.  Even if it ends up in a ratings Bad Place, though, it’s certainly going there in style.

NETWORK FINALS:  Attempting the Miraculous.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."