It’s tough to be a network show these days. The audience is becoming more and more used to getting an entire season of episodes all at one time and choosing when, how, and where to consume the episodes. Even if someone still has a television and watches the old fashioned way, the cable and subscription shows are associated with the more cutting edge, provocative television we seem to be craving, relegating the safe and formulaic to the big four/five networks who are struggling to keep up. Sure, some shows still get very strong ratings, but ratings do not necessarily confirm quality. Otherwise, The Big Bang Theory would have won a Peabody by now, and that’s not happening any time soon (last year’s were handed out to the BBC, Netflix, Hulu, FX, and HBO, which only proves my point further). And yet there are some network shows out there worth watching, that should be paid more attention to. I don’t really watch network shows, but I have recently discovered one magical one worth watching, and it’s not entirely shocking since it is created by the same person to helm my last favorite network sitcom: Parks and Recreation.
The Good Place has a simple premise, but one that allows for world building and a fascinating environment. It’s a comedy set in the afterlife. Having recently died, Eleanor (Kristen Bell, The Boss) is informed that she finds herself in the Good Place by its architect Michael (Ted Danson). This afterlife location was specifically prepared for those who on Earth were the cream of the crop, the most good and saintly amongst humans. Problem is: Eleanor was pretty much the worst! She was rude, selfish, conniving, and never did a good deed once in her life. Her mere presence begins to have ramifications in her new home, as she doesn’t really belong bizarre occurrences begin to take place, be it flying shrimp in the sky or sinkholes. Eleanor’s existence in the Good Place is ruining the idyllic frozen yogurt filled happy location. Bearing the brunt of the secret keeping and the stress is her supposed soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Chidi struggles and suffers to keep Eleanor’s secret while also trying to turn her into a better person, one who belongs and can earn a spot to make up for the clerical error that has so clearly occurred.
The show is absolutely hilarious. It is highbrow at times, then immediately lowbrow the next. Jokes about burping exist in the same realm as ones about Kant. The physical comedy and comedic timing of its cast is impeccable, and while some of the practical effects are not always fully believable (some of the CGI is quite cartoonish), the cast sells it fully. Speaking of the cast, it’s no secret that Danson and Bell are strong comedy actors. The former has dedicated the majority of his career to sitcoms for which he has won pretty much every award possible, and the latter has turned out time and again strong comedic performances both in film as well as television. But one of the best things about sitcoms is the opportunity lesser known actors have to showcase their talents. The Office (another show by the same show runner and creator) was a starring vehicle for Steve Carell, but it also gave us Mindy Kaling, John Krasinsky, Ed Helms, Rainn Wilson, and Ellie Kemper amongst others, all unknown or virtually nobodies before becoming regulars on the show. Same goes with Parks and Recreation, where Amy Poehler shined, but we also were gifted Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, and Chris Pratt, who is now one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. The Good Place also is a strong showcase for fresh new talent, with a supporting cast that we should all keep our eyes on. William Jackson Harper is funny and strong as Eleanor’s primary foil, and he makes the most out of what at first is just a nervous, bumbling character with a penchant for indecision. Jameela Jamil, as the haughtily British Tahani, is fine. Her role is just to be smug and privileged, and she does that effectively, but I will wait to see if she can stretch in future seasons. Manny Jacinto is riotous as Jianyu/Jason, another infiltrator believed to be a Taiwanese monk, but in reality he is just a petty thief/fledgling DJ from Florida (which, apparently and hilariously, just being from there is bad enough to merit a stint in the Bad Place). Manny plays his character as naive and dumb, but also as strong-willed in his convictions, even if extremely ill thought out, which results in some of the strongest laughs in each episode. The best cast member, though, is easily D’Arcy Carden as Janet, the human-looking Google-like guide to the Good Place. Janet is just a program, yet the actress playing her provides subtle moments of hilarity, whether it is confusion regarding human emotions, safe-guard systems design to maintain stability, or malfunctions with hysterical results. She is so often the MVP of each episode, and halfway through the 13 episode season I realized that a future star of comedy was born.
The limited episodes are a strong choice for this show. The more is more philosophy of network shows has been showing its cracks for a very very long time now, so the recent understanding that cable shows have gotten it right in limiting the episodes to guarantee better quality is proven here. Each episode is funny and I laughed out loud more than once, which is exactly what I look for in a sitcom, even though that seems to be in short supply these days of quality and complicated premium tv. I am a new fan of this show and look forward to season 2, especially given the finale’s revelations. A strong return to form for NBC, which used to home some of my favorite shows ever, and may be on the right path once again.