There’s a scene in the second episode of “The Good Place” where Ted Danson kicks a dog into the sun. While the absurdity of the moment gets a laugh, it’s the in-your-face violation of a Hollywood no-no — harming animals — that makes the first half of the scene so ambitiously tantalizing. If only it had stopped there. When the real punchline lands, it feels like a slow-motion car crash: You see the end coming, and you can’t get out of the way fast enough.
While it’s too early to compare “The Good Place” to Icarus’ ill-fated journey toward the sun, the scene does aptly sum up the trajectory of Michael Schur’s new comedy: an admirably ambitious start with uncomfortably formulaic follow-ups.
This revelation is doubly disappointing for anyone with heavenly expectations thanks to Schur’s sterling reputation. For “Parks and Recreation” fans — and if you aren’t one, just GTFO — “The Good Place” appears to be the ideal replacement for your weekly dose of brilliantly bottled joy. Coming from the same creator, the new NBC comedy focuses on the moral dilemmas that define a good person from a bad person; dilemmas more existential than the political choices made in Pawnee’s Parks department, but of similarly virtuous stock. Schur’s latest also features an enthusiastic example of what’s good (Ted Danson as Michael) and a few iffy supporting characters looking to improve (primarily, Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop), all of whom interact in an exclusive, self-contained community. Combine these well-intentioned folks with plenty of “Mad Libs”-like improv opportunities, and one can understand why anyone who misses Leslie Knope would be eager to visit “The Good Place.”
Unfortunately, with five episodes in our rearview, it’s clear the two series needn’t be compared. “The Good Place,” despite an encouragingly creative pilot filled with fertile world-building ideas, lacks comparable creativity in its episodic arcs. It’s also far from an ensemble effort and — because of both aforementioned reasons — struggles to maximize the potential of its appealing cast (none of which were problems on “Parks”).
To be specific, “The Good Place” starts where most shows end: the immediate moment after death. Eleanor is greeted by Michael after she meets her embarrassing end on Earth, and he ushers her into “the next phase of your existence in the universe.” After explaining how she died (don’t ask), who most accurately guessed what the afterlife would look like (almost everyone was way off), and what’s next (paradise!), Michael introduces Eleanor to her true soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who’s been chosen by the universe as her absolute perfect match. Chidi is prepared to live with Eleanor in her perfect home surrounded by perfect neighbors and built in a perfect community…
…but there’s one big problem. Eleanor doesn’t belong in The Good Place. She was supposed to go to The Bad Place, but there was a mistake. Now, she has to figure out how to fit in among her perfect (literally) fellow residents and avoid ending up cast down to the depths of…well, somewhere very bad.
That’s about as far as we’re willing to go in regard to plot summary, in part because one of “The Good Place’s” most enjoyable elements is how specifically it builds the afterlife. Schur and his writing staff take great care in constructing The Good Place, and introducing Michael, a character as fraught over its perfection as they must be, works well to introduce juicy new components of an idyllic society without feeling forced.
How long Michael (and Schur) can keep unveiling treats will be a test to a comedy clocking in at 13 episodes a season, but there are two red flags already in terms of whether or not “The Good Place” can survive past Season 1. Michael represents the first. Modeled after a mad scientist with benevolent intentions, Michael is a mysterious figure who flies between guests in his hand-built community, stressed over maintaining their serenity. Danson plays him perfectly, imbuing as much empathy into the series’ most indefinable figure as possible. But Michael remains a perplexing figure, even after two-and-a-half hours with him, as his origins, motivations and general feelings are distractingly distancing. We want to know Michael — to understand him — and in keeping him as an above-it-all administrator deprives the audience of Danson’s human charms.
Bell doesn’t have the same problem. In fact, she has the opposite issue. Both talents are held back by their characters, but while Danson makes the most of spitting (delightful) exposition, Bell has to overcome inherent hang-ups within Eleanor. She does just that, but why hamstring a lead by making her true self so utterly unlikable the audience has to question whether she’s deserving of a second chance in The Good Place — especially when the show refuses to fully engage with that moral conundrum?
This isn’t a case of a character who we empathize with even though they skirt the line between asshole and average. What we see of Eleanor before entering The Good Place makes her out to be an objective dirtbag, and the larger questions Schur wants to engage with — is there an absolute good and bad? can morally good behavior be taught? what defines a “good person”? — don’t demand a protagonist who was impossible to sympathize with on Earth.
More problematic than the leads’ handicaps, though, is the formulaic structuring implemented after the pilot. For all the creativity that went into introducing The Good Place, the deliberately-limiting 1:1 conversations that come next feel far too simplistic. Viewers can see the main arc quite clearly by pilot’s end, and the suspense meant to come from Eleanor’s displacement isn’t threatening enough to propel the plot because it’s a broadcast sitcom. Nothing that bad can happen to Eleanor, especially when the stakes are so high — eternal paradise or never-ending pain — and she has zero other priorities. Last-minute twists try to drive the story forward in each episode, but initial intrigue (spurred on by the ambitious premise) fades as we become more and more accustomed to the familiar formulas.
There’s still plenty of potential in “The Good Place,” especially when remembering that “Parks and Recreation” got off to an uneven start in its first season. And while, yes, the innovation seen in the silly, inspired pilot feels betrayed by its follow-ups, that’s not what’s most troublesome about Schur’s latest comedy. Dating back to “The Office” and running through “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” his most valued skill as a creator is deftly balancing a veritable brigade of talent, all jumping in and out of scenes with impeccable timing and establishing endearing affection while doing so. “The Good Place” has the right intentions. It has the big idea. It even has the players. But someone needs to move them more effectively.