At the start of Chapter 18 of “The Good Place,” Ted Danson’s Michael — the architect of a human torture chamber who’s recently switched sides in an attempt to help his former captives — laments how his new bosses are running The Bad Place.
“It really tucks my nuggets,” he says. “I worked so hard on my torture ideas, and theirs are so basic. These millennials, they have no work ethic.”
When Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), who are both around the millennial age, give him a puzzled look, he continues. “Oh sorry, a millennial is someone who has only been torturing people for a thousand years.”
But the pun-like wordplay above sparked a troubling thought. Considering the middling “Good Place” ratings and the recent history of its star…
Do real millennials not get Ted Danson?
Now, to be fair, “The Good Place” ratings aren’t bad. In fact, they’ve held up well since Season 1, down just over 4 percent in the coveted 18-49 demographic. This season, it’s NBC’s third-highest rated show in the demo, behind bonafide hits “This Is Us” and “Will and Grace.”
But “The Good Place” is not necessarily a “hit” (whatever that means nowadays). Despite its home on broadcast TV, where Danson’s established audience can find him easily, and a creator who successfully courted a younger generation with mega-hits like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” (Mike Schur, keep doin’ you), “The Good Place” just hasn’t gained traction to match its reviews. There was much trepidation at the end of Season 1 as to whether or not the half-hour comedy would be renewed for Season 2, and there’s likely to be similar concerns about Season 3 as the year continues.
Moreover, Danson hasn’t had a comedic hit in quite some time. His dramatic work fares all right, dating from when he stepped in on “CSI” to his crucial supporting roles on “Fargo” and “Damages.” But you have to go back to “Becker” to find a legitimate ratings winner for him on the sitcom front. The CBS comedy where he played a grumpy doctor complaining about telemarketers and therapy lasted six seasons, but that network has been skewing older since Archie Bunker got his own spinoff.
His last series regular gig on a comedy was “Bored to Death.” The HBO offering earned a cult fanbase — deservedly so, given its impeccable cast and fresh noir storytelling — but was canceled after three struggling seasons, despite a clear, three-pronged approach to ratings success: Jason Schwartzman courts the cool hipsters; Zach Galifianakis was there to scoop up a wider swath of young viewers; and Ted Danson served to draw in the older crowd who could pay for HBO subscriptions and who wouldn’t want to miss Sam Malone’s new show.
But viewers shouldn’t need any “Cheers” nostalgia to appreciate what the multitalented actor is doing on “The Good Place.” He’s not just charming, or sharp, or likable. He’s often pointedly not the latter, and Danson seems to revel in Michael’s devilish desires. But he’s also incredibly precise, courageous, and adventurous. Just look at the face he makes when Michael first grasps the concept of death in Episode 4, “Existential Crisis”:
In the past two episodes alone, Danson has been asked to take Michael to extremes that would seem ludicrous on any other show, and the mere fact they fit in this otherworldly premise doesn’t subtract from how effectively and joyously he executes the acts.
In the second half of Episode 4, he acts out a mini mid-life crisis with all the feigned joie de vivre of real life. He wears bright colors and white suits. He drives a sports car. He makes Janet become Janice, his now-blonde “secretary” in an insanely tight dress: “She’s a lot like Janet, but she doesn’t pretend like she has all the answers,” he says.
But that’s all window dressing for Danson’s ability to shift between the farthest reaches of his emotional spectrum in a few words or less. When confronted about his mid-life crisis, Michael starts talking out loud, saying he can’t slow down or he’ll start thinking about death again. And then he does, and an intense fear creeps across his face ever so briefly, but with harrowing impact.
In the following episode, airing Thursday, October 19, there’s a scene where Michael pivots even faster on an even greater challenge: Michael mocks Chidi (William Jackson Harper), using every word to snidely demean his ethics teacher, and then he immediately recites the line again, word-for-word, with such sincerity his eyes are filled with tears. It’s not just that Danson offers up two polar opposite line readings; it’s that he convincingly transitions from one to the next without any help. He grounds his character in both opinions, which, again, are contradictory.
In short — and this should be short, considering how much has been written about Danson’s performance already — Danson is funny. He’s very, very funny, and he’s pushing himself to exciting new territory fans of all ages have yet to see. It would be easy to say Ted Danson is a national treasure and mean it. He is and has been since “Cheers.”
But he’s becoming more than that in “The Good Place.” He’s becoming timeless, and in doing so, he’s capturing exactly what the show is searching for: If the meaning of life is purpose, then Danson is finding fresh purpose in every look, laugh, and line of “The Good Place.” Anyone who doesn’t get it just isn’t watching.
“The Good Place” airs new episodes Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.