The Not-So-Great Beyond

High-concept sit-coms are hard to pull off.  Setting a half-hour, joke-heavy TV show in anything but an ordinary setting requires an awful lot of heavy lifting:  not only do you have to spend a lot of time and effort on stuff like sets and costumes, but you also need to pay at least a decent amount of attention to the premise, its implications, and building it into an internally consistent world.  That shit is hard, especially if your specialty is making people laugh.  That’s why there are so many sit-coms that are set in the banal worlds of the workplace, the domestic sphere, and the like.

And sit-coms don’t come much more high-concept than Michael Schur’s new NBC project, The Good Place.  Its premise is no less lofty than what happens to us after we die, a topic that has yet to be definitively resolved by the world’s most brilliant scientists and committed philosophers, so why not leave it to be dealt with by Mose Schrute?  The series brings the question into focus in the character of Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who, after being killed in a rather embarrassing auto accident, wakes up to find herself in the Good Place.  This is where exceptionally good people go after their time on Earth is through, and you have to be very good indeed; only a few hundred people are revived by virtue of their lifetime of moral decency, while even seemingly upright folks like Clyde Drexler have to rot in the Bad Place, a nightmarish terror-scape of hungry, multi-cephalic dinosaurs.  Eleanor earned her place in this idyllic afterlife through her life of good works.  The only problem is, she didn’t actually do any of those good works:  she’s been brought to the Good Place by mistake.  She’s a total fraud who lived a life of selfishness and sloth, and if anyone finds out, she likely faces no less than, well, eternal damnation.

To forestall this dismaying possibility, Eleanor — played with lively loathsomeness by Kristen Bell — enlists the aid of her designated “soulmate”, Chidi Anagonye, a former philosopher and teacher of ethics who really did lead a spotless life, despite being kind of a melvin.  (Chidi is played with slow-burn awkwardness by Electric Company veteran William Jackson Harper, and he’s a standout even in this excellent cast.)  Chidi agrees to conceal her true character if she agrees to try and change it, thus putting his lifetime of attempting to understand the meaning of good and evil to the test; but Eleanor’s mere presence is causing huge disruptions in the very fabric of the Good Place’s reality, much to the dismay of its well-meaning, fussy architect, Michael (a terrific Ted Danson).  She quickly realizes that it’s only a matter of time before she’s found out, until it becomes clear that she’s not the only one in the Good Place who isn’t supposed to be there.

That’s an awful lot of structure for what’s basically a fish-out-of-water situation comedy, but one of the strengths of The Good Place is that it doesn’t try to cheap out on the premise — although it does take a noticeable number of shortcuts.  Obviously, the very existence of the Good Place calls into question every religious belief ever held by mankind, which is dealt with in the pilot with a pretty good throwaway joke from Danson.  Instead, Schur and his writers prefer to tackle the idea of right and wrong through a philosophical lens, and while the mathematical metric used to determine human worth is both murky and a bit dire, the character of Chidi legitimately knows his philosophical stuff, and it’s fun for a certain type of geek — a type I will shamelessly admit includes me — to hear honest and yet funny encapsulations of various attempts to understand ethics.  (I think I’ll probably be disappointed in my hope that Richard Rorty will eventually make an appearance, although his postmodernist pragmatism would actually be highly relevant to Eleanor’s presence in the Good Place.)  There’s lots of backstory about what people did to get there, plenty of mystery in the question of why Eleanor and others were let in by mistake, and who exactly operates this curiously suburban paradise and why.

And that’s good, because in addition to being rather clunky as a framework, the premise of The Good Place has a lot of built-in limitations.  Eleanor’s situation is untenable for a lot of reasons; she’s not going to be found out and punished (even the most devoted fans of the comedy of humiliation presumably don’t want to see the main character of a show cruelly tormented for all time), and concealing her true nature will probably get a little dull after a while, which is why they wisely established that she wasn’t the only bad apple in the barrel pretty quickly.  The show is also doing a decent job of fleshing out its secondary and tertiary characters, a necessity if it’s going to run more than one season, and while there are still a lot of clunky moments, Schur seems to be treating the premise seriously, which means it has a structure instead of just a bunch of loose gags and the possibility of expanding its own mythos — doling out revelations about who the architects are, how the system works, what happens in the Bad Place, and why mistakes are being made, which will not only strengthen the show, but allow for more comedic potential down the road.

Because, high-concept or not, The Good Place is still a sit-com, and it has to be funny.  So far it’s doing a pretty good job of it, thanks largely to character work and an extremely willing cast; the surreal bits about the character of the afterlife itself, as well as an ongoing joke about how no one can curse in the Good Place, are a lot less funny in practice than they probably seemed to be in the writer’s room.  Still, the whole thing has a breezy, and curiously easy-going, quality that makes it a fine piece of light entertainment, and while the laughs are a bit inconsistent (as is the overall tone the show is trying to take), there’s been at least one moment per episode that’s given me a big laugh.  Like Eleanor, that’s not perfect, but at least it’s trying — and that’s enough to keep me tuning in for now.

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