Review: Dan Tessier
Michael Schur's The Good Place is a very difficult series to review, since so much of its appeal lies in its sudden, surprising twists. During its four seasons, the plot and settings swerved into new directions with no warning multiple times. It's a tricky prospect describing the series' appeal without spoiling the developments that make it so excellent.
The Good Place must be the most unique sitcom I've ever come across. Fantasy comedies are rare, and genuinely funny ones are even rarer. It has an ingenious central concept, from which it explores an array of philosophical quandaries, from the ethical to the existential, all the while remaining dirty, silly and uproariously funny.
Eleanor Shellstrop, a self-described Arizona dirtbag, dies in an embarrassing car park-related accident, and wakes up in the Good Place, a secular heaven where the very best of humanity gets to spend eternity. Eleanor is played by Kristin Bell – equally famous as the eponymous Veronica Mars and the voice of Anna in the phenomenally successful Frozen films – and gives and incredibly likeable, magnetic performance. Eleanor is fully aware she is in the wrong place; she's a selfish, amoral and apathetic loser, whose very presence is destabilising the Good Place. Her afterlife is the ultimate clerical error.
However, the alternative is the Bad Place, a horrific hell where the bulk of humanity is sent to suffer eternal torture, so Eleanor does her best to hide her true nature and stay in the Good Place. Fortunately for her, everyone in the Good Place is paired up with their supposed soul mate; in Eleanor's case, this is Chidi Anagonye, a mild-mannered and chronically indecisive ethics professor. Chidi is portrayed by William Jackson Harper (The Electric Company), who shares wonderful chemistry with Bell. The two bring to life an incredibly strained and fractious relationship between two very different people, who nonetheless have a real affection for each other. Chidi agrees to teach Eleanor ethics in the hope that she can become someone worthy of the Good Place.
Two more unlikely souls are paired together. Tahani Al-Jamil, a wealthy British socialite who is so utterly perfect in everything she does that she clearly belongs in the Good Place and knows it, and Jianyu Li, a Taiwanese monk who has taken a vow of silence. The two are also supposedly soul mates, although from the outset it's clear that they don't belong together at all. Tahani is played by British actress/model/writer/activist Jameela Jamil, someone almost as aggravatingly perfect as the character she plays, while Jianyu is played by Canadian-Filipino actor and sportsman Manny Jacinto. In one of the earliest twists in the series – and the only one I'll give away – Jianyu is revealed to be Jason Mendoza, a small time crook and big time idiot, who is hiding out just as Eleanor is.
While Bell was already a bona fide star when she was cast in The Good Place, Harper, Jamil and Jacinto all received their breakthrough roles on the series. They are all utterly perfect as their respective characters, all of whom become truly loveable in spite of their many, many flaws.
The main cast is rounded out by two higher beings who exist to maintain the Good Place. Ted Danson, best known for own breakthrough role as Sam on Cheers but recognisable for so many more shows and films, plays Michael, the charming host and architect of the Good Place neighbourhood where Eleanor and company find themselves in. Comedian D'Arcy Carden plays Janet, the sentient virtual assistant (not a robot) who helps human souls become acquainted to the Good Place. Janet is potentially one of the most powerful beings in existence and truly adorable. Danson and Carden have, rightfully, received the most acclaim for their performances on the series, and a vital part of what makes each episode so masterfully entertaining. They make being charmingly funny seem effortless.
With these six characters, The Good Place explores what it means to be human. Through direct lessons, unlikely situations and no end of sex and fart jokes, the series explores how human beings can better themselves, come to term with their flaws, and questions the very nature of the West's predominant view of the afterlife. The idea that anyone who isn't perfect is consigned to hell is repugnant, something that is addressed at length. By the end of the series, the very concept of eternal life is thrown into question, for wouldn't even eternity in a perfect environment become hell? Especially when no one can even swear there. No series has ever covered such essential philosophical questions while at the same times giving us demons who discuss the relative merits of penis flatteners and butthole spiders.
As high-concept and original as this set-up is, the series continued to evolve throughout the four-year run, as did both the human and non-human characters. Slowly, Eleanor learned how to be a truly good person while still being true to her dirtbag personality, and discovered that maybe, just maybe, soul mates really do exist. Finally, after several centuries of afterlife time (referred to as “Jeremy Bearimy,” The Good Place's equivalent of Doctor Who's“timey-wimey”) the series comes to a truly beautiful and uplifting finale.
There's truly never been another series like The Good Place. It's forking brilliant.
About the Writer of this article, Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on March 17th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.