It’s rare that you fall head over heels in love with a TV show … especially on a first viewing.
Sure, you might flirt a little, watching an episode here or there. Or you might lightly date, sampling a few episodes one after the other, separated by a reasonably decorous period of time. After all, there are plenty of other shows to watch and while this one seems promising, is it really so good that you’re willing to commit yourselves to it ’til binge us do part?
You might, after some great consideration in this age of the Quality TV Glut, when excellent shows are a dime-a-dozen, swipe right on this televisual Tindr with an alacrity that confers interest, serious interest, without ever finishing a season or actually going beyond the first date.
But to fall in love? Ah, that is something else entirely.
And yet, that is precisely what happened when, seduced by a perky canary-yellow banner on Netflix, I came across Mike Schur’s The Good Place, which has found an international home on the streaming service outside of its home base of NBC in the U.S.
I had heard great things of course with many people proclaiming the afterlife sitcom one the few classically-good comedies on TV right now. I’d been inclined to believe them since Mike Schur, he of Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has quite the mirth-inducing track record, but even so friends will always talk up a TV show they want you meet and date and hopefully fall in love with, overestimating their favourite show’s appeal, leaving you bitterly, or let’s be a little less melodramatic here, mildly “meh” disappointed.
Not so with The Good Place, a show set in the better of the two places you can go to after you die, where entry is determined by an infallible (uh-oh) algorithm that weighs up all the good things you have ever done, from rescuing kittens to ending genocide, buying a homeless person a bagel to ending world conflict, and grants you a virtue rating that determines your eternal resting place (or not so restful as the case may be).
It’s where Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself one day with no real memory of her death – as with everything in this show, it’s absurdly, slyly funny; death by margarita mix-for-one dropped in a supermarket carpark where runaway shopping carts push her into the path of a truck advertising erectile dysfunction drugs – with a dawning awareness that she does not belong there.
Naturally, she wants to stay in a place where you are guaranteed a real true soulmate, where frozen yoghurt stores are everywhere (hmmm, is that really a good thing?), your homes reflect your style precisely and you can fly, yep, zoom zoom through the sky like Superman.
So as it increasingly emerges that she is a virtuous fraud, she is loathe, for obvious reasons, to admit to her perfect neighbourhood’s rookie creator, Michael (Ted Danson) that she has been confused with the other Eleanor Shellstrop.
You know, the one who went on hunger strikes, and volunteered on lifegiving missions to the poor and needy of Haiti with no thought for her own wellbeing … yep, that Eleanor Shellstrop.
A place that is Heaven by another name, though no one mentions refers to that moniker since all world religions only guessed at about 5% of the reality of the afterlife, The Good Place is everything you ever wanted and more, and frankly who would want to give that up?
Certainly not Eleanor, a woman who coercively sold non-functional fake meds to old people, had no qualms about treating people like “shirt” – you can’t swear in The Good Place which leads to some inner five-year-old pleasing dialogue – and used and abused her friends whenever circumstances, usually drunkenness or impromptu hook-ups, demanded it.
She was not a good person, and algorithmically, and frankly on just every scale imaginable, deserves to rot in Hell, I mean The Bad Place, pretty much forever.
But a clerical error, which the supernatural beings who run the afterlife aren’t supposed to make, has happened, Eleanor is here and she begs her morally upstanding soulmate, Chidi Anagonya (William Jackson Harper), a buttoned-down, stodgy young morals professor, who’s been working on his unreadable thesis for 18 years (you can’t rush these things) to make her a better person, more deserving, if that’s possible, of her accidental good fortune.
Of course, this all has to take place in secret since no one can find out she’s a fake; certainly not Michael, and so when Eleanor’s mere presence causes all kind of chaos and havoc to break out – a giant sink hole in a restaurant that only serves your favourite meals? Trash storms? Giant prawns flying destructively through the pristine blue sky? ‘fraid so – the two, Chidi most reluctantly, redouble their efforts to make Eleanor worthy of her place next to the likes of Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Eleanor’s neighbour whose mansion dwarfs the small modern retro pile next door.
Thus is set in place a deliciously funny comedy that mines the great ethical dilemmas that appealingly litter its ongoing arc-like narrative like giant giraffes wandering the street.
In fact, what makes The Good Place ridiculously easy to fall in love and binge eight episodes in a go (yes it’s possible that might have happened but you know what new TV love is like) is that it is so damn clever.
Everything from the beautifully well-though premise and setting, the exquisitely well-wrought characters, all of whom have a foible or two despite the 104% perfection rate that is technically at work, to the nicely-layered moral conundrums, suggest a show with a substantial intelligence behind it.
Take that moment when Eleanor, rescued off the train to The Bad Place – quite why is a spoiler and won’t be revealed here – comes face-to-face with the really good Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman condemned to the equivalent of hell because of bad Eleanor’s duplicity (and Michael’s clerical error), and she and everyone she knows has to wrestle with the fact that saving Bad Eleanor will leave Good Eleanor, who actually deserves to be in The Good Place, with a fate that should not be hers.
Ethically juicy dilemmas like that are strewn across the episodes like so much fallen garbage, and while many are resolved when Eleanor learns some important lesson, the fact that they are cropping up at all suggests that the narcissistic ex-sales queen is a rogue element, royally upsetting the carefully-balanced heaven-like applecart.
While saving Eleanor provides plenty of narratiive and emotionally-resonant fodder for the show, it does mean a lot of other things, good, lovely, utopian afterlife-y things, can’t happen, and is that really fair?
Oh the dilemma! The angst! The sick stomachs! (Something Chidi, who is the recipient of these un-heavenly digestive movements, wearily notes shouldn’t be happening in heaven.)
The intriguing and exciting thing about The Good Place is that it’s an elastic premise ripe with all kinds of narrative possibilities; after all, this is the utopian afterlife so what isn’t possible? Nothing really, and Schur has gifted the show with the ability to go pretty much anywhere it wants.
Word is, and I have deliberately much sealed myself off from any spoilers, not an easy undertaking in this info-soaked digital age, that some fairly cool twists are on the way, including a much talked-about season 1 finale, more than justifying the sense that this is a clever, imaginative, highly-original sitcom that is really going to go places.
Good and yes, even Bad Places, with this late-to-the-shrimp-heavy-party viewer wholly along for the ride and unreservedly in love with everything about a comedy that shows real promise of being one of the great comedies of our current TV-glutted age.