The Good Place opens with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) suddenly finding herself in a pristine office, being informed that she has died and is now in an exclusive afterlife reserved only for the most moral, selfless people. She’s told that she has earned her place there due to her work as a death row lawyer, as well as her extensive volunteering and charity work. However, a mistake has been made: she isn’t the Eleanor Shellstrop they think she is. They’ve got the name right, but she’s actually a telesales rep who spent her time on earth selling fake medicine to old people, letting down her friends and generally living an empty, self-centred life.
After being shown to her new house, specially designed to suit ‘her’ tastes (turns out the other Eleanor was a big fan of minimalist decor combined with pictures of creepy clowns), she is paired up with her ‘soulmate’, i.e. the person in paradise she is apparently most compatible with, and decides to confide in him about the mix-up. Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an honest-to-a-fault ethics professor, reluctantly agrees to keep Eleanor’s secret and attempt to save her soul by teaching her how to be a more moral person.
This is the latest comedy from Michael Schur, the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and his new offering has the same brand of silly yet smart humour and likeable characters. One big difference though is The Good Place’s high-concept setup. Schur’s other comedies might have character development and a few overarching plots, but their episodes are typically self-contained stories that get neatly wrapped up within 20 minutes. The Good Place, on the other hand, has a continuous story full of twists, turns and surprises which frequently pull the rug from under the viewer’s feet. Set in a unique, mysterious place where many things aren’t quite what they seem, it has almost as much Lost in its DNA as it does Parks or Nine-Nine.
It’s a highly bingeable show, with every episode ending in some sort of cliffhanger that makes you immediately want to watch the next. Yet it manages to be dramatic without ever feeling contrived or absurd, even though, thanks to its ambitious premise, the stakes are consistently high. Will Eleanor manage to become a better person with Chidi’s guidance? Will she be found out and banished to The Bad Place? And will The Good Place itself fall apart due to the glitches in its system? As the season progresses, it becomes apparent that Eleanor isn’t the only problem in paradise, much to the distress of the community’s architect, Michael (Ted Danson).
Eleanor’s fish-out-of-water situation proves to be a good source of laughs, as she is thrown into the utopian world – where, for example, swearing is censored, so she finds herself saying “fork” and “shirt” a lot – and surrounded by eye-rollingly perfect people. Chidi’s efforts to be her ethics mentor are equally amusing, and he is so sweet natured that we really feel for him, as he becomes increasingly entangled in a web of lies. Over the course of its 13 episodes, the first season becomes more of an ensemble comedy, with posh British philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her ‘soulmate’ Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a silent Buddhist monk, becoming more involved and flashbacks giving us insight into their lives on Earth.
Veteran actor Ted Danson is on great form as Michael, the angelic architect of The Good Place, who has chosen to defy convention by living there among its residents. His childlike fascination with the human race is delightful, whether he’s getting excited about the possibility of wearing suspenders for the first time or marvelling at a bowl of paperclips. Meanwhile, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an artificial being programmed to serve residents, has some of the show’s best lines, often managing to get big laughs from just a few words said with a fixed cheery expression. Later in the season, there’s also an entertaining guest turn from Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt) as a mean, sleazy representative of The Bad Place – a hellish world, which we learn has multi-headed flying bears, food that turns to spiders in your mouth, and, worst of all, nightly viewings of The Bachelor.
To get maximum enjoyment from The Good Place Season 1, you’d be very wise to avoid finding out how it ends until you actually get there. Sufficed to say that there’s a shocking development in the finale, which suggests Season 2 (also on Netflix UK, currently arriving in weekly instalments on Thursdays) will be moving beyond the ‘My Fair Lady with morality’ premise to become something even more fascinating and intricately plotted. With its sharp humour and engaging characters, plus its interesting points to consider on the dichotomy between good and bad, The Good Place is truly a heavenly watch.
The Good Place Season 1 and 2 are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.