Why aren’t you watching: The Good Place

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the path to hell is paved with niceties

Why aren’t you watching The Good Place?

why you probably aren’t: well, for starters, it’s a network comedy, unlike most of the shows you’re probably watching, which are produced by some rogue cable channel where they can say all the bad words or are streamed by an obscure new content producer like Yahoo Dating. Nope, The Good Place is on boring old NBC, a network whose last good shows all packed up their bags a few years ago only to be replaced by Chicago Walgreens and its many spinoffs about the other extremely hot, hardworking people of the Windy City. Once Netflix got good and FX got excellent, it seemed almost silly to look for something to watch on network TV, where they play it safe and cater to Tim Allen’s loyal fan base. You probably thought the only reason to tune into the National Broadcasting Company was for endless reruns of the shows from 5 or 10 years ago, when smart writing reigned over swiveling chairs and the TV landscape was a lot less cramped.

why you should be: The Good Place is the newest creation from Mike Schur – the brain behind a little comedy called Parks and Rec (and just fyi that he also played Dwight’s cousin, the charming beet farmer Mose Schrute, in several episodes of The Office)

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Schur’s early credits include haunting this barn

Back in the days before Chris Pratt got rebranded as a young Harrison Ford with abs, Parks and Rec was a little gem of a show I admit I never really appreciated. I mean I get that it was a good show – clever and goofy with a heart as sweet as a whipped cream covered waffle. But all that realism and earnestness about local government, plus its small town setting were just never mah thing – I’d take 30 Rock’s bizzaro New York City, filled with artsy theater types, over Parks and Rec any day. One winter, during what was either the flu or me pretending I had the flu so I could avoid going outside in Chicago in January, I binged most of the series. And even my black hearted self came to appreciate the show for one thing – its characters:  Andy and April, Donna and Tom, Ron and Ron’s mustache. With his characters, Schur is exceptional at doing something that, if you’ve ever seen a Wes Anderson movie or episode of New Girl, you’ll know is really hard – makes them quirky and awkward and often really genuine, and yet, you don’t want to punch them in the face.

Which brings us to The Good Place – as if by my request, Schur has taken his talents for creating affecting characters dealing with genuine dilemmas in hilarious ways and placed them in a setting a little more fantastic than Pawnee, Indiana – the afterlife. That’s where we start in Episode 1, with the newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop. And just like he used small town America to explore themes of ambition and service, community and friendship – oh so much friendship on Parks and Rec – Schur takes full advantage of this backdrop of the great beyond to unpack everything from empathy to fantasy frozen yogurt flavors. Where a lesser network show might waste this farfetched premise on cheap jokes about how it sure is a hot day in hell, or man, is St. Peter in a mood, tough day to try and get into those pearly gates, The Good Place goes deeper, delving into age-old philosophical questions to try and get to the heart of what it really means to be a good person (reportedly Schur actually read all the weighty tomes – which basically cover Ethics 101 – mentioned on the show) – but don’t worry, it’s got jokes too!

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Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, whose life on Earth – selfish, vapid and shallow – certainly didn’t earn her the kind of points needed to get into paradise. And yet that’s where she finds herself after an unfortunate run in with an erectile dysfunction billboard truck – as you might can tell, she’s got a real classy thing going on. As Eleanor starts meeting the other Mother Teresa types inhabiting the good place, she quickly figures out she doesn’t belong, but somehow slipped past the system. Knowing the alternative can’t be much fun (at first we only hear the soundtrack of “the other place” – tortured screams, naturally),  she decides to do what she spent her life on Earth doing – lying, cheating and stealing to maintain her privilege, even at the expense of others. And so, hijinks ensue. Eleanor’s a fine lead character (and yes she’s also a small blonde woman, but she’s as lazy and petty as Leslie Knope was a type A sweetheart), but Schur’s shows are always ensembles at heart. As she tries to extend her tenure in heaven, Eleanor must play nice with Ted Danson’s Micheal – he’s like a weird angel who built the neighborhood, her mismatched soul mate (he’s actually a good person), Chidi, played with the most perfect comic timing by William Jackson Harper, and her frenemy and neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who like all of our neighbors, has better bangs and a bigger foyer than her. There’s also a silent Buddhist monk and an extremely talkative help-bot named Janet. Heaven’s just full of surprises.

I won’t say The Good Place hooked me from Episode 1 – like an internet dating profile, its potential intrigued me. I wanted to know more, and I hoped I wouldn’t get hurt again like I had by those other first episodes that were only temporary covers for the lazy writing and one-dimensional characters to come. And like no internet dating story ever – this time wasn’t a disappointment –  every subsequent episode is funnier and weirder than the last and each one built on how much I cared about Eleanor, Chidi and the rest of the gang – the gang of dead people this show is about. It was true TV love and that’s rare – so go on- get to it – why aren’t you watching The Good Place already?

The first 10 episodes of  Season 1 of the The Good Place are currently streaming on Hulu. New episodes air Thursdays at 7:30 central on NBC.

 

 

 

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