Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilot Season '16: The Good Place

NBC, Thursdays @ 8:30

This is a terrible ad for this good show.  It's a
show that makes a point about the afterlife
being intensely multicultural and yet it
promotes with only its white leads. And doing
that 40-Year-Old-Virgin thing that's been
played out for well over a decade...sigh. 
  
For a few years in the early 2000's we (as a collective audience) were treated to surreal comedy dramas about death from the creative mind of Brian FullerDead Like Me and Pushing Daisies...hell, even Hannibal can be considered a deep black comedy in the right (/wrong) light.  So to find that The Good Place, a surreal, vibrant show about the afterlife didn't come from Fuller, but rather Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 creator Michael Schur was rather surprising. 

There's an absolute kinship between The Good Place and Pushing Daisies most explicitly, with Daisies being the lightest and warmest of Fuller's works.  The Good Place is about a perfect society, lovingly crafted by Ted Danson's Michael (who had apprenticed for a builder for over a century), where roughly 300-400 newly dead go to live.  The catch, of course, is that this is the Good Place, where only the goodest of good people go.  The rest go to the Bad Place, and pretty much everyone winds up there.  Yet, through some kind of clerical error, Elanor (Kristen Bell) has wound up in the Good Place where she definitely doesn't belong, only Michael doesn't know it.  In fact the only person who does is her "soul mate", Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who raised himself up from poverty to be an ethics professor, and he's promised her that he won't betray her.  Now he struggles with betraying a promise and the well being of the Good Place's society, as Elanor's mere presence is causing random chaos to ensue, distressing Michael every time.  It's a fantastical twist on My Fair Lady in a way.

The pilot episode is an extremely bright and eye-popping widescreen adventure, directed by Drew Goddard (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods fame), and is a very assured pilot.  The premise is well set-up, and by the episode's end the cast seems quite at ease with each other and the comedy.  The second episode, directed by Mad TV and Cougartown vet Michael McDonald, is a shocking transition as McDonald's style is far more tellingly for TV.  More close-ups and tighter framing.  It wouldn't be so noticeable if the two episodes weren't paired for a 1 hour premiere.  Even still, the show grows in its second episode and the laughs increase as do the stakes.  The cast starts to flesh out even more, (particularly Jameela Jamil as the pompous Tahani gets a bit of a showcase).

It's a strange scenario for a comedy, for sure, which may curb its mass appeal, but in the niche reality of today's TV, there's no question it should survive if it can come out the gate so strong.  The possibilities for the show increase when one realizes that there may be other Good Places to explore, new faces can arrive, and a reality that can be shaped and reshaped as it goes along on the whims of its creator.  Plus, the flashbacks of Kristen Bell being utterly terrible in her living years are hilarious, and a needed pop outside the surreal environment.