If you’d heard all the hype about Netflix’s afterlife sitcom The Good Place before seeing the show, you might be a little hesitant to give it a go. Like many great shows, The Good Place has been subject to much commentary about its greatness that doesn’t really get to the heart of what’s great about it. For a start, there’s the “philosophy” angle – The Good Place is a show about philosophy, which sounds pretty dry. Or, if you’re a philosopher yourself, could sound utterly dire, fearing that it does to philosophy what The Big Bang Theory has done to science.
Fear not, for The Good Place is neither a show built around impenetrable gags about Spinoza’s Ethics, nor a clumsy shoe-horning of smart words into dumb gags. Instead, it is a whip-smart, beautifully constructed comedy with a warmly humanistic core written by people who love thinking about the nature of existence, but love making you laugh more.
The set-up for those who haven’t begun season one yet – though if that’s you, c’mon, season three is out now, where the hell have you been – is simply this: Eleanor Shellstrop has died and gone to “the Good Place”, which is, essentially, heaven, overseen by afterlife architect Michael. The problem: Eleanor was not a particularly good person when alive, and she knows it. She belongs in the Bad Place, but is pretty eager for nobody to find out, since the Bad Place is…well, bad.
Obviously since then there have been a lot of post-mortem shenanigans, which we won’t go into in too much detail for the sake of those stragglers who haven’t cottoned yet. Suffice to say, what is Good and what is Bad, who deserves reward and who deserves punishment, and whether people can change their natures or destinies, have all come under extreme scrutiny as we follow the adventures of Eleanor and her deceased friends – indecisive philosophy professor Chidi, vain socialite Tahani, and vapid slacker Jason: the latter a worthy addition to the pantheon of TV idiots a la Rose Nylund and Woody Boyd.
The Good Place is a sunny, joyous show, the perfect tone to strike given the weighty themes that would drag the whole thing down if anyone were to take it too seriously. People in The Good Place are selfish, conceited, shallow and shortsighted, but still essentially good, decent and worth hanging out with. Even the bad guys are evil in the sort of jolly, whimsical way appropriate for sitcoms. A crucial element of the magic is in the casting: getting Ted Danson to play the part of the immortal-yet-neurotic architect Michael was a masterstroke, and he stretches his comedy chops like he may never have before. Just as brilliant is the casting of Kristen Bell as Eleanor: Bell is far too down-to-earth a presence to ever let the positivity of the show over-sweeten, while being so preternaturally likeable we stay on her side no matter her many, many flaws. The less-huge names of the cast are every bit as good, especially William Jackson Harper as Chidi, whose jittery mixture of intellectual superiority and emotional panic is ever-watchable.
Yes, The Good Place is a “nice” show. It wants to make you feel good. But it’ll do it by making you laugh. If you’re not already on board, jump on now.