The Golden Age of Television has seen a major resurgence in popular, prestige drama. That’s not to say its sister genre of comedy has missed out on the rise of visionary creators producing cinematic shows. F/X just premiered both Atlanta and Better Things, two hilarious and boundary-pushing comedy series. The latter was even co-created and directed by the cable channel’s auteur funnyman trailblazer, Louis C.K.
Elsewhere, there’re the likes of You’re The Worst, Portlandia and Nathan For You, all of which are exploring the limits of what you can do with comedy on TV. Which is all great! Sometimes, however, you don’t want boundary-pushing. You don’t want experimental. You want something comfortable and familiar. Something that’s reliably funny. Something you can stream at the end of a long day with your VIDGO app switched on and your brain switched off.
You want a classic situation comedy! The hardy perennial of the airwaves, there’s a reason the sitcom has been around since TV has been around. After a couple of years spent treading water following the loss of some of their best comedies (The Office, Parenthood, 30 Rock), NBC has launched a new series that fits all these criteria. And straight out of the gate, it has all the makings of an instant classic. Here are eight reasons why you should stream The Good Place this fall.
The premise of a sitcom — the “situation” part — can be as high or low concept as you want. It can be as simple as a bunch of diverse characters hanging out in a bar. It can be as complex as an alternate reality where cavemen branched off into a separate species and exist in the modern day (…although perhaps Cavemen is a bad example). Nevertheless, The Good Place sits at the latter end of the scale. In fact, may just boast one of the highest concepts we’ve seen in a TV comedy yet.
The set-up of the show is this: the afterlife exists, and it’s kind of boring. The eponymous “Good Place” is populated by the best and the brightest of humankind. Which means it’s a clean, slick and permanently sunny neighborhood full of fuddy-duddys physically incapable of swearing, and who eat a lot of frozen yogurt. Thrown into this situation is a young woman named Eleanor Shellstrop, who wakes up in a tastefully-decorated green room following her untimely death.
The message “WELCOME! EVERYTHING IS FINE” emblazoned on the wall is not enough to reassure her. That because everything is most definitely not fine. It soon becomes clear that Eleanor’s entrance to The Good Place is a mistake. She was a casual litterer, a rampant narcissist and former saleswoman of bogus medicines. It just so happens Eleanor shared a name with a tireless human rights lawyer. And now she has to make sure nobody discovers the mix-up.
As far as sales pitches go, that one’s up there with some of the best. It’s also distinct from the sorts of sitcoms NBC is known for producing. Doubly surprising is that The Good Place comes from Mike Schur, the man responsible for the sorts of sitcoms NBC is known for producing. Schur is best known as the man behind workplace comedy The Office and its semi-spin-off, Parks and Recreation. He’s also responsible for Brooklyn Nine-Nine on FOX, another great comedy series available on VIDGO.
Those are all shows which have their moments of whimsy and surreality, but for the most part, are firmly rooted in realistic situations. Not so in the case of The Good Place. There’s a lot of setting up the situation, along with the comedy that arises naturally from it. The pilot episode has a lot of world-building mixed in with the gags, although one is never at the expense of the other.
This may be uncharted territory, but Schur’s comedic sensibility remains intact. There’s a warmness to his characters (even in the more cynical among them) that stops them from simply being walking punchlines. Which they don’t need to be, because the punchlines are smart, sharp and concise, with a knack for cold opens carried over from his previous hit series. If you love Schur’s other series, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll love The Good Place.
The show’s leading lady is undeniably its MVP. Kristen Bell has been all but absent from network television for the past few years, instead of putting in some solid work with the underrated Showtime series House of Lies. Believe it or not, we’re now almost a decade removed from Veronica Mars, the teen detective series with which she made her name.
Bell’s not lost any of her comedic chops or star quality in the interim, as her new series will attest. Having previously worked with Schur during a recurring guest spot in Parks and Rec’s later seasons, casting Bell in the role of Eleanor Shellstrop was a no-brainer. As the scheming, deceased interloper trying to maintain her unearned place in the afterlife, she is by turns cutting, devious, and uproariously funny.
What with her hitting the big time thanks to her voice acting work in Disney’s Frozen, Bell’s stock has never been higher. You’ll have to load up your VIDGO to find out if her raucously nasty Eleanor manages to maintain her position in The Good Place. Especially since her presence appears to be having a destabilizing effect on the very fabric of the afterlife’s reality.
The Good Place’s prestige cast doesn’t stop there. Not by a long shot. Since he’s never been absent from our screens for long, it can be easy to take the genius of Ted Danson for granted. From the charming Sam in Cheers to suave stoner George in Bored to Death, to his more straight dramatic roles in the likes of Damages and CSI, he’s been an almost permanent fixture on the small screen for the past thirty years.
Just look at the variety of roles in that small selection! There’s leading man, supporting role, deadly serious and seriously funny. All from one performer. Danson may be the best sitcom actor of our time. So it’s a stroke of luck that The Good Place managed to net him for their main cast. Especially because Danson’s character is one of the most delightfully odd on the entire show, which is saying something.
Michael is the benevolent designer of Eleanor afterlife neighborhood, anxious for his first commission to work out, as well as being her guide to this new plane of existence. Danson’s performance is a lot more low-key, a lot more beatific than you’ve seen him before, with the easy vibe of an employee at an island resort. He’s no less side-splitting in his dealings with the more difficult residents of his creation, including Eleanor.
Mike Schur is but one ingredient that has helped with the recent flourish of great sitcoms on TV. The other, arguably more potent ingredient, is the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. The UCB is an improv theater and school with locations across New York and Los Angeles, founded in the nineties by a group of alternative comedians including Amy Poheler.
Since its humble beginnings, the UCB has developed into a comedic juggernaut, providing almost every big sitcom of the past decade with both cast members and writers. UCB alumni appear in and work on shows including Parks and Rec, Children’s Hospital, The League, Saturday Night Live, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a powerhouse that regularly churns out great comic talent.
The Good Place has seized onto that. Rounding out the supporting cast are established UCB players who are looking to make their leap to the big time. The stand-out is D’Arcy Carden as the off-beat Janet, a celestial “information assistant” who struggles to act less like a computer and more like a person. Her lack of empathy is especially obvious/hilarious when she dismisses the hellish “Bad Place” as not all that bad (it sounds really, really bad).
Mike Schur is a huge talent, but he is only one man. And one man working alone does not a network sitcom make, for the most part. Luckily, his writers’ room might be the best in the business right now. Alan Yang, who is another recurrent Schur collaborator and just won an Emmy for co-creating and writing Master of None with Aziz Ansari, penned the second episode.
Future installments will come from the writing team which includes fellow Parks and Rec alumni Aisha Muharrar and Megan Amram, and sardonic stand-up comedian Joe Mande. The renaissance of dramatic TV has also attracted plenty of Hollywood directors to the small screen — most notably Rian Johnson to Breaking Bad and Cary Fukunaga to True Detective.
The Good Place is unusual in that it’s a sitcom with a similarly big name behind the camera for a handful of its first season. Drew Goddard wrote Cloverfield, The Martian, and made his directorial debut with post-modern horror flick The Cabin in the Woods. As well as directing The Good Place he has remained on board as an executive producer.
A sitcom set in the afterlife is not a premise taken lightly. Not wishing to cause offense to any specific denominations, Schur scrapped initial plans to represent the intersections of various different faiths and religions. “I stopped doing research because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation,” he has said. “The show isn’t taking a side, the people who are there are from every country and religion.”
That means The Good Place has a very distinct, peculiar version of the afterlife. It’s somewhere between a celestial body and a sun-baked beach community. Its occupants live in what look like pricey condos (the show is shot in San Marino’s Huntington Gardens), its design is a mish-mish of different cultures. It’s plastered in the sort of positive self-help slogans that you’re likely to find in office cubicles or corporately-decorated break rooms.
There’re hints that the “creators” of The Good Place are different to the norm as well, farming out the building and design of this afterlife to various cosmic beings. Who look like Ted Danson. The ways of gaining entry are a little non-traditional, too, with points being earned for angelic acts ranging from “helped a hermit crab find a new shell” to “never discussed veganism unprompted”. It’s a funny, contemporary and novel take on life after death.
Let’s be honest: the peacock has not been in the best health as of late. Especially when it comes to comedy. The end of Parenthood, Community and co left a vacuum they didn’t fill all that well. Lots of ill-conceived shows premiered and lasted single seasons, including 1600 Penn and Friends with Benefits. There have been signs of recovery, however.
The Carmichael Show (the third season of which will hit streaming services like VIDGO soon) is a smart take on the traditional family sitcom, which tackles social issues without sparing the laughs. The Good Place is another step in the right direction. Along with the killer premise, the show actually explores some heavy themes with regards to morality and altruism. Are good deeds devalued if, like Jameela Jamil’s character Tahani, you’re just doing them to rack up enough positive points to ensure your entrance into the good part of the afterlife?
With Schur back at the wheel, and Kristen Bell and Ted Danson in tow, NBC’s new series could be the big hit they need. It boasts a cast, acting style and sense of humor that will be instantly familiar to anybody who fell in love with the network’s recent stable of warm and witty comedies. It’s got water-cooler-worthy mysteries to discuss at the office. It’s got complex moral issues. What more could you want?
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