Do you take out the garbage when it’s full? If you saw an old lady struggling down the subway steps, would you help her? Does your job save lives? Are you a good person?
These questions appear to weigh heavily on Mike Schur, the creator of NBC’s great new comedy The Good Place (also the creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. NBC, hold onto Mike Schur for dear life!). The first two episodes, which premiered last night, establish the boundaries of the show’s version of heaven. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) opens her eyes to find herself in a waiting room; a sign on the wall reads, “Welcome! Everything is fine.”
Eleanor meets Michael (Ted Danson), who explains that Eleanor is now dead and yes, she is one of the lucky few to have made it into “the good place.” The good place is divided into neighborhoods — Michael is the “architect” of Eleanor’s neighborhood, the first one he’s built all by himself — each containing 320 people, “perfectly selected to blend together in a blissful, harmonic balance.”
Schur’s vision of afterlife life evokes a very of-the-moment kind of angst about the constant online scrutiny of one’s every move, an angst pretty much entirely divorced from religious dogma: People make it to the good place based on a complex mathematical equation in which every single thing you do on earth is rated, then calculated to produce a total score. A small minority of truly good people end up in heaven, while everyone else is damned to hell. Eleanor’s neighborhood even has an “informational assistant” named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) who’s basically an embodiment of Siri. God is in the details.
According to The Good Place, heaven is simple comfort: Each new resident is gifted a home perfectly tailored to his or her taste. A perfectly-engineered soulmate awaits each resident, and together they can stroll a quaint little town square full of frozen yogurt shops and stores with names like “Your Anticipated Needs.” Heaven is basically Stars Hollow. (Hey, you didn’t need to tell me!)
But when Eleanor is introduced to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a (former) ethics professor from Nigeria, she admits she wasn’t actually a lawyer who fought against the death penalty; she was a saleswoman for a pharmaceutical company that sold junk medicine to ailing seniors. She’s not supposed to be in the good place at all.
In the past few years, there have been plenty of half-hour comedies (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, You’re the Worst, Girls, Difficult People) featuring terrible people redeemed only by their ability to make us laugh. Eleanor certainly fits this pattern: At a welcome party on her first night in the good place, she drinks too much, stuffs cocktail shrimp in her bra, and reacts with indignant sarcasm to every person she meets — especially Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a beautiful, British-born aristocrat whose apparent lack of flaws immediately irks Eleanor. With her glossy blonde bob and sparkling blue eyes, Bell is the perfect choice to play Eleanor, who has to appear to be the wholesome do-gooder Michael has mistaken her for —even as her corrosive personality threatens to upend the heavenly order.
But The Good Place doesn’t stop at the tension between heaven’s perfect citizens and the earthly, flawed Eleanor. Her appearance in the good place sets off a cosmic glitch: The morning after the party, she awakes to find giant shrimp flying through the air and enormous bottles of pharmaceuticals rolling through the town square. Faced with the threat of eternal damnation, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to teach her to be a better person.
Chidi’s nice-guy bewilderment plays nicely against Eleanor’s slit-eyed cynicism. “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” Eleanor asks during a lesson. “Plato!” Chidi cries excitedly, pointing at the chalkboard. When he suggests she try warming up to Tahani, Eleanor says, “Oh, so now I’m supposed to be nice and make friends and treat her with mutual respect? That’s exactly what she wants me to do, Chidi, wake up!” “That’s what everyone wants everyone to do,” Chidi replies with puzzled earnestness.
But as soon as the neighborhood starts to show cracks in its perfect façade, its inhabitants follow suit. Michael breaks the news to Chidi that his life’s work — a 4,000-page tome on ethics — is so dense and convoluted it’s unreadable. Michael himself panics when he can’t find the cause of the neighborhood’s troubles, even as he insists he has everything under control. Like on Orange is the New Black or Lost — the latter was Schur’s model for The Good Place — flashbacks show us who these people were before they were gathered together in heaven. Turns out even perfect Tahani has reason to feel dissatisfied.
The Good Place reminds me of the episode of Black Mirror that Schur wrote with Rashida Jones for the anthology series’ upcoming third season; in the episode, which takes place sometime in the future, Bryce Dallas Howard plays a young woman determined to increase her “score” in a world where every person with whom you come into contact is invited to rate the interaction on your social media profile.
Both that episode, “Nosedive,” and The Good Place speak to a contemporary anxiety over the internet’s constant surveillance of our behavior, and how something you put very little thought into (like, say, a Tweet) can come back to bite you in the ass. Do your collective actions earn a thumbs up, or a thumbs down? What if being “good” precludes being happy? Is everyone else really as content as their online profiles make them out to be?
The Good Life isn’t as heavy as I’m making it out to be. But its concept allows for these kind of soul-searching questions, even as each episode leaves room for an array of hilarious sight gags and one-liners. Maybe heaven is a perfectly ordered space tailored to anticipate your every whim. Maybe it’s simply knowing where you stand. But maybe true paradise is having others accept you for who you really are. That halo’s just going to mess up your hair anyway.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.