"Wait, how did you sum up that show in one sentence again?" my sister asked, squinting at the TV screen.
I, being a professional watcher of television and all, had The Good Place’s logline ready: "Kristen Bell accidentally ends up in heaven and has to pretend like she’s a good person to avoid hell."
This answer satisfied my sister in the moment, but really, describing the plot of NBC’s new comedy — which premiered two back-to-back episodes on September 19 before moving to its regular time slot on Thursday, September 22 — raises more questions than it answers.
How did Eleanor (Bell) get into "the Good Place"? How fair is its grading system — which apparently relegated Florence Nightingale to "the Bad Place" — anyway? And, most crucially, how
the hell does a show with that kind of high concept keep itself going beyond a few episodes?
The Good Place, from the mind of Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, does its best to answer those questions in its first three episodes without quite answering those questions.
This show counts on viewers’ consistent investment to stay afloat — which is exciting, but risky
The ongoing mystery of the season is how the Good Place architect Michael (a warm and befuddled Ted Danson) thought Eleanor — who was a cold-blooded, narcissistic nightmare when she was alive — was a death row defense lawyer whose mission trips to the Ukraine "really put her over the top" in terms of avoiding eternal damnation.
In fact, every episode is presented like a chapter — "Chapter One," "Chapter Two," etc. — as if we’re reading a particularly twisted fairy tale.
While doing press for The Good Place, Schur and his cast were remarkably tight-lipped about where the show would be going, though they promised the serialized story would keep people interested. The "wait and see" tactic can pay off (see: Lost), but given the tidal wave that is the TV schedule these days, it’s also an incredibly risky one.
This strategy counts on the fact that people will be interested enough to tune in every week, when they could easily find 10 other shows to replace it the second their interest wanes. Fox’s The Last Man on Earth — which opened with Will Forte as seemingly the last person left alive after a worldwide plague — is a recent example of how exciting this kind of "high concept" show can be, and also how hard it is to keep people invested once the sheen of an exciting first episode wears off.
The first two episodes of The Good Place do their best to keep us watching by making Eleanor beg her neighbor and assigned soul mate Chidi (the very dry and funny William Jackson Harper) for help blending in. But the real hook comes at the very end of the third episode.
At this point, Eleanor’s been having an incredibly hard time interacting with the Good Place’s residents —especially gorgeous charity ball enthusiast Tahani (Jameela Jamil) — while swallowing her disgust at what she finds to be their self-righteousness. (These are incredibly fun moments, in large part thanks to the fact that Veronica Mars’ Bell has one of the sharpest deliveries on television and is clearly having a ton of fun on The Good Place.)
But in the cliffhanger of "Chapter Three," Eleanor discovers that one man who’s been living there as a silent Buddhist monk is actually an impostor, just like her. Jason (Manny Jacinto) was actually an aspiring EDM DJ from Florida when he died, and he has no freakin’ clue how he got to the Good Place either.
With that, The Good Place immediately opens up its own concept, laying groundwork for a much more interesting story of how, exactly, the Good Place got so screwed up. It also keeps Eleanor invested in the idea that she was, at the very least, a "medium person," who deserves "to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati!"
And with any luck, this thread of who deserves to get into the Good Place — and who deserves to rot in the Bad Place — will be the one Schur and his writers pull on the hardest.
The most interesting version of The Good Place would completely blow up the concept of "earning" your spot in heaven
Schur clearly thought about the Good Place hard enough to make it feel like a real world, especially the "points system" that earned Eleanor’s neighbors their spots in the first place. As he told Entertainment Weekly, the whole idea for the show came about as he started mentally docking people points for being shitty in LA traffic, and thought about what it might mean to be living in "a video game that we don’t know we are playing."
Michael’s presentation to the newcomers in the first episode informs them that the Good Place was watching their every move. For example: "harassment (sexual)" could dock you 730 points, while giving out "full-sized candy bars at Halloween" could earn you 600. When someone eats vegan, it could earn them 425.94 points, but not talking about eating vegan could earn you as much as 6,000.
It’s all arbitrary and jokey, of course. But it does kind of raise the question of what, exactly, makes a good person — both on this show and outside of it. This system is supposedly objective, but is anything objective, really?
Some of The Good Place’s best moments are the ones that challenge this supposedly infallible system. As we see in sporadic flashbacks, Eleanor wasn’t a nice person — in fact, she was pretty actively horrible to everyone she met — but her growth in The Good Place reveals that she does, in fact, have the capacity to change.
So who gets to decide who’s a good person and who’s not? Is it fair for someone who just kind of sucks to get the same torturous infinity as someone who was actively harmful? Is everyone in the Good Place — as the ever logical Chidi insists — truly better than Eleanor?
Well, okay, the answer might be yes to that last one. But thanks to Eleanor and Jason, the cracks are already showing in this supposedly perfect utopia — and it’s hard to deny that this version of the Good Place could be way more interesting than the one that kicks off every day with a perfect dollop of frozen yogurt.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 pm Eastern on NBC. Previous episodes are currently available to watch on Hulu.