Trucking through modern television series is usually an exercise in exuberance or exhaustion, no matter how good or demanding a show turns out. Of all the substantial dramas, quick-witted comedies, and metaphysical laments, one show — a network show, of all things — captured my attention in a way that many shows haven’t: it was a joy to watch.
I’m talking about Michael Schur’s NBC show, The Good Place, a drama-comedy that came seemingly out of the blue, and since its first episode has been one of the easiest and most delightful shows on television. The writing is quick-witted enough, the material substantial enough, and the concept entirely metaphysical. How does a show capture so many things at once without being burdened by its own complexity?
Looking at Shur’s backlog of work is telling, I suppose. He wrote, produced, and directed a number of previously successful shows, contributing to many cultural milestones such as The Office (US version), Park & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-nine, Master of None, and Saturday Night Live. He also dabbled in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” as its writer, one of the more ludicrous but pitch-dark comedy episodes of the future-shock Netflix series. But for The Good Place, a certain kind of nonchalance permeates its very soul. No one character dominates (though I would argue Kristen Bell’s Eleanor and Ted Danson’s Michael steal the spotlight), and the story is smoothly unwound over a sprint of 25 minutes per episode, each one ending in a credits sequence cliffhanger. The entire format begs you to binge watch without feeling bogged down in a mountain of episodes (each season squares off at just ten episodes a piece).
The Good Place is at its core a show about relationships among four key characters, and whose narrative tackles karma in a constructive and deconstructive way — all in an afterlife setting. The premise is keen on exploring absurdist situational humor, and is at its strongest with character interactions that take full advantage of the quickly-developed dispositions of each of the show’s stars. Michael operates as a kind of foil for everyone’s delights (and toils), sound-boarding off everyone's reality check of the afterlife's meandering eternity.
What perhaps helps set this show apart from many others competing for your attention is the colorful sets and nearly cartoonish narrative brokered through bubbly music, jovial cinematography, and dialogue bantering that exudes a PG-style appropriateness while nodding gracefully to a cleverer audience’s intellectualism. The Good Place sits in stark contrast to HBO’s dreary, somber The Leftovers, but intriguingly both share similar stretches of exploratory existentialism. Of the two, I certainly feel better after finishing an episode of the former.
In a cluttered world of show choices — many of which are exceedingly excellent — The Good Place stands out for its unusual territory and easy format, and has something almost everyone can find delight in.