Sep 20, 2016

Channel Surfing: The Good Place - "Pilot/Flying"

Scene from The Good Place
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
With the new TV season starting up this week, NBC has pushed ahead with one of the more interesting sitcom premises: what happens when someone (Kristen Bell) dies and accidentally ascends to "the good place" (an inoffensive, secular way of saying heaven). The show opens with the words "Welcome! Everything is fine." The only issue is that the episode will evolve to reveal some deep truths about Bell's Eleanor's mistaken identity. She wasn't supposed to go the good place. She mostly got there by a cleric error that results in dire consequences on her environment. When she lies and calls her roommate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) the name Ariana Grande, the artist's music blares as the neighborhood becomes destroyed by purposely connected disasters.
In some respects, creator Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has a new series that feels at times like a sitcom riff on the Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life. While the humor is broader and the relationships aren't nearly as coherent yet, there is the sense of playing around with morality tales. If the supernatural is taken out of the equation, the show plays like a blend of moral of the week comedies along with the mismatched neighbors scenario that only works with the right pairing. Thankfully, Bell and Harper have enough promise early on to suggest that Chidi's quest to make Eleanor into a better person will produce fruitful results.
The Good Place premiered with two episodes, and it does feel important to hold out until the second one. "Pilot" does a decent job of informing the audience of the rules of the good place. There's a numerical point value that has to be achieved to get there. Despite being the ideal location for everyone, there's still cooperative behaviors that must be followed. At the center is Michael (Ted Danson), whose sincerity and desire to make the good place thrive adds a certain neurotic perfectionist tone to his character. He is melancholy in the happiest place around. It serves as a nice balance for how compromise, even in death, will effect your level of joy. Meanwhile, it is in "Flying" where the rules become clearer and the story falls into its conventional pattern. Is it a problem? Not necessarily.
For the most part, The Good Place has immediate success in simply being a charming show. It unveils information slowly while adding a comical twist on the afterlife. Its take on held beliefs of death are especially fun due to their jubilant nature. Pairing Eleanor's life with her fate is also a nice touch, as it gives depth to the person who lucked out. Even if the show continues to fall into a traditional sitcom model, it still has one of the most promising starts to most network sitcoms in 2016. It's high on cleverness and sight gags. Its effects may have a lower production value to them, but the enthusiasm overwhelms the patchy areas. 
Considering that The Good Place could easily fall into tropes based on religious views of death, it manages to take a secular approach while producing a lively comedy that is full of humor and cleverness. Speaking as Schur has had an excellent track record up to this point, it would be hard to imagine him falling off in quality as the series progresses. For now, it is a show that uses Bell and Harper very well with promise of more exciting premises and subversion of the familiar tropes. One can only hope that this is what's necessary to save NBC's lacking comedy line-up. If nothing else, it's one of the few that stands out as more than a gimmick series.

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