This feature was first published in 2017.
Contains plot details for episode one.
Imagine if every one of your actions in life was being watched and judged by the people who’ll be looking after your soul for all eternity. Makes you think twice about watching The X Factor, doesn’t it? Well in Michael Schur’s latest comedy series that’s exactly what’s been happening, and for the well-deserved few, their destination is The Good Place.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) opens her eyes. She’s sitting on a crisp white sofa in a plain room with a message on the facing wall. “Welcome! Everything is fine”. She breathes a sigh of relief. As she sits down in the minimalist office belonging to Michael (Ted Danson), she asks what she’s doing there. The answer: she’s dead. But it’s okay, because her work on earth as a human rights lawyer has earned her a spot in this idyllic afterlife neighbourhood, complete with her own cosy home created exactly to her tastes. “As you can see, the interior has been decorated just as you like it; in the Icelandic primitive style. Oh, and of course, you love clowns so…”, Michael beams, gesturing to an array of menacing painted faces in frames. It sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Be a good person, get everything you love forever and ever.
Not so much. There’s been a big mistake. Eleanor smiles and nods throughout her orientation tour but inside she’s bricking it; she was a saleswoman of scam nasal medicine for the elderly, she never took part in the aid relief trips for which she has been so praised and she absolutely hates clowns. So what’s going on? Either they’ve got the right person but the wrong information about her life, or there’s a very deserving Eleanor Shellstrop being subjected to the horrors of The Bad Place while this Eleanor reclines back in her Icelandic furniture. We don’t know much about The Bad Place, except for a brief audio clip of what happens there as provided by The Good Place. It’s a cacophony of clatters and shrieks. “Well it doesn’t sound awesome”, says Eleanor, panic stricken.
So, how is the value of your life calculated? It’s definitely worth knowing, because according to Michael, the eager architect of this particular sunny afterlife neighbourhood, each of the major religions got it about 5% right each… but here’s the truth. A trusty PowerPoint breaks it down for the newly deceased residents; every one of your actions is given a positive or negative value and, on the day you die, your final overall score determines your fate. Actions such as stepping carefully over a flower bed, saving a child from drowning and fixing a broken tricycle for a child who loves tricycles score highly in the positive direction, whilst overstating your personal connection to a tragedy that has nothing to do with you and being the commissioner of a professional American football league land you with a hefty negative score. The biggest positive score that can be attained? Ending slavery. The biggest negative? Committing genocide. It’s useful to know, isn’t it?
If this delicious premise hasn’t already got you racing to catch up on E4 when it arrives in the UK, allow me to break down why you should be watching this smart and wickedly funny show. First off, there’s nothing quite like it. I could make comparisons to a couple of films that it brought to mind, but that would indicate to you the kind of show this becomes, and I’m not in the business of spoiling the genius twists and turns of this fantastical comedy. From a writer who brought us the American version of The Office and Parks and Recreation, the show plays with all the light-heartedness and easy viewing of a sitcom with the big themes of a compelling drama. And boy is it addictive.
It’s also, let’s be frank, a fantastic concept. It’s not like we haven’t seen the afterlife on screens before, but this version introduces a whole new system to life beyond the grave that’s both clever and has endless scope. Just when you think you’ve got a firm grasp of The Good Place, the ground shifts. There’s never a dull moment in a place that really ought to just be quiet and peaceful forever. Also the fact that the residents are physically unable to swear is inspired, and just when you’ve forgotten about this little Good Place quirk Eleanor comes out with another “what the fork?” or “holy shirt!”. It’s an example of great scriptwriting and demonstrates the power of a well-placed, repeated gag. We all remember Darling in Blackadder, don’t we?
A show is only as strong as its cast, and this cast is a delight. Kristen Bell proves her comedy chops and has some of the best blunt, throwaway remarks of the show, while Ted Danson plays the first-time afterlife architect with heart and adorable determination. You’ll still love him even after he boots an unsuspecting dog sky-high. The diverse supporting cast add to the humour and chaos of life in The Good Place, with William Jackson Harper putting in a brilliant performance as Senegalese ex-ethics professor Chidi Anagonye. A victim of crippling indecision and anxiety, he takes Eleanor under his wing after her panicked confession of her true identity, not only out of his moral obligation to help but because Chidi is assigned to Eleanor as her soul mate. “That’s right, soul mates are real!” announces Michael in his introduction video. Well, that’s good news.
Our very own Jameela Jamil also stars in The Good Place and is riotously funny as the posh and peppy philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil who has found herself lumbered with a former monk as a soulmate. Putting on a brave face in a variety of stunning outfits, Tahani’s patience is tested by Jianyu Lu (Manny Jacinto), who continues to observe his vow of silence in the afterlife. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven as the chatty, glamorous hostess yearns for a partner to talk to and must put on a brave face to try to appreciate what she has been given. For her sitcom debut, she really shines.
Then there’s Janet. Where to begin with Janet. Played with an oddly vacant perpetual smile by D’Arcy Carden, Janet is the genderless programmed guide to The Good Place who can answer or provide anything, appear instantaneously when you say her name and disappear just as fast. Despite her robot-like demeanour, Janet is oddly endearing as she picks up on and mimics human behaviour and is exploited to full comic effect by the writers as the episodes go on. When asked by the newly-arrived Eleanor if the questions she asks Janet can be traced, Janet responds with her fixed smile, “it is 100% confidential. No one can access what you ask me, including Michael. Now, what kind of pornography would you like to see?”
There’s really no reason why you wouldn’t want to spend time with this mismatched bunch as they take their first steps in eternal paradise. There’s even an endless supply of frozen yoghurt, because, as Michael says, “people love frozen yoghurt, I don’t know what to tell you”. So if I were you I’d head on over to Netflix to get all caught up. After all, you don’t want to go to The Bad Place do you?
The Good Place season one starts airing on E4 on Thursday the 13th of December at 9pm.