During the Olympics, NBC ran a barrage of ads for their upcoming shows -- which to me was a towering avalanche, given how much Olympic coverage I watched -- and a few piqued my interest, but the which (for me) was highest on the list was The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. The ads were cute, and amusing, but it turns out really didn't give a full indication of what the show was.
From the ads, it looked like it was about a quirky woman who's died and finds herself in what is essentially heaven, and having a fun time. It was done with verve, though wasn't clear what the direction of the show was. But pretty much anything with Kristen Bell in it, and I'll likely at least give it a chance.
The one-hour premiere was on the other night, and I thought it was wonderful. And wondeful for several reasons, which is always a good sign, not just having to rely on one thing. It may not be for everyone's taste, which I'll get to, but it definitely was for mine.
The premise of the show is slightly different than the indication given in the ads. It's not that the TV ads were deceptive -- not at all, just that they don't go far enough. This Good Place is beatific and absolutely wonderful, made up of countless neighborhoods, each unique with 322 perfectly-matched residents. Ted Danson plays a sort of manager given his first chance to design his own neighborhood, which he's done to an immaculate degree, down to including a lot of different frozen yogurt stores. ("It turns out that people really like frozen yogurt," he explains.)
Into this perfection comes Kristen Bell. And soon enough she realizes she's not supposed to be there. Someone screwed up big time. They have her name right, but everything about her life is wrong. She's not the glorious, wonderful person who helped save refugee children, but a totally selfish egotist. She confides her secret to one person, but doesn't want to turn herself in because the Bad Place is, apparently, sort of hellish. The problem is that because something is wrong, out of place (her), when her worst instincts take over then things go horribly wrong in this little corner of perfection. So, she realizes she has to restrain herself as much as possible, and begs her one reluctant confidante (a former college ethics professor) to help teach her how to be good.
One thing I especially love is when a TV show tries to be different. Even when it doesn't succeed, I admire the effort, and it pushes the form. And The Good Place is without question different from most TV fare. They've created a unique world that isn't seen on TV and it's impressive that the show got on. It's a rare combination of whimsy (which I personally love, though I know isn't for everyone), fantasy, and grounded.
But it's one thing to be different, and another to pull it off. And that's yet another reason I liked the show -- because I found what was going on to be clever and intelligent and charming and often very funny. There are a lot of cultural references that add to the story, but good dialogue, as well.
One running joke is that it's impossible to swear in the Good Place, so as much as such phrases spill out from Bell, they come across different, like, "I'm really forked," or when she describes her neighbor in the Good Place as a real "ash hole." Perturbed by her words not being right, she asks her friend -- "You do understand that when I say 'ash hole,' I'm not actually saying 'ash hole,' but 'ash hole'...?" To which the guy replies with sardonically, "Yes, I got that."
Also, the show is wonderfully produced. This little world of perfection has been designed beautifully to look not just special, but unique. And there are effective special effects, like when things go horribly wrong (as I mentioned) and giant ladybugs attack or garbage rains down from the sky, or when Ted Danson freaks out, sees a fluffy dog that he thinks shouldn't be there and kicks it high up into sky, where it crashes into the sun. (Not to worry, when a resident comes looking for her dog, Danson is able to get it back, though not without some more flustering.) Or when residents get to learn to fly -- something Bell misses out on because her "teacher" volunteers her to help pick up garbage. ("Oh, that's just great," she says, dripping with deeply-annoyed sarcasm, "because that's how I always envisioned heaven, a place where you spend the day picking up garbage in plastic bags rather than learning how to fly.")
And then above all, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are utter joys. She, I expected. Yet she still is able to milk nuances and sight gags and physical comedy and dialogue to get the most out of it all. Ted Danson, though, plays against type and gets it all right. A warm, sweet, nurturing official on the surface who is a mass of insecurity and nerves underneath, on his first assignment who's mortified he's gotten it all wrong. He show wonderful acting in Season Two of Fargo, and he's continued it here.
There are a few big hurdles with the show. One is that right now it's more a "concept" and unclear how the story will be developed over time, that has enough turns to keep sameness from taking over. Additionally, there's a challenge that as Kristen Bell learns about becoming nicer that the edges of her character aren't removed to the extent that she becomes uninteresting -- yet if they aren't removed, the show isn't going anywhere. Also, the show will have to develop more full-rounded characters to create a "world" we care about, so that everything isn't just Kristen Bell dealing with her personal circumstance. There are a few different characters that are a start, most notably three: Danson, Bell's conflicted confidante, and a helpful, but pushy next-door neighbor, but there needs to be more. Ultimately, of course, this was just a one-hour pilot, so these are all hurdles that can be dealt with.
To be clear, as much as I liked the pilot, this is no guarantee for success. Not only do they have to address these hurdles, but the show has a lot of whimsy, and a sense of fantasy, and those aren't always everyone's taste. They are mine.
The next episode appears on Thursday in its regular timeslot. But suggestion, if you do plan to give the show a try, is watch the 2-part hourlong pilot first, which I'm sure will be available On Demand. Or you can watch it here on the NBC website.
Here are two extended clips. The first comes when Ted Danson is initially showing Kristen Bell around, certain she is such an incredibly wonderful person.
And this second is when Kristen Bell tries to get her confidante "soul mate" to help her become a good person, despite her many character flaws of her past.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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