'The Good Place': Charming, But Is Goodness Funny Enough?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

The Good Place is the season’s most charming new sitcom. That’s because it stars two delightful TV personalities, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, in a show created by Mike Schur, the man who helped give us Parks and Recreation. Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who has done a lot of rude, mean things in her life which, now that her life has ended, finds her deposited in the Good Place, a kind of squeaky-clean, upbeat paradise that isn’t called Heaven. (Its alternative — the Bad Place — isn’t called Hell, but we get the idea.)

In other words, a cosmic mistake has been made, and unworthy Eleanor is baffled as to why everyone in her new eternal resting place is such a goody-goody. She’s helped in her confusion by Danson’s Michael, a kind of snazzy butler to God (who is also not referred to). Michael guides her — and by extension, us — through her new residence. Eleanor tries to be rude here, but finds it nearly impossible: when she attempts to utter the f-word, for example, her mouth will only form the word “fork.”

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It makes for a funny pilot, but the exact quality that made Parks and Recreation such a novel, engrossing series — its exploration of goodness and decency; its rejection of cynicism — is what weighs down The Good Place somewhat. Its punchlines, after a while, seem based on the same set-up: Eleanor bad, Good Place good.

Schur’s vision of a warmly embracing environment reminded me of the world created by a different, more hellish TV landscape: “The Village,” the creepily idyllic setting for The Prisoner, the great, paranoid Patrick McGoohan series from the late-1960s, in which McGoohan found himself trapped in a cheerful place from which he could not escape. No such menace hovers over The Good Place, but after watching the episodes that NBC made available to critics, I did feel that there’s the potential for a viewer to feel trapped within this new sitcom site if its population and subplots do not expand quickly. The spectacle of Bell trying to do naughty things and always being thwarted by Good Place good-vibes could become tiresome.

But there are really talented people involved here. Bell is excellent at walking the line between funny and obnoxious — and Eleanor must be a little bit of both for the character to work. I’m hoping the imagination Schur has shown in Parks and Rec and his other current show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, will carry The Good Place to a new level of humor as the series proceeds.

The Good Place airs Monday night at 10 p.m. with back-to-back episodes before moving to Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.