By Glynis Neely
Now that I’ve seen the entire first season, I am truly in awe of what Michael Shur has done in such a short amount of time. As the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Shur has been slowly developing the perfect workplace sitcom. The Good Place seemingly follows in those footsteps at the outset, only to veer off into another neighborhood; and my what a neighborhood it is. We meet Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) as she arrives in the afterlife having died unexpectedly (and embarrassingly). “The good place,” in this case taking the form of a cheery neighborhood with a plethora of frozen yogurt shops, seems almost too perfect. Eleanor realizes immediately that this is not where she is supposed to be.
And so we follow Eleanor as she attempts to become a better person by learning all about ethics from her indecisive and overwhelmed soul mate Chidi (an excellent William Jackson Harper); befriending her overachieving, pretentious neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her soul mate, the not-so-silent monk Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto). Then we have Ted Danson’s Michael, the very cheerful architect of this particular neighborhood and his all-knowing assistant – not quite a robot – Janet, played perfectly by Broad City’s D’Arcy Carden.
Bell has never been more on her game as Eleanor. She immediately fills her shoes with a lack of self-awareness, wry humor, and a heaping dollop of selfishness. She also plays off so perfectly against Danson’s Michael. This ensemble has such instant chemistry; it’s hard to not find yourself grinning from ear to ear during each episode. The writing is incredibly funny and the casting could not be more spot-on. One of the highlights was easily Adam Scott’s Trevor – the architect of the Bad Place and grade-A douchebag. Having played the sweetest character on Parks and Rec, I love the choice here to have him play the antithesis of Ben Wyatt.
While Eleanor flounders in the face of possibly getting kicked out of the Good Place, she continues to take two steps forward and three steps back. At the very least, she is trying which is more than can be said for Eleanor when she was alive. Eleanor’s life was not a rewarding one; we learn that she was a heel and a terrible friend and spent most of her time insulting or alienating every one around her. The few flashbacks we get into her life, and eventually Chidi’s and Jianyu/Jason’s are profoundly sad, but give a very concise snapshot of what they were like when they were alive.
As I was watching the season unfold, part of me was excited to speculate the inner-workings of this version of the afterlife, but the other part of me knew things were not adding up. (No one in their right mind would have a collection of framed clown photos like that; I don’t care who you are, that ain’t right.) In fact, one of the very first thoughts I had about the show was, how is Eleanor the only one who doesn’t belong here? All four main characters are fairly awful in their own ways, despite Eleanor being the most outspoken jerk of the group. But I could not put my finger on the answers. Well, Shur and company waited until the very last second of the season to pull the rug out from under our feet. After the final reveal that not only are they all in the right place, but that place is actually The Bad Place – and Michael is still an architect of neighborhoods, they just happen to be specifically Bad Place neighborhoods – I was speechless. And finally all of those pieces fell into place.
It felt for a while there that Eleanor was becoming a better person and really learning from her situation, and I still believe that she did change for the better. And when she discovers what was going on in a moment of chaos and then proceeds to think on her feet, I was so proud of her. But to know that she, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason are all starting from scratch next season and no longer living near each other is so heartbreaking. The only hope is that this newly mind-wiped Eleanor can bring them all together again without tipping Michael off. Also aside from the incredible work from Kristen Bell, and the rest of the cast, I would just like to give a shout out for Ted Danson’s work as Michael. He has played the overwhelmed creator with such humility and patience that when he finally broke with easily one of the greatest evil laughs ever it was actually terrifying. Since they have gotten picked up for Season 2, I cannot wait to see what they come up with now that we know Michael is the bad guy. It will color every scene from here on out – see the final scene of the finale – and I am thrilled to see the new direction they take the show next.