From time to time, popular culture weighs in with advice about the afterlife. “You can’t take it with you,” admonishes the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the same title. A popular ’50s polka warns that “in heaven there is no beer.” According to NBC’s The Good Place there is, however, a copious amount of frozen yogurt.
The Good Place, now hitting its mid-season stride, is the latest TV comedy from writer/producer Michael Shur—also creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a writer on The Office. Shur’s wit and his penchant for strongly drawn characters feel familiar. The new series makes a strong break from his run of workplace comedies, however, by setting its storyline in heaven.
Or a version of heaven. Simply called “The Good Place,” it’s an afterlife that exists without a relationship to any of the world’s religions, all of which failed to rightly imagine how to enter the hereafter. Instead a complex logarithm narrows down those granted eternity in The Good Place, admitting only the most elite among do-gooders, activists, and philanthropists. While the series forgoes the concepts of sin and religion per se, it regularly relies on ethical lessons in the hereafter.
This potentially weighty narrative tactic is lightened by the whimsical aesthetic and quirky details of life in The Good Place. The architect behind this particular neighborhood of the afterlife is a supernatural being named Michael (Ted Danson, his impeccable comic timing in force). Obsessively detailed and fascinated by human culture, Michael has worked painstakingly to optimize his corner of the afterlife for his charges’ happiness.
Upon arrival, every one is granted a mansion of their dreams and introduced to their true soul mate. Residents pass their days acquiring skills like learning how to fly or being treated to a perfect re-creation of their favorite earthly meal ever. They also enjoy unlimited frozen yogurt in hundreds of unlikely flavors.
Nonetheless, something is amiss in this corner of eternal happily ever after. That something is a someone named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell, more charming as the episodes stack up), who was, among other things, a snake-oil marketer, litterbug, and generally unreliable friend back on Earth.
Admitted to heaven in an unexplained mix-up, Eleanor finds that Michael has her name right, but all the other details of her biography wrong. Now Eleanor must deceive her way through this do-gooders afterlife, trying to keep up a charade of saintliness to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place.
Simply flying under Michael’s radar is no mean feat for someone as self-centered as Eleanor. Plus, any unethical act of Eleanor’s seems to gum up the works that keep The Good Place humming along. Following her moral lapses, garbage falls from the sky, for example, or plants burst into flames. At one point a large sinkhole begins to swallow part of downtown.
Good thing for Eleanor, her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) was an ethics professor in his former life. Facing his own conundrum about abetting Eleanor’s deception or exposing her and participating in her damnation, Chidi resolves to give Eleanor a personal crash-course in ethics.
Through this conceit, the audience gets CliffsNotes versions of tenets of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, utilitarianism, and so forth embedded into the episodes. These ethical models become frameworks for Eleanor to test out in her day-to-day mission of blending in.