A full year after it was originally broadcast, The Good Place is finally coming to the UK via Netflix. Spank The Monkey watched it on a plane a while ago: maybe now he’ll finally stop banging on about it to everyone.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time in the past when people thought Lost was really good. (I’m going to spoil its ending at the bottom of paragraph 5, so consider yourselves warned.) Viewers enjoyed its deeply layered mythology, its teasing approach to revealing plot points, and its carefully fractured timelines, and thought that this must be what television of the future would look like. By the end, when it was apparent that the writers had no idea where the story was going, and the narrative arc had curved around and gone back up its own fundament, we felt a collective shudder of fear as we realised: this is what the future of television will look like.
Thankfully, it’s not entirely come to pass: viewers these days are a lot more suspicious about shows which promise the world but are suspiciously slow to deliver. (See, for example, most of the Doctor Who reviews on this site.) Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that the show which has come closest to emulating the good bits of Lost while ignoring the bad bits is, to all intents and purposes, a sitcom.
The Good Place even begins in exactly the same way: an extreme closeup of someone opening their eyes and trying to work out where they are. In this case, it’s Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell), and she quickly finds out what her current situation is: she’s dead, killed in an unfortunate accident involving erectile dysfunction medication. She’s now in the afterlife, and is welcomed into her new surroundings by Michael (Ted Danson), who runs this particular sub-sector. He explains that every human life is assessed at its end, using a complex scoring system to determine its overall worth. Very few people achieve the score that has brought Eleanor to where she is now: “you’re in The Good Place,” he reassures her.
There’s just one problem with this: Eleanor lived a terrible life, and she knows it. She’s not the Eleanor Shellstrop they were expecting at The Good Place, the one who devoted her life to humanitarian work – she’s the one who used to tell charity collectors to eat her farts. She’s been sent here by mistake. Realising that the alternative to staying put involves being transferred to The Bad Place, she keeps her head down and tries to fit in, with additional moral guidance coming from her pre-allocated soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Unfortunately, her true nature keeps making itself visible: in fact, it looks like her mere presence is destroying the very fabric of The Good Place.
The Good Place was created by Michael Schur, previously known for his work on ensemble comedies like Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I haven’t just pulled those comparisons with Lost out of thin air: Schur actually met with Lost’s co-creator Damon Lindelof to ask him for advice, somehow managing to ignore the paradox involved in seeking storytelling tips from one of the writers of Prometheus. As the series progresses, you can see why Schur thought Lindelof could help: he’s built a world that’s only revealed to us in tiny glimpses, and created a series of characters whose backstories are gradually assembled through copious flashbacks. Though at least Schur doesn’t keep us waiting till the end to find out that everyone’s dead. (Oops, there we go.)
The big difference is, The Good Place actually works – at least on the evidence of the first season, which aired in the US a year ago and is about to debut on Netflix in the UK. There’s no sense that the writers are making it all up as they go along: setups are left hanging for a respectable amount of time, but always lead to a payoff. There are plenty of narrative twists in the 13 episodes broadcast so far, mainly happening during the final 30 seconds of each episode – but they never feel forced, and they’re always delightfully surprising. And they’re bolstered by a huge number of gags, both highbrow and lowbrow: from witty takes on moral philosophy, to the simple visual pleasure of watching Ted Danson kick a dog into the sun.
Schur has a lot of help from his cast: but then, his previous shows have always been built around diverse collections of comic talent. The two leads bring the baggage from their earlier roles and build on it superbly – Bell takes Veronica Mars’ tenacity and shows how it could be used for the purposes of evil, while Danson takes the bumbling oldster persona he’s been developing since Bored To Death and makes him the perfect mentor for a life after death. The supporting cast members are also terrific, although I’m not going to credit them all by name: one of the small joys of the series is not knowing initially which of the many inhabitants of The Good Place are going to be the important ones.
Fans of Schur’s earlier shows will be delighted to see a couple of late-season cameo appearances from some familiar faces. They should be warned, though, that this is a very different beast from anything else in the Fremulonverse. The carefully spaced bursts of sentiment that pop up in Parks and Brooklyn are absent here: this is a more ruthless concoction made up entirely of plotting and jokes. It’s also much more aggressively serialized than your average comedy show, as indicated by the numerical chapter headings at the top of each episode. By the end of season one, we’re in a very different situation from where we were at the start – to the extent that I’d suggest you avoid even one-line synopses of the upcoming season two, until you’ve watched everything that’s come before. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find yourself repeating an infamous line from Lost that’s cheekily repurposed in The Good Place: “we have to go back.”
Season 1 of The Good Place will be released in its entirety on Netflix UK on September 21st. The Season 2 premiere will be released on the same day, with subsequent new episodes appearing every Friday, one day after their US transmission.