Small screen sound-off: The Good Place
MANAGING MOSAIC EDITOR
As an avid fan of “Veronica Mars,” I’ll watch pretty much anything featuring Kristen Bell. Her turn as the teen sleuth showed how well she can oscillate between comedy and drama, convincing and effective in both. Although her talents aren’t fully put to use in NBC’s “The Good Place,” I want to see how it plays out.
Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who arrives in the afterlife in the pilot’s first moments. Michael, a sort of mayor/tour guide figure, proceeds to answer Eleanor’s many questions like they’re business as usual. He tells her that people go to either the Good Place or the Bad Place when they die, rather than to heaven or hell. In the Good Place, your neighborhood and home are tailored to your lifestyle and desires, and perks include frozen yogurt and flying lessons. It all seems like a reward for the ways you helped your fellow man while on Earth — not that Eleanor’s extreme do-gooder neighbors show anything but humility.
The writers did an excellent job with world-building. They asked the usual questions about the afterlife and came up with answers that ran the gamut from typical to inventive. The one thing that really grabbed my attention was Michael’s guarantee to the Good Place’s newest residents: “You know the way you feel when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’re gonna feel every day.”
Eleanor brings conflict to the utopia, although her neighbors don’t know it. She was not, as they think, a lawyer for wrongfully-convicted death row inmates. She lied to sell medicine to sick senior citizens, and in life, she was snarky and self-centered. When she misbehaves in the Good Place, mocking a snooty neighbor or drunkenly stuffing shrimp into her bra to save for later, it comes back to bite the whole town. It rains garbage, animals roam freely, the bra-shrimp fly through the air. I laughed at some of this, mostly because of Bell’s comedic chops, but I wasn’t invested in the storyline.
Even so, I’ll watch at least the third episode (the pilot was split across two episodes), just to see where the writers take this story. The plot seems unsustainable — the central conflict is between Eleanor’s abrasiveness and her sweet new world, but the pilot establishes her mission to change her ways so she won’t be found out and sent to the Bad Place. How long can she keep up her “good” charade? It has to stay a charade, since the half-hour sitcom format requires characters to change incrementally, if at all. I don’t see people wanting to watch an unchanged Eleanor for very long.
Hapless, sloppy and self-interested characters like Bridget Jones and Amy Schumer’s main character in “Trainwreck” are getting old. Some say it’s a step forward for the representation of women in media when we’re not meant to identify with a perfect, put-together character, and to some extent, I agree. But I can only watch so much of the same bad behavior (drunken mishaps, poor romantic choices, unending self-involvement) before it gets boring. Not only that, but if Eleanor does change, the central conflict will be resolved, and “The Good Place” will have to go wherever cancelled TV shows spend eternity.
Where should “The Good Place” go? Eleanor said it best while explaining the unfairness of a fraction of people having a blissful afterlife, while the rest go to the Bad Place: “I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati. Everyone who wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t terrible, should get to spend eternity in Cincinnati!” This show is a medium show: not as cringe-inducing as sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men”or “2 Broke Girls,” but nowhere near as funny as “Modern Family” or “Parks and Recreation.”
See you in Cincinnati, “The Good Place,” because I don’t think I’ll be seeing you after pilot season.