Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: The Good Place "Pilot"/"Flying"

        
 The Good Place, which premiered Tuesday night on NBC, explores a simple and timeless question: What happens when we die?

The show centers around a sort of non-denominational Heaven and the people inside it. The brainchild of Michael Schur, the co-creator of Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn 99, the pilot is reliably funny, but the real hook is the world itself. We open with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finding out that she is dead and that she now resides in The Good Place. In an admirably quick and funny conversation, Michael (Ted Danson), presumably angelic, greets her and explains that, after a lifetime of helping people, she has been one of the few selected for admittance.

As we quickly find out, though, Heaven has made a clerical error. Eleanor, played with winningly awful opportunism by Bell, was a terrible person before she died and continues to be a terrible person in The Good Place. When the entire environment of Heaven starts to malfunction in response to her presence, Eleanor must change her ways to avoid being discovered and sent to The Bad Place. Begrudgingly helping her with that transformation is Chidi (William Jackson Harper) a moral philosopher in his former life.


I don't want to talk too much plot here. Not because of spoilers, it's just that the plot is the least interesting part of the pilot. We already know the general arc here of somebody trying to become a better person. One thing I wasn't crazy about, was the choice to have The Good Place start to physically fall apart around Eleanor. When you think about it, the writers were faced with a difficult dilemma. Eleanor couldn't change or want to be good as that would defeat the inherent conflict of the show and, likewise, she couldn't be found out (not yet, at least). So Eleanor has to be forced into changing which is where an external manifestation of her awfulness comes in. This keeps the tension and provides a lot of comic fodder, but was just a little too over the top for my taste.

But ignoring small plot quibbles, I'm more interested in The Good Place itself and the questions it engenders. Who created The Good Place? Who deserves to go there? Why do Eleanor's bad deeds seem to change reality itself? What is The Bad Place? Why is frozen yogurt so delicious?

After reading the press notes, I went in expecting something along the lines of Brian Fuller's Dead Like Me, but watching it, I couldn't stop thinking about The Prisoner. Also a little bit of Lost with the opening shot of Kristen's eyes and the (a little unnecessary) flashbacks. In the world that Schur created, everyone seems to be virtuous and happy, but they are also unquestioning. Eleanor stands out for her terribleness, but also for her individuality. She pushes back, wondering how some people deserve The Good Place while others do not. Even though she asking for her own selfish ends (Bell's face doesn't show an ounce of soul-searching when Chidi suggests she doesn't deserve to be there), Eleanor is right to question.


The Good Place also seems to limit certain freedoms and inspire certain Orwellian fears. You cannot curse, you cannot ask about The Bad Place. These are both played for laughs, but nevertheless inspire real concerns. Whomever (or Whatever) governs The Good Place watches every action that you take during your mortal life and assigns you a rating. Eternal bliss comes only when following the bureaucratic (and hilarious) point system of Heaven. Once again recalling The Prisoner, the more interesting question in my mind isn't whether Eleanor will change, but should she. After all, the system is obviously flawed in more ways than one.

The show also intelligently questions itself through Michael, Ted Danson at his most cheerfully bewildered. Michael mentions that this is his first big solo project from his boss (adding “Who Is Number 1?” to the list of questions) and says that he is the architect of The Good Place. When chaos erupts, Michael despairs at his creation and asks to be forgiven before punting a dog into the sun. This parallels Eleanor (minus that dog part), who is essentially asking for a second chance in the afterlife. The only difference is her lack of true remorse, though, as we see at the end of the episode, there is a glimmer of that as well.

We also get a little bit of character development during Eleanor's drunk monologue about her upbringing. Bell plays Eleanor with such wide-eyed exploitative fervor that it's a real shock to see her vulnerable. In a brief moment of candor, Eleanor  apologizes for herself and recognizes Chidi as a truly good person. We're back to normal soon afterwards when she insists that Chidi's name is “Ariana Grande”, but that moment allows us to see that Eleanor may be worth saving. Despite Michael's movie at the beginning, this show is not interested in presenting anyone in absolutes.

I've talked a lot about the underpinnings of this show, but before I leave, I also want to clarify that The Good Place is a sitcom and a funny one at that. The cast is fantastic and I'd be remiss for not praising Harper's performance as Chidi. Jameela Jamil also steals a few scenes as a note perfect condescending aristocratic do-gooder named Tahani. I'm also pretty sure that was Amy Okuda from The Guild as the dog lady. Good to see her in something!

I'll leave you with some quotes and a personally compiled list of the Good Deeds vs. Bad Deeds we see in Michael's introductory movie. If more are offered in coming episodes, I'll be sure to add those as well. By next week maybe I'll have cooked up a calculator so you can figure out where you're going when this mortal coil requires some shuffling off. I suggest The Good Place.

Grade: B+

Memorable Moments

The entire sequence of Michael recounting Eleanor's death was laugh out loud funny: “You dropped a bottle of something called 'Lonely Gal Margarita Mix For One'.”

“People love frozen yogurt. . .  I don't know what to tell you.”

“Ooooo, hellloooo. I'm just a big beautiful utterly perfect cartoon giraffe.”

“It's freakin' heaven. I'm sure they have plenty of shellfish.” Not sure if this was meant to be a 'world filled with shrimp reference', but I'll take it.

“Your favorite book was – Kendall Jenner's Instagram feed.”

“Do you actually want a dog that loves you more? Because I can kick her right back into the sun and get you another one just like that.”

“That’s not a present, that’s just common decency.”

Deed                                                                                                                    Score*
Eat a Sandwich                                                                                                    1.04
Stiff a Waitress                                                                                                   -6.83
Hug Sad Friend                                                                                                    4.98
Buy A Trashy Magazine                                                                                           -0.75
Plant a BaoBob Tree in Madagascar                                                                     9.4
Disturb Coral Reef With A Flipper                                                                           -53.83
Save A Child From Drowning                                                                            1202.33
Use Facebook As A Verb                                                                                   -5.55
Poison A River                                                                                                   -4010.55
Use the Term “Bro-Code”                                                                                   -8.2
Be Commissioner of Professional Football League (American)                           -824.55
Politely Tolerate Stranger Recounting New Yorker Article At Cocktail Party    12.23
Fix Broken Tricycle For Child Indifferent To Tricycles                                     0.04
Rev A Motorcycle                                                                                                   -30.22*
Blow Nose By Pressing Nostril Down And Exhaling                                             -1.44
Fix Broken Tricycle For Child Who Loves Tricycles                                             6.6
Remember Loyalty To Cleveland Browns                                                            53.83
Ruin Opera With Boorish Behavior                                                                    -90.9
Steal Copper Wiring From Decommissioned Military Base                                    -16
Pet A Lamb                                                                                                             0.89
Scratch Elbow                                                                                                             1.06*
Step Carefully Over Flower Bed                                                                             2.09
Commit Genocide                                                                                                -433265
End Slavery                                                                                                       814292.09
Remember Sister's Birthday                                                                                    15.02
Purify Water Source (Village) Pop. > 250                                                           273.55*
Harassment (Sexual)                                                                                         -731.26
Tell A Woman To “Smile”                                                                                   -53.83
Overstate Personal Reaction To Tragedy That Had Nothing To Do With You -40.57*
Root For New York Yankees                                                                                -101.84*
Fail To Disclose Camel Illness When Selling Camel                                          -22.22
Sing To A Child                                                                                                   0.69*
Maintain Composure In Line At Water Park In Houston                                  60.41*
Hosted Refugee Family  (5 People/Syria/Three Years)                                       283996.96*
Rehabilitated Abused Pit Bull  (x16)                                                                493.97*
Ignored Text Message During In-Person Conversation (x1182)                        1101.09*
Drove To Out-Of-State Disaster Site, Helped With Relief Effort (x3)                157065.1*
Attended Cousin's Friend's Child's Jazz Dance Recital                                         31.88*
Donated 16.36% of Lifetime Income Anonymously To Charities                       87,438.31*
Ate Vegan                                                                                                         433.13*
Helped Hermit Crab Find A New Shell                                                                  18.28*
Helped Mom With Her Printer                                                                          60.09
Saved A Person From House Fire                                                                        1911.05*
Never Discussed Veganism Unprompted                                                        9877.04
Brought Own Bags To Grocery Store                                                               1988.93*
Donated Blood (x52)                                                                                        911.72*
Carefully Put Spider Outside (x28)                                                                          40.02*
Gracefully Ended A Conversation About The Weather (x94)                        100.64
Researched West Indies Test Cricket Tournament Results To Facilitate Conversation With Father-In-Law                                                                                                                        100.02
Self-Monitored Potentially Nauseating Mouth Sounds While Chewing       1991.19*
Installed Solar Panels (House, Arid Environment)                                               1994.49
Let Someone Merge Into Traffic                                                                      12118.12
Gave Out Full-Size Candy Bars At Halloween                                                633.59*
Began To Compose Social Media Post About David Bowie Dying And Then Thought “The World Doesn't Need To Hear My Thoughts On David Bowie”                                       225.12*
Held Door For Person Behind You  (x4090)                                                      8911.03*

* = last seen value

Photo Credit: NBC

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