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‘The Good Place’ transcends sitcom tropes

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

good place webSusan Zhu

“The Good Place,” in terms of ambition alone, puts almost every comedy on air to shame. Morphing from a fish-out-of-water romp through the afterlife into a dysfunctional meta-analysis of the idea of morality and sitcoms, “The Good Place” combines the world-bending mythology of “Lost,” the sunny quick-fire humor of “Parks and Recreation,” and the depth of an introductory philosophy seminar to craft the most unique and inventive network comedy in recent memory.

“The Good Place” chronicles the story of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who quickly realizes her mistaken placement in afterlife’s paradise upon her unfortunate demise. Learning from her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, the series’ secret weapon), she avoids the scrutiny of Michael (Ted Danson, delivering a fascinatingly multi-layered performance), the sprightly architect of their afterlife. Their neighbors, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), encounter troubles as heaven may not be as it seems. The ensemble, rounded out by D’Arcy Carden as essentially an anthropomorphized Siri, proves equally adept with comic barbs and deep character work. Michael Schur, creator of “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” has crafted his most complex and high-concept series yet, balancing philosophical inquiry on morality with solid storytelling and expertly deployed punchlines.

What sets “The Good Place” apart is a dedicated streak of self-awareness, constantly subverting expectations while deepening its own story mechanics. Even when “The Good Place” indulges in sitcom conventions, the storylines reveal new facets of personality and furthers its intensely serialized story. Its first season churned through plot at an astonishing pace, rarely fading out without deploying a cliffhanger, ending on an earth-shattering twist that demolished the series’ premise. Its second season engages in some winking repetition, rebooting its story and world with an awareness of its own redundancy, hilariously throwing characters back together after mere minutes apart. The third episode in particular proves the fascinating flexibility of the new status quo, opening up new avenues while crafting the funniest and most inventive chapter of the series.

Schur understands network sitcoms better than most, and the series reflects this breadth of knowledge through its construction and humor. Utilizing standard sitcom conventions affords “The Good Place” an episodic and comedic consistency, yet the real strength is its fascination with morality and construction. Moral questions drive every episode of the series as Eleanor strives to better herself, and these same ethical dilemmas fuel common sitcom contrivances. The hidden deceptions, love triangles and situational ironies of the series’ network brethren are given new dimension when an all-powerful being plays puppet master. The human characters return to stasis only to encounter another “plot” next week; do they ever learn? “The Good Place” asks what this return to stasis says about humanity, asking why we desire stability over change, why we so rarely fail to question the flawed systems which govern our lives, and why we so readily believe in our own goodness. This series could only air on a network among its own reference points, masking its philosophical musings with well-constructed jokes and impressive world-building.

Despite this impressively deep philosophy, “The Good Place” remains a fascinatingly serialized and quirkily entertaining series. Built for the streaming age, the series rewards repeat viewers by hiding clues to its twists in prior episodes, nesting storylines in each other and building toward satisfying revelations. Unlike Schur’s other shows, “The Good Place” has no concrete template to generate story ideas, forcing the writers to draw inspiration from their own vividly detailed world. Perhaps the series’ greatest achievement, with due respect to its incredible ensemble and wonderful direction, is the consistent strength of its writing, building compelling arcs from arcane concepts of morality and throwing well-grounded twists that surprise yet stay consistent with the rules of the world.

Not only is “The Good Place” a comedy that engages in silly wordplay (curses are turned into innocuous phrases like “fork” and “bullshirt”), but it is also an intensely serialized story that challenges viewers to think of the machinations present in their own lives. The second season proves that the ideas will continue flowing, and unless that radically changes, “The Good Place” will remain network television’s most impressive series.

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