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‘The Good Place’ explores humanity with humor

| Friday, February 9, 2018

Dominique DeMoe

I was simply not aware television could do what “The Good Place” accomplishes in every single episode.

In its first season, “The Good Place” was incredibly funny, occasionally great and constantly surprising, inviting viewers to watch its characters attempt self-improvement in an idealized heaven. Yet, nothing could prepare viewers for its season-ending, premise-exploding twist and the insanely entertaining, frequently transcendent second season that was to follow. This is a series that astounds you with the audacity of its ambition so often that you sometimes forget how effortlessly it pulls off the simple sitcom mechanics. This is a series with hilarious character-based humor, a fast-paced plot, an endless imagination and a sincere moral center, expertly creating a sentimental, yet logical, afterlife. “The Good Place” feels nigh impossible at times, a high-wire act balancing network comedy rhythms with its philosophical and high-concept aspirations, crafting a most unique story about that most simple and fundamental of questions: how to be a good person.

Television, even more than film, requires strong characters to provide an empathetic link for audiences to tune in week after week. Comedies in particular need character-based humor to drive their central plots and misunderstandings. “The Good Place” — like its creator Michael Schur’s other series, “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — possesses an enviable ensemble, with each performer adding a distinct flavor to the show. However, this applies not only to the humor, but also to the emotional undercurrents, which “The Good Place” emphasizes in its second season. Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper already proved they made excellent sparring partners with astounding chemistry, but the second season dials up the moral pressure and watches them react and grow. As Jason Mendoza, Manny Jacinto expertly toes the line between irredeemably dumb and surprisingly sweet. As a perpetually cheerful humanoid helper named Janet, D’Arcy Carden layers more complex emotions in her delivery this season, which serves well to support the show’s real MVP. Ted Danson, a television legend from his days on “Cheers,” portrays Michael, a conflicted higher being with unparalleled empathy and puckishness who steals every scene — asking, with his incredibly expressive face, what it means to be human.

These distinctly drawn characters are caught in the crosshairs of an astonishingly fast-paced plot. The first season’s little tricks and reveals are nothing to the twists and turns of the second. This is edge-of-your-seat storytelling at its finest, one that respects its characters enough to allow them to drive the plot instead of useless machinations. The endless imagination of the show is on full display in the wondrous production design, expansive yet intimate world-building and delightfully silly, high-concept flourishes. Yet, “The Good Place” also slows down enough to allow audiences to relish in the company of these characters, the philosophical implications of an afterlife built on a point system and the touching relationships formed out of the peculiar circumstances.

All this would be good, perhaps even great, but “The Good Place” also possesses a sincere moral center, constantly wondering what it means to be human and what it means to be good. Michael and Janet learn through the central quartet what it means to be human, to be mortal and fail at your loftiest goals. They feel the concepts of love and friendship, knotty ideas that confound most people on earth. And Kristen Bell’s Eleanor embarks on a posthumous journey of redemption, learning that she too can move from selfishness to selflessness. No other show on television would devote an entire episode to the fabled “Trolley Problem.” Very few programs evade sentimentality as skillfully as “The Good Place,” and rare is the program so devoted to exploring the reality of being a good person. “The Good Place” recognizes that being good is often unrewarding, difficult work; yet, it challenges us to try anyway. Ultimately, that exploration and dedication to the most fundamental questions of humanity is why “The Good Place” is one of the best shows on television, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.

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