Exhibit A in the case that network TV is dying is the bevy of reboots that no one asked for, and Exhibit B arrived Monday in the form of NBC’s “The Good Place” (which will move into its regular timeslot at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays). Seemingly the antidote to all the rehashes, this is certainly the most high-concept comedy of the fall slate. But its appeal ends there. The first two episodes are numbingly boring.
In this latest show from the Michael Schur factory (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), the unlikely named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has, upon her death, been mistakenly sent to The Good Place instead of The Bad Place. Almost every joke springs from this premise. Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor and Eleanor’s assigned soulmate, is the straightman reacting to her boorish behavior. Almost all of the jokes are in the vein of:
Chidi: “Did you smuggle shellfish in your bra?”
Eleanor: “No.” (Shrimp spills all over the floor.) “… Yes. … (Hiccup).”
Bell (who I love as Veronica Mars and as the straightwoman in summer comedies) isn’t a great choice as the buffoon. Someone like her “Bad Moms” costar Kathryn Hahn could’ve made a little something out of the flashback scenes of Eleanor getting out of designated-driver duty. But there’s not much on the page for anyone to work with. Part of it is because this is a network show – so there’s no swearing or overt innuendo – but even then, it would only make the material more crass, not significantly better.
The first 10 minutes or so are pretty decent as Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of this neighborhood of heaven, explains that over the course of one’s life, a person gets points for good acts and loses points for bad acts. The idea that one stoned dude in the ’70s correctly guessed the nature of heaven – whereas the major religions only guessed about 5 percent of it correctly — is pretty funny.
Then the writers stop caring and undercut the premise with one-note jokes and tone-deaf social commentary. Somehow Abraham Lincoln (Civil War death toll: 618,000) is in The Good Place, but very few artists are, and that “seems about right” to Eleanor. Yet – unless they’re being extremely subtle about it — the writers aren’t saying that this system of afterlife rewards is twisted; other than Eleanor, everyone we see in The Good Place seems decent (albeit boring).
“The Good Place’s” problem is similar to that of “The Last Man on Earth,” except that the latter started to fall flat after one season, not one episode. It also benefited from some big ideas (marrying the last woman on Earth as a metaphor for settling) that made it interesting to think about even when it wasn’t funny.
It is possible to wring good humor and commentary from the afterlife – see “Dead Like Me” – but “The Good Place” is more like the weakest Bryan Fuller magic-realism entry, “Pushing Daisies.” In “The Good Place,” there are no stakes. The rules of this world hold that all the residents get whatever their heart desires. So, for example, after Michael mistakenly kicks a puppy into the sun, he effortlessly brings back the puppy – good as new — with magic.
There is one exception, though, where the stakes are huge: If Eleanor’s wrongful assignment to The Good Place is found out, she’ll go to The Bad Place (there is no “Medium Place,” which Eleanor correctly notes would be more fair), which is characterized by an audio clip of people screaming in eternal torment.
If this were a movie, and I hadn’t walked out by this point, it would conclude with a final act where we learn how and why Eleanor was wrongly assigned. I am mildly curious about that answer, but of course, the punchline probably won’t happen on the show anytime soon, and it’s not worth waiting for.
Just as Michael’s neighborhood is specifically designed to appeal to these residents, perhaps The Bad Place consists of personalized hells. It’d be lame to end this post by saying that my Bad Place would consist of watching the first two episodes of “The Good Place” on an endless loop, but that’s roughly the level of humor this show serves up.