‘The Good Place’ may be the smartest sitcom on TV
If one of your friends recommends you watch a TV series, it’s easy to take those recommendations or leave them. However, when multiple friends with reliable opinions are all chattering about the same show, you owe it to yourself to at least check it out. Sometimes you’ll get let down, but sometimes you find gold. Not only is “The Good Place” — a show that many people whose tastes I trust have been gushing enthusiastically about for weeks — a full-on gold mine, it’s the smartest sitcom I’ve seen in quite a while.
“The Good Place” opens with an intriguing idea: Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens to find that she’s died and moved on to a post-life existence in a neighborhood populated with folks who lived exceedingly good lives. One problem: Eleanor didn’t actually live the kind of life that would get her into the Good Place.
When catastrophic events threaten to tear the neighborhood apart, Eleanor enlists her friend Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor during his earthly life, to teach her how to be a better person. As story arcs unspool, characters get revealed to not be what we thought, and the whole neighborhood is revealed to be an elaborate construct developed by supernaturally-powered being named Michael (Ted Danson).
“The Good Place” has such a clever premise that it hooks viewers right from the start, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that this show is no ordinary sitcom. While the show features a lot of the same verbal gags and slapstick humor as most other sitcoms, “The Good Place” weaves concepts of philosophy into its comedic tapestry.
Throughout the series, “The Good Place” asks deeply philosophical questions like, “Does doing good things make you a good person?” and “Will people lead good lives without the promise of rewards in the afterlife?” In one brilliant episode, Michael uses the “Trolley Problem”, a well-known philosophical thought experiment, to torture Chidi. And yet, Michael learns over the course of several episodes that the answer to that problem involves self-sacrifice.
The way the writers on this show work such philosophical ideas into the fabric of the show’s plot stand in contrast to other “smart” sitcoms. The bulk of the intellectual content in “The Big Bang Theory” is placed very shallow in the story and is mostly designed to make us laugh because we don’t understand what the characters are talking about. “The Good Place” handles some heavy concepts, but the show also finds clever, funny and easy-to-understand plotting that illustrates the shows philosophical underpinnings.
The writing, which is as crudely hilarious as it is high-minded and intelligent, is the biggest star of this show. But the cast shines brightly, too. Bell, Danson and Harper are brilliantly funny, and also flawed and relatable. Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto also create really memorable characters that have surprising depth. D’Arcy Carden, who plays the Good Place’s A.I. assistant, steals whole scenes with brilliant bubbly delivery. The whole cast is fantastic.
“The Good Place” is the smartest sitcom I can recall seeing in quite some time. It has all the fart jokes and other crude humor you expect from a modern sitcom, but it also spotlights intellectual concepts that fire up your brain and get you thinking. It presents its ideas in a way that’s funny, refreshing and, best of all, not pretentious. My friends were right. “The Good Place” is a golden example of how to do smart comedy.
You can stream the first two seasons of “The Good Place” on Netflix, and you can catch the current season Thursday nights on NBC. Hulu also has most episodes of the show available, and you can catch up on season 3 on nbc.com.