The Good Place S01E01&E02 Recap: 'Pilot / Flying' [Series Premiere]

The Good Place feels like what Dan Harmon may have done after Community if it hadn't made him crazy, or possibly even something from the mind of a Mitch Hurwitz. That's not meant as a slight against the show's actual creator, Michael Schur, but more of an unconventional compliment (possibly with a tinge of backhanded-ness). It's a show about an irredeemably terrible and morally corrupt main character stuck in an endless loop of trying to do the right thing, making just a little bit of progress every time before falling into the same patterns. If that doesn't sound like Community or Arrested Development, then I'm not watching TV right.

But The Good Place comes from a creator you wouldn't necessarily expect something like that from. Mike Schur is known instead about comedy with an optimistic outlook in people and life. He comes from The Office, where Greg Daniels flipped a beloved British sitcom about a terrible boss and made it into a show about a well-meaning oaf and his gang of bored but mostly good subordinates. He then co-created Parks and Recreation with Daniels, which is a show where everyone is so absurdly good to their core that it is essentially a caricature of the show it's a spiritual successor to, similar to his next project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The most surprising thing is that he created The Good Place all by himself, and it seems to flip the script from his previous work a perfect 180 degrees. This is instead a sitcom viewed through the eyes of a really shirty shitty person, who sees the faults in everyone because she's likely displayed those negative traits herself at one point or another, who's instant reaction is to point out how the vast majority of people don't get to go to heaven. It has just enough of a sarcastic tone that it beckons to those more pessimistic sitcoms, telling us that the person relaying this story may not believe what he's trying to sell.

That's an interesting concept, considering Schur's career as a writer has always been flooded with sincerity and optimism. But the ability to escape what's expected of him only speaks further to his prowess as a writer, and that's held up by how good the first two episodes of The Good Place really are. While tonally they don't really feel like a Mike Schur joint, the execution feels like the kind of humor you might expect from him. The jokes are more cute and clever than they are cerebral, the details layered and detailed, yet easily recognizable, the characters identifiable yet complex. The balancing act that Schur has to maintain between those things, all while fighting the pitfalls of doing something inherently different, is what makes The Good Place so unique.

Specifically, the show is about a woman, Eleanor (played perfectly by Kristen Bell), who wakes up in the titular "good place", aka heaven, but without saying the word with a religious connotation. Her problem is that she believes she doesn't belong there. The memories relayed to her by the architect of her segment of the afterlife, Michael (the incomparable Ted Danson hitting another interesting role out of the park as his eclectic television career wears on), do not belong to her, and she recognizes that her life was not that of someone worthy of this spot. Yet Michael gets her name right, even the details of her gruesome albeit embarrassing death (involving a truck advertising erectile dysfunction pills while buying margarita mix for one). Her presence in this place, coupled with her selfish acts, begin to cause chaos in the neighborhood, yet she and her designated soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) struggle with the idea of coming clean to Michael, as that carries different consequences. Does she expose something done on purpose, or a mistake on Michael's part? Can Chidi truly condemn someone to hell that way, even if he finds them morally deplorable?

Those are only some of the many questions these first two episodes, "Pilot" and "Flying" raise, and that only speaks further to how layered and intelligent this show is. It presents real moral quandaries, about the existence of the afterlife, about what it means to go there, about its fairness, about the people who actually get it. Eleanor rolls her eyes at her neighbors in this place, and while some people may find that behavior deplorable, many of us might laugh and remark how we know similar people who are just as obnoxious and condescending neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil).

In that way, Schur presents us with a show that's more relatable than anything he's ever done, because despite its grandiose presentation, its expensive visual effects and outlandish premise, it gives us ideas that any normal person who isn't saintly has probably pondered.

And again, the pretty container it comes in helps. Those visual effects look half decent for an NBC sitcom. The writing is on point (the second episode is written by an Emmy winner from last night, Master of None's Alan Yang), as is the directing (Drew Goddard directed the first episode, and Mad TV's Michael McDonald the second), and the acting is exactly what you'd expect from Bell and Danson. Bell is perfect for this kind of role, as someone who gives off a confident exterior but can be flawed and crass on the inside. Danson is one of the all-time great TV actors, and he too is perfect as the silver-haired fox architect of the afterlife who on the inside is just as flawed and nervous as Bell's character. It's a great pairing for the show.

Everything about The Good Place is great. In terms of its content, it's a huge hit for an NBC which hasn't had a sitcom like this since they kicked Community to the curb and ended Parks and Recreation. In terms of ratings, we'll see how it fares, but I'm definitely rooting for it. The first two episodes of The Good Place get 8.5 jumbo cocktail shrimp out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • The Good Place aired its special premiere Monday to take advantage of a ratings bump from The Voice before moving to Thursdays. I'll to to keep reviewing it if interest is there!
  • This show features Ted Danson kicking a puppy into the sun. Of course I'm going to love it.
  • The show is diverse to an almost absurd and purposely obnoxious level, which is kind of brilliant.
  • Similarly obnoxious yet oddly endearing is the fake swearing, which totally feels like a movie Hurwitz or Harmon would pull too. Again, these things are compliments, and I totally think Schur is on their level as a sitcom showrunner.
  • During Michael's orientation he talks about all the stuff that goes into someone's good/bad score, and a bunch of different examples pop on screen. Some of them are tame, but others are outrageous and hilarious, like poisoning a river, "ruining an opera with boorish behavior", "maintaining composure in line at a water park in Houston", "blowing nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling", "Harassment (sexual)", or my absolute favorite, "failing to disclose camel illness while selling camel."
  • "People love frozen yogurt, I don't know what to tell ya."
  • "Hi there, do you have a second to talk about the environment?" "Do you have a second to eat my farts?"
  • "Okay, I think it's time to make me good, partner. So how do we do it? Is there a pill I could take, or maybe something I could vape?"
  • "What country am I from?" "Is it racist if I say Africa?"
  • "I'm trying to put a good face on... well, this face that I've constructed for myself."
  • "Most great philosophers would say that helping you is pointless. You can't try to be good when your motivations are so obviously corrupt." "Yeah but what do most great philosophers know?"
  • "Before you say anything... that's it I just don't want you to say anything."