If you don’t love Kristen Bell, you’re going to have a very hard time with this off-beat afterlife comedy. Bell is its center, its purpose, its raison d’être. Her luminous presence is what keeps you watching even as events take a decidedly wacky turn, enough so that if you are not a fan of her particular brand of perky snarkiness — and if that is so, what is wrong with you? — then this show is probably not for you.
Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who learns after death that her good works in life have earned her a prime piece of Heaven’s real estate tailored exactly to her taste, including a varied collection of clown-related art. The problem is, Eleanor hates clowns, and in fact can’t recall a single earthly act anyone would deem not bad, let alone good. There has been a clerical error of some kind, and if she is to avoid going to The Bad Place, Eleanor has to not only conceal the mistaken identity, but prove herself worthy of her supposed idyll.
Architect of this idyll is Michael (Ted Danson), an earnest… angel, maybe?… who believed he had perfectly calibrated every blade of grass and human soul to create utopia for the 322 good people under his care. But despite the abundance of frozen yogurt shops, things go wrong, probably because Eleanor is not supposed to be there. Frankly, given the LA-nightclub strictness of the guest list in The Good Place (not Heaven; never Heaven), it’s surprising anyone gets in. The formula for determining your worthiness is a simple plus/minus score for each thing you do every day, and it is the best sight gag since the Deadpool opening credits. Really, you’ll want to pause it. A random sampling:
FIX BROKEN TRICYCLE FOR CHILD WHO LOVES TRICYCLES: +6.24
FIX BROKEN TRICYCLE FOR CHILD WHO IS INDIFFERENT TO TRICYCLES: +0.04
END SLAVERY: +814292.21
BE COMMISSIONER OF PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL (AMERICAN): -824.55
TELL A WOMAN TO “SMILE”: -53.83
ROOT FOR NEW YORK YANKEES: -108.96
Well, the best sight gag until the next one, which lists the accomplishments of a soul found worthy of The Good Place:
BEGAN TO COMPOSE SOCIAL MEDIA POST ABOUT DAVID BOWIE DYING AND THEN THOUGHT “THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED TO HEAR MY THOUGHTS ON DAVID BOWIE.”: +216.22
RESEARCHED WEST INDIES TEST CRICKET TOURNAMENT RESULTS TO FACILITATE CONVERSATION WITH FATHER-IN-LAW (X16): +100.02
NEVER DISCUSSED VEGANISM UNPROMPTED: +9855.59
(A lot of these feel weirdly specific.)
One such paragon is Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegalese professor of Ethics who is presented to Eleanor as her soulmate. Yep, because we — well, they; who am I kidding? — all get soulmates in The Good Place, apparently. And when Eleanor’s essential selfishness is revealed to him, he finds himself in quite the quandary: does he help his erstwhile other half redeem herself, or does he consign her to the depths of Hell? Especially when her very residence, and general dickishness, are upsetting the delicate balance of this halcyon ecosystem?
Through flashbacks, we learn that Eleanor really doesn’t deserve to be there. But on the other hand, this entitled, plummy mean girl named Tahani (Jameela Jamil) — a “condescending bench,” in Eleanor’s auto-censored vernacular — made it in, so there has got to be room for a mean everygirl who “wasn’t Gandhi,” but “never killed anyone.” Right?
I certainly hope so, and I am sticking around to find out.
But mostly, it has to be said, because she is played by Kristen Bell.
SEASON PASS: Yes.