It has been 17 years since The Office first aired in the UK, and 13 since its American counterpart began. Both seemed to represent a turning point for television comedy: no more laugh tracks or studio audiences, a single camera set-up and mockumentary style. Now The Good Place, which has just premiered its third season, feels like another great moment for the genre.
The Good Place is the brainchild of Mike Schur, the man behind Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Following the success of both these shows, Schur was given free range to make whatever he wanted. The result was The Good Place – perhaps the smartest, funniest, most bizarre comedy show I have ever watched. While most comedies centre around a workplace or home, the “Good Place” refers to the afterlife our heroes must navigate. The sheer scope of the show is breath-taking and with the supernatural setting the audience is left with no idea what will, or even what could happen. Schur has talked about taking advantage of these infinite possibilities at least once per episode, letting the writers fill the show with scenes you wouldn’t find in any other comedy. If The Good Place followed the Friends naming convention, episodes would have titles like “The One with the Room Full of Cacti” or “The One with Todd the Lava Monster”. The Good Place proves that with funny, relatable characters the audience will follow you anywhere, even from this world into the next.
Setting a television show in the afterlife gives it something else not usually found in a twenty-minute comedy – an exploration of moral philosophy and ethics. The Good Place takes place in a universe where everything you do on Earth is assigned a positive or negative value and only the highest scorers make it to the Good Place. Our hero is Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a self-proclaimed Arizona trash-bag who has found herself in the Good Place by accident and so seeks lessons on how to become a better person from moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Eleanor acts as the perfect vehicle for the big philosophical ideas Chidi throws around as like Eleanor, we don’t all have a degree in moral philosophy but we’re willing to learn. The writers of The Good Place know that their audience is smart, and they trust us to keep up.
Eleanor’s willingness to learn brings me to another way in which The Good Place represents a refreshing new trend in television comedy. Like Mike Schur’s other shows, its appeal stems from its optimism. The Good Place is not naïve; all of humanity’s awfulness is still there epitomised in the demons of the Bad Place, who bully everyone, eat with their mouths open and perform karaoke to the Nixon tapes. But at its heart, The Good Place is about a small group of misfits helping each other to become better people. Eleanor knows all too well how easy it is to be selfish, but perhaps the thought of someone keeping score is a good one for us all. In a world full of nastiness, The Good Place reminds us that we do good things to help one another.
I’ve avoided saying too much about what actually happens on The Good Place. That’s because this is a comedy with spoilers. Rather than a different situation every week, every episode serves one overarching story and ends on a cliff-hanger. Every piece of information is important, any joke is a potential clue to a twist. When discussing the show on its official behind the scenes podcast (an essential for hardcore fans), Mike Schur’s most frequent reference point isn’t another comedy but the complex and mystery-laden Lost. This structuring is what sets it apart most from other comedies and is the main reason I believe The Good Place to be the future of television comedy. With the advent of streaming, public taste has shifted away from the one-story-per-episode format. People are becoming used to longer, more intricate plotlines making sensations like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones possible. It is not difficult to imagine The Good Place heralding a similar change for comedy. Each episode is a “chapter” and flows seamlessly into the next. Despite the fact it airs first on NBC, The Good Place is the perfect show to binge-watch. To say any more would be saying too much. If you haven’t already, try the first episode. You’ll have it all watched in three days.
But never mind all these reasons. You should just watch The Good Place because it’s so damn funny. The central pairing of the amoral Eleanor and the chronically indecisive Chidi spark off each other brilliantly, while Ted Danson steals every scene as the afterlife architect Michael with a love of humanity. The rest of the ensemble cast are relatively unknown, but all bring their own unique brand of comedy and are clearly having a ball. D’Arcy Carden plays Janet, the Good Place’s version of Siri who has all the knowledge in the universe but struggles with normal conversation. The best one-liners go to Manny Jacinto as the fantastically stupid Jason, an amateur hip-hop dancer from Florida who believed wearing a snorkel would prevent him suffocating inside a bank safe. A special mention however must go to former British presenter Jameela Jamil who with no previous acting experience nails the narcissistic socialite Tahani, whose name drops are glorious (“this really reminds me of my time with my godmother, Diana – it doesn’t matter what she was princess of”).
The third season of The Good Place is now underway and without spoiling anything, those who are caught up will know that the show has pushed into brand new territory. In fact, it seems pointless to say anything at all about the new series. By the time this prints another episode will have come out and no doubt the writers will have turned everything on its head again. All I know is that The Good Place will continue to surprise me and will continue to charge forwards, challenging every other television comedy to keep up.