Intermission With Derrick Clements: Just try to find a better show than ‘The Good Place’
NBC’s wacky afterlife comedy “The Good Place” is a show that defies all expectations. Not only in its plot, which zigs and zags and turns things inside out (and which I won’t discuss in detail, to avoid spoilers), but also in a broader sense: “The Good Place” defies what television watchers expect about what qualifies as “prestige TV.”
The show, created by Michael Schur, who comes from a pedigree that includes “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” is every bit as brilliant and innovative as the best series of recent years, but it’s also something that those shows rarely are: It’s funny.
Comedies often get the short shrift in conversations about the best of television -- as critic Kathryn VanArendonk opined in Vulture earlier this year, not only can you count on “prestige TV” being especially cinematic and often novelistic, other requirements seem to be an abundance of dark colors, obligatory bare breasts, and a total lack of a sense of humor. “At most, prestige TV should induce a wry chuckle or possibly a single, derisive snort,” she wrote. “If you find yourself openly giggling, or -- heaven forbid -- actually full-out belly laughing, what you’re looking at is unquestionably not meant to stand the test of serious TV time.”
The comedies that do manage to sneak away from the kids table and gain awards and critical reverence are often only half-funny -- which doesn’t mean they are less funny than other shows, but that they are only allowed to be funny half the time. Shows like “Louie” and “Master of None” have a gravitas that “30 Rock” or “Seinfeld” never did, and they get to that place by alternating between hilarity and dead seriousness.
It’s not that comedies don’t get critical praise -- “30 Rock” and “Seinfeld” certainly did, and for good reason -- but it’s so tempting for critics to put comedies in a box that is completely apart from (and less “important” than) dramas like “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”
I did, at first, with “The Good Place.” When the show first aired last year, I was immediately hooked by the high-concept premise and fun performances, but I never expected it to be a show I would put up there with “Breaking Bad” or “Twin Peaks” as “television art.”
Well, pull up a seat for me at the kids table, because at this point, “The Good Place” is, to my eyes, as triumphant an achievement of television storytelling as anything I’ve seen in the last decade.
In fact, it’s the show’s pure commitment to comedy that makes me even more certain of its greatness. Michael Schur has has had a great career up to this point, and my heart has long appreciated his willingness to sacrifice the occasional joke for tearful earnestness between characters. There were many episodes of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” that forewent biting humor for -- and invested several minutes of screen time in -- emotional pathos.
But the humor in “The Good Place” is more “30 Rock”-like in terms of quantity and speed, which feels to me like Schur is leaning less on a crutch of just knowing that audiences like his characters and will be satisfied just seeing them happy.
“The Good Place” is more daring than anything else he has done: It not only invests more in jokes than any other show he’s done, it also invites audiences to invest in its slow-building, insane, complicated, brilliant premise.
That premise starts with Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finding herself in an afterlife where she doesn’t belong (and hey, even after twists and turns have reframed absolutely everything, that initial idea still may hold up), where she meets the heavenly middle-management being Michael (Ted Danson), the all-knowing robot Janet (D’Arcy Carden) and fellow afterlifers Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto).
This cast, aside from being refreshingly diverse, is absolutely incredible. Each character is distinct, and all of them do great work. This is career-best stuff from Ted Danson, who is called upon to play every human emotion in turns, sometimes all in the same episode, with both slapstick energy and real depth. His role gets even juicier as the show plays out, and wow, is he up for the challenge.
I’m also a huge fan of Janet. The character is a mix between Siri, WALL-E and Pinocchio, and D’Arcy Carden’s performance is hilarious and deeply grounded.
The show is the highlight of my Thursdays -- or at least it was, until last week, when I discovered to my shock that it will be off the air for a few months until after dumb football dumb finishes (dumb!). I’m not sure I can wait that long to see where this zany story is heading next.
I have my own theories about where that will be (if you want to chat about them, reach out and let’s talk). Until then, I may have to start over and re-watch, poring over the details I may have missed before I caught on that the show wasn’t just good, as the title suggests, but great.