The Good Place Is Good, But Not The Great Vehicle Kristen Bell Deserves

Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Here is the current state of my Kristen Bell fandom: Sometimes I forget that we're not actually friends IRL. Sorry if that sounds a bit stalkerish; I swear I've never actually tried to act on this misconception. My point is: If it turned out that her new NBC sitcom were awful, I would have been ready to take up arms against the powers that be for besmirching the resume of my dear, not-friend. So, after watching first two episodes of The Good Place, how do I feel? Cautious. There's nothing not to like here. The premise is hilarious: Eleanor, a selfish single salesperson of an ineffective medication is killed by a bizarre accident involving Lonely Gal Margarita Mix, a column of rogue shopping carts, and a billboard truck advertising "Engorgulate" (it's a play on the word engorge; make of that what you will). She wakes up in the office of someone named Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of her new neighborhood in the Good Place, and soon realizes that she's been sent there by mistake. They've got her name right, but she is not the clown-collecting death row defense attorney they think she is.
The supporting characters are also extremely endearing. Danson is appealing and odd in much the same way he was on Bored to Death. Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Eleanor's supposed soulmate, is the patient, conflicted straight man to Bell's quirky character. Posh next-door neighbor Tahani (Jameela Jamil) has the makings of an excellent frenemy, and her frustration with silent Buddhist soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) promises to bubble to the surface soon. Janet (D'Arcy Carden) is the place's database, a polite robot/angel/fairy godmother who can answer any question. She'll come in handy.

I know Bell can do something great and nuanced here. But what we've been given is more like her Samsung ads.

Then there's the Good Place itself, which is a neighborhood of 322 people "perfectly selected to blend together in a blissful harmonic balance." It looks a lot like Stars Hollow or any other excessively sweet TV-friendly small town, except this one literally has a frozen yogurt place on every corner. (Sounds like heaven, right?) It's also, "Sponsored by otters holding hands when they sleep." They've even perfected a to-go coffee cup that doesn't leak. But all of this awesomeness is on the brink of chaos — thanks to some glitch introduced by Eleanor's arrival. The resulting show has the makings of something fun, but not exactly appointment viewing yet. Why is that? Why can't Eleanor's drunken flashbacks make this great? Why don't I find myself setting the DVR for the next time I can watch Danson writhe in comic despair and kick a dog into the sun? Here are a couple of theories: 1. We've possibly seen one too many depictions of "misfit girl upends adorable perfect place" (aw, remember Suburgatory?) and "the afterlife is so real" (Dead Like Me, RIP). 2. The story is too flimsy and light, perhaps because it's a half-hour network comedy. It's also relentlessly cheery, even when we hear a sample of what's going on in the Bad Place, so the stakes don't seem very high. If chaos means giraffes roam the streets and shrimp fly through the air, is that really so bad? I also might have to turn in my Bechdel card when I suggest this, but a spark of romantic interest between Chidi and Eleanor would make a massive difference. I just want more to sink my teeth into than all this cuteness. As a devotee of Veronica Mars, I know Bell can do something great and nuanced here. What we've been given is more like her Samsung ads. That said, it is amusing to watch Bell attempt to curse a blue streak, only to spew out "bench," "shirt," "fork," and "ashhole." I'm curious to see if there's something more to Tahani and Jianyu than meets the eye, and I'm not giving up hope on Chidi feeling more than professorial toward Eleanor. If they fail to give me any darkness and soul after one more week (there's another episode airing Thursday night at 8:30 p.m., in the show's official time slot), I'll just have to go back to watching Logan and Veronica battle the status quo in Neptune. The Good Place premieres Monday, September 19 at 10/9 central.

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