Goodbye, ‘The Good Place.’ Thanks for Not Being NCIS.
There’s an old Yiddish joke about restaurants I like.
It varies depending on who’s doing the telling, but basically it goes like this. A married couple comes out of a restaurant, both disgusted by the meal they just ate. The husband says, “Can you believe that? The food was terrible!” The wife responds, “And such small portions, too!”
Primetime network television deviates from that equation in one significant regard. It’s likewise terrible, but there’s such massive portions of it.
A quick scan of weekly listings reveals some themes. Apparently, we as a culture can’t get enough übermenschen in spandex. There are an awful lot of cops on TV.
How is “NCIS” still on the air again?
There’s even a couple of shows about rich people, “This Is US” and “Dynasty,” and a smattering of “reality” shows whose existence is similarly inexplicable.
Also, seriously, who actually watches “NCIS?”
Amid all this detritus, and due to go off air completely after the airing of its final episode on January 30, is NBC’s Thursday night gem “The Good Place.” And, while it’s true that there are some other smart shows on television, those are mostly confined to streaming or premium channels.
Netflix’s “Ozark,” “Mindhunter,” and “Altered Carbon,” along with HBO’s “Succession” and “Watchmen” spring to mind. But “The Good Place” stands out from those because it’s tonally much lighter than the other five.
But the fact that the entire cast is dressed in pastels, save Ted Danzen, and most of the color pallette is also rather bright is only superficially relevant. Unlike TV’s more plot-driven superhero shows and police procedurals, “The Good Place” distinguishes itself primarily on the strength of its character development.
Each character, rich-girl Tahani, superficial telemarketer Eleanor, house DJ and pyromaniac Jason, is tightly and richly drawn. And, the show’s catalyst is strangely a moral philosophy professor named Chidi.
What draws the characters together in the first place is also a rarity for network television. All of the above have died and gone to what they believe is some kind of heaven, the Good Place in the show’s lexicon. Eleanor rapidly discovers, however, that she was sent to the Good Place by mistake, and instead should have wound up in the bad place.
Over time it is revealed that all of them have been sent to this part of the afterlife as part of an experiment run by an “architect” by the name of Michael, played by Danzen, who has designed the Good Place as a Bad Place venue for Tahani, Eleanor, Jason and Chidi to torture one another. Chidi, then, is forced to teach the others ethics so that they might make their case for admission into the Good Place proper.
It’s an absurd concept, but somehow it works, even at its most absurd when gargantuan cocktail shrimp darken the sky. Kristen Bell, who is excellent as Eleanor, carries much of the show, but it’s hardly noticeable given that what matters here is the relationships between the characters.
This is true not just between Tahani and Jason or Chidi and Eleanor, who are paired up as soulmates at the beginning of the show, but between each other, and between themselves, Michael and Janet, a sort of supernatural android played by D’Arcy Carden.
Somehow, the writers’ room manages to give viewers an entertaining look at moral philosophy as well.
In fact, arguably the show’s funniest moment comes in season three, episode five, “Jeremy Bearimy,” when Chidi, in the process of having a psychological breakdown, goes on a rant in which he not only summarizes the three main ethical positions in philosophy, teleology, deontology and virtue-based ethics, but labels them all a “steaming hot pile of cat dookie” and sits down to eat a veritable vat of marshmallow Peep chili.
By the time that episode aired, however, viewership for “The Good Place” had sunk below 3 million people per episode, Spartan numbers for a show that aired in a coveted Thursday night primetime slot on a major network.
And so the show goes the way of “Veronica Mars” and “Bored to Death,” two other sharp, quirky TV comedies that featured Bell and Danzen and whose cancellations felt premature despite sagging ratings.
It’s so long for now to “The Good Place.” Here’s to hoping Netflix, which apparently greenlights almost everything that gets pitched, or some other streaming service gives it a good home.