Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars)
William Jackson Harper (Paterson)
Jameela Jamil (T4 on The Beach)
D’Arcy Carden (Other People)
Manny Jacinto (The Romeo Selection)
Ted Danson (Cheers)
RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST
Adam Scott (Krampus)
Tiya Sircar (The Vampire Diaries)
Marc Evan Jackson (22 Jump Street)
Ajay Mehta (Anger Management)
Leslie Grossman (Nip/Tuck)
Michael Schur is not the first writer to create a comedy about the afterlife. Dante Alighieri, for one, beat him by about 700 years. But Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” had the advantage of drawing on theology widely accepted by his audience and not having to deal with network notes. (“Beatrice: Relatable enough?”) So in “The Good Place,” an ingenious metaphysical sitcom, Mr. Schur (the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) has a couple of challenges. First, how to invent a Great Beyond that amuses viewers of many faiths (or none). Second, how to introduce conflict — the engine of narrative and laughs — into a perfect world.
The second first: It turns out this heaven has a few bugs in it. The biggest is Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a self-centered heel who awakens after a fatal accident in what looks like a college admissions office. She’s greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the bow-tied “architect” who designed the bespoke subdivision in which she will spend eternity.
The Good Place, as Michael calls this higher plane, is like heaven if it were run by Whole Foods. It’s a pristine, nonsectarian afterlife where arrivals are greeted by a sign reassuring them, “Everything is fine!” in the cheerful green letters of an organic cereal box.There’s no mention of any supreme beings, though, Michael says, “Every religion guessed about 5 percent” right. The residents are mostly young and attractive, by the demographic standards of the dead, and there is a ton of frozen yogurt.
Entrance into this hyperselective moral Harvard is determined by a complex algorithm in which one’s every act on earth is added or subtracted from a point score. Plus: “Plant baobab tree in Madagascar,” “Hug sad friend.” Minus: “Disturb coral reef with flipper,” “Tell a woman to ‘smile.’” Only a few souls make the cut. Everyone else goes to the Bad Place, including Christopher Columbus, every dead president except Lincoln and every deceased member of the Portland Trail Blazers. Mr. Schur, like Dante, realizes the most fun part of creating hell is getting to put people in it.
So how in the Bad Place did Eleanor get here? Mistaken identity: The management believes she’s a do-gooder who spent her life helping the unfortunate. But after she gets the grand tour and is assigned an eternal soul mate — Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an earnest philosophy professor from Senegal — she decides to fake it. This throws off the community’s cosmic balance, with disastrous and surreally C.G.I.-enhanced results.Like many high-concept sitcom pilots, “The Good Place,” at first seems more like a movie idea But the series holds up.
The series expands its world and delves into back stories like a sitcom variation on “Lost.” (It begins, like that drama, with a tight shot of the protagonist’s eyes opening.) Supporting actors include Jameela Jamil as an upper-crust British humanitarian and D’Arcy Carden as Janet, sort of a Siri in human form. There’s more in this undiscovered country than first appears, and each episode ends on a twist or revelation that sparks the next. The performances help ground this cloud-nine soufflé. Ms. Bell, who could turn a nimble line in “Veronica Mars,” makes a natural sitcom lead, and Mr. Danson makes a fine, fastidious bureaucrat. But the show’s big find is Mr. Harper, whose line readings make Chidi’s moral nausea palpable as he tries to teach Eleanor to be a good person, or at least fake it. More important, Mr. Schur seems to have found a deeper idea behind the show’s premise: Is acting good the same as being good? Through Chidi’s tutorials, he even manages to work in a tidy primer of ethical philosophy (John Stuart Mill alert!).
And it’s hard not to be won over when Eleanor challenges the very idea of a snooty, meritocratic paradise that excludes 99.99 percent (give or take) of imperfect humanity. “I was a medium person!” she tells Chidi. “I should get to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati!” She may not belong in heaven, but it’s fun to watch her give it hell.