Eleanor Shellstrop is a bad person. She’s bad in the ways most of us are bad: she litters, she’s impulsive, she blows off commitments. So how’d she get to heaven?
That’s the question that animates The Good Place, NBC’s bid to begin rebuilding its Thursday-night comedy legacy. Creator Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation) drops the late Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in “the good place”–an afterlife reserved for humanity’s very best. (Yes, there’s a “bad place” too.) Eleanor plays along as Michael (Ted Danson), the seraphic architect of her “neighborhood,” explains the rules of an afterlife that every religion in the world got a little bit right. He tells her that, as far as he knows, she was a death-row defense attorney in life and her humble, ascetic nature means she’ll be satisfied with a small cottage and an ethics-professor soul mate (William Jackson Harper) for all eternity. While she’d be happy to play along, her inability to even pretend to be as nice as her insufferable fellow angels means she requires some quick lessons in ethics–and, now that her human life has ended, in humanity.
This may be the most erudite network sitcom since Frasier; Chidi, the professor stuck protecting Eleanor’s secret, has her read Kant, Heidegger and Hume. While the show is far from perfect, its imagination papers over a great many sins.
Those weaknesses include Eleanor, who in the early going is less a character than a stick figure acted upon by the weirdness of the universe. The struggle to be good is less pronounced if the person struggling is as sunny as Bell, and I’m not convinced that she can be as bad as the script demands.
More concerning for those wondering how to spend their own limited time on earth is the question of the show’s future. The first several episodes spin their wheels, hard, to keep Eleanor from being found out, and to keep a heavenly sphere where anything is possible from growing stale. (Confronting the question of this afterlife’s maker–Michael’s boss, whomever He or She is, would have been potentially alienating, and far more ambitious.) Great, long-running sitcoms tend to bloom in straightforward settings: the family home, the office, a bar if you’re feeling adventurous. An imagined Valhalla is likely to be more vibrant than the characters who inhabit it.
But the universe we see is imaginatively drawn enough to make me hope the writers have a workable plan to tease out Eleanor’s bad side. The characters who got into the good place did so because, on a divine numerical scale, the trees they planted outweighed the traffic lights they blew through. It’s a canny, engaging idea, and fitting: The Good Place’s weaknesses are no match for its thoughtful, sharp laughs.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. E.T. on NBC
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.