While cable and streaming services are fast becoming the place for critically acclaimed television from the US, eclipsing the more mainstream networks in the process, there is one genre where American network television is still firing on all cylinders and delivering work indicative of a high watermark of a particular genre: comedy.
The sitcom genre has truly developed and matured over the past two decades, going from the classic multi-camera set ups of shows such as Friends and Frasier, which dominated the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, to the more cinematic stylings of single camera shows that came to the fore with the likes of Arrested Development, 30 Rock and the American version of The Office.
It has been this style that has carried the American sitcom into the 21st Century, and with it some of the best works to emerge from the genre in a long time. One of the key behind the scenes names is Michael Schur, who went from working on Saturday Night Live to writing and producing The Office (subtitled An American Workplace in the UK to avoid confusion with the British original), to co-creating and showrunning Parks and Recreation (one of the greatest television shows of all time), Brooklyn Nine-Nine and, of course, The Good Place.
The Good Place feels like a natural extension of Schur’s work so far; it’s colourful, fun, has a wonderful ensemble leading it, with a plethora of superb supporting characters, and ropes you in with its story arcs, its character development, its mixture of high and low humour and a warm gooey centre.
However, what makes The Good Place even better is that it has a dark side hidden in plain sight, and just when one has gotten into the scheme of thing with the series during its superlative first season, it goes and throws the rug out from under your feet with one of the most dazzling plot twists in recent years.
It basically goes from Parks and Recreation in the afterlife to Lost with laughs.
At the centre of it is an atypically brilliant lead performance from Kristen Bell as Eleanor, who dies, finds herself in the good place due to an identification error (someone else had the same name as her who also recently passed away) and has to deal with the ramifications of being there rather than in the “bad place”.
The first season mixes laughs, a philosophical undercurrent and brilliant comedy to dazzling effect, with an abundance of imagination, superb production design and, as is typical with Schur’s work, an ensemble cast who jostle for title of “favourite character” every week (although, more often than not, Janet gets this reviewer’s vote).
Like all great American comedy series, the plots are nothing without great characters and The Good Place has an ensemble that is equal to the dazzling array of plot lines going on around it; Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil (for any British viewers she is instantly recognisable from introducing Dawson’s Creek and The OC on T4 during the 2000’s), Manny Jacinto and D’arcy Carden all stand out and are frequently brilliant each and every week.
As it is, the set up for the series, with its case of mistaken identity, high concept comedy and philosophical musings, would have been more than enough to carry the series for more than two or three seasons, but the series wipes the rug out from underneath the viewers by the end of the season, with a plot twist that initially comes on like its been thrown in haphazardly but which is a masterstroke that actually makes sense given everything we know and learn about the characters as the first season continues (there is a Lost-like structure where flashbacks are used to flesh out the character’s lives before they ended up dead, and while such a notion could bring the show down, instead it just enriches and makes it even better).
The twist itself is a brilliant set up for season two and makes one view the events of the season in an entirely new light, with Ted Danson in particularly being brilliant at making the reveal both funny, shocking and somewhat chilling.
Being an American sitcom from the Schur stable, we get wonderful guest appearances from the likes of Adam Scott and Marc Evan Jackson, while the laughs come thick and fast, but it also has a deeper logic to it as well, and is probably one of the most ambitious comedy series produced for a mainstream American network in some time.
That it has the charm that one associates from the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine is no surprise, nor that it has ensemble cast equal to those shows also, but it’s also a subtly challenging series that instantly reminds one of the compulsive watchability of something like Lost and the deeper narratives of The Prisoner is a brilliant bonus. It’s hard to think of the last time television produced something as funny, delightfully silly, charming and yet compulsively philosophical the way this is.
It may very well be one of the very best series on television anywhere in the world right now.