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The Good Place Premiere Recap: A Good Forking Time

Breaking down the supersized first episode of the new comedy

Liam Mathews

The Good Place, fall's most ambitious new comedy, had its series premiere Monday, with a two-part episode that laid out the rules for the world it's building. It also introduced us to our antiheroine Eleanor Shellstrop, played with mischievous charm by Kristen Bell.

Eleanor comes to an unfamiliar location. A kindly gentleman named Michael (Ted Danson) fills her in on where she is, who he is and what's going on: She's dead, and this is the afterworld (hopefully Prince is there, but probably not, as we'll later learn. I'm already not onboard for this Good Place if I can't listen to Prince). She died a humiliating death, but it's OK, because she's in the Good Place, where people who have lived virtuous lives go to eat frozen yogurt with their soul mate for eternity.

Michael explains how it all works in a skillfully handled info dump (Eleanor has as much to learn about the Good Place as we do, so the orientation session is helpful for both of us): In the Good Place, there are many different neighborhoods, each with 322 people to whom the neighborhood is precisely calibrated for maximum bliss. Each person in the neighborhood is paired with their soul mate, and they will spend eternity together in perfect harmony. Everyone gets to live in their dream house, decorated to their exact specifications.


Kristen Bell, The Good Place

NBC, Justin Lubin/NBC

People get to the Good Place by having a high positive score on a sort of karmic balance sheet. Everyone else goes to the Bad Place, about which little is explained beyond you definitely don't want to go there. Residents of the Bad Place include almost all musicians, every U.S. president except Abraham Lincoln, and Florence Nightingale.

You know who else should be in the Bad Place? Eleanor Shellstrop. She must have gotten mixed up with a different, much more virtuous Eleanor Shellstrop, she explains to her soul mate Chidi "Ariana Grande" Adigonye (William Jackson Harper). This Eleanor used to scare the sick and elderly into buying medicine that didn't work. She tries to convince Chidi to help her lie so she can stay in the Good Place, but he was a professor of ethics when he was alive, so it's not in his character to be deceptive. They meet Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and the silent Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), soul mates and Eleanor's neighbors (and Tahani is going to be Eleanor's nemesis).

Eleanor gets drunk at a cocktail party and behaves badly. Later, when Chidi takes her home, she confesses that she doesn't think anyone will miss her now that she's dead. She knows she was no good, and in some way she's sorry.

The Good Place is unlike any network comedy you've ever seen

The next morning, she awakes to chaos -- a giant, terrifying ladybug causing destruction, shrimp flying in a V-formation, Ariana Grande's "Break Free" blasting from the heavens. Eleanor's presence is causing the Good Place to break down. Chidi urges her to turn herself in, but she has another idea: He can teach her how to be a good person. He's understandably hesitant, not only because of his own moral compass, but because it'll be such a hard job. Her favorite book is Kendall Jenner's Instagram feed, for crying out loud. He's worried she's too selfish to ever get it.

When Tahani proposes cleaning up debris from the chaos as a bonding exercise, Chidi volunteers Eleanor and himself as her first test of selflessness. She would rather take flying lessons, but she's down on the ground with Tahani & Co. Michael confesses to Tahani that he's miserable and terrified the chaos is going to happen again. He keeps falling apart, until Jianyu telepathically calms him down. Something's up with that one.

When Eleanor skips out on finishing trash duty to take a flying lesson, a trash storm begins to rain down. Chidi tells her she's a lost cause and that he won't help her. In a flashback, we see Eleanor's selfish behavior in life, neglecting a responsibility to her friends for her own hedonistic impulses. The memory wakes her up, and she goes outside to finish cleaning up. Chidi joins her, and she tells him she felt bad about behaving badly. He'll help her after all.

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Everything seems hunky-dory, but then! Someone slips a note under her door that says, "You don't belong here." Cliff-hanger!

All in all, this was a great introduction to the series. The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, the performances are winning, and the visual identity -- as established by The Martian screenwriter Drew Goddard, who directed the pilot -- is distinctive and immersive. No bullshirt.

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