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How to Make a Heavenly Network Sitcom in 2016

‘The Good Place,’ from one of the minds behind ‘The Office’ and ‘Parks and Rec,’ is NBC’s strangest comedy in years, mixing David Foster Wallace with Ted Danson. And to succeed, it might have to be celestial.

Jungyeon Roh
Jungyeon Roh

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

How do you decide which show to watch when you want to laugh? It depends, for me, on what kind of laughter. Difficult People and Veep are for cackling, Transparent is for cringing weepily. Master of None is just for smiling. There are so many comedies and it seems as though the best ones, right now, are executing drilled-in visions that aren’t designed to appeal to as many people as possible. Comedy is flourishing, but the big, critically acclaimed tentpole sitcom is not.

The Big Three networks — CBS, ABC, and NBC — are home to laugh-track juggernauts like The Big Bang Theory (the NCIS of comedy). Jon Cryer has a dungeon full of Fabergé eggs somewhere thanks to network comedy money. But the Big Three have been outshone by Fox and HBO, and more recent competitors like Amazon, the CW, Hulu, Netflix, FX, and even FXX (You’re the Worst is the best). If you want critically acclaimed, or weird, or edgy, or thoughtful, there are more places to watch than ever.

I grew up on NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday comedy block, which is another way of saying I mainlined shows about white people shooting the shit. The concept of Friends was simple: “They’re friends.” Will & Grace was “they’re gay friends.” Seinfeld was “they’re mean friends.” These shows were homogenous and shallow, but they were also groundbreaking and often surprisingly barbed. When NBC killed “Must See TV” in 2014, all the funny shows hadn’t vanished; they simply weren’t stacked on NBC anymore. Now, the network is trying to revive its comedy programming with The Good Place, created by one of the makers of its last great sitcom, Parks and Recreation’s Mike Schur, who also wrote for The Office and cocreated Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Schur isn’t doing another workplace hangout comedy. “I sort of felt like maybe I should try something new,” he told me. Instead, The Good Place is a stylized meditation on the nature of goodness.

While it has some of the trappings of a traditional NBC hit — Ted Danson, for instance — The Good Place is a strange bet. It has a reverse–Breaking Bad story arc: instead of a scrappy cancer patient who transforms into a villainous meth dealer, The Good Place begins with an antihero (Kristen Bell) and follows her attempts to become a better person after she dies. It sounds more like the premise for a vaguely spiritual self-help parable than a mainstream humor piece. The set design makes the afterlife look like a candy-toned mall, but the sunny, corporatized dreamscape is the sugary coating on an impressively bleak setup: Almost everyone, including every U.S. president except Lincoln, spends their afterlife in an eternity of torment.

Bell’s Eleanor is a charming scammer who discovers herself in the rarefied, torture-free “Good Place” after she dies. In the universe of the show, this is a cheery subdivided afterlife reserved for only the most morally accomplished souls. Eleanor, who litters in front of environmentalists, is not one of them. She gets her spot in the “Good Place” because the angelic Michael (Danson) mistakes her for a human rights lawyer with the same name. (Schur should go to heaven for rescuing Danson from the embers of the CSI franchise and restoring him to his rightful place as a sitcom treasure.) Eleanor is scared that she will be sent to the hellish “Bad Place” if she is outed as a nasty fraud, so she enlists an ethics professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to help her become a person worthy of her accidental paradise.

Schur pulled his own clever scam with this one — The Good Place is a show about ethics and power structures hidden inside a show about heaven. There’s a plotline about practicing utilitarianism. It raises questions like: Is motive more important than outcome? How is performing goodness different from “true” goodness?

“When I started doing research for this show, I was reading a ton of different conceptions of the afterlife in different religions … and after I did all that research, I had this revelation that it was completely pointless, because it was not what I should’ve been doing,” Schur told me over the phone. “I should’ve been reading about ethics, because the idea of what a good person is, is better answered, probably, through philosophy than through religion.”

Schur has invented a Manichean afterlife with a precise, rigid morality devoid of gray area. Every single deed a person does is assigned a positive or negative grade. You get docked for using “Facebook” as a verb and rewarded for hugging a sad friend. Even breathing in and out has a moral weight. It’s a stark, satisfyingly mean organizing principle.

“It’s simple math. It’s a Moneyball universe,” Schur said. “It’s like Nate Silver is running this universe.”

This is what they call “high concept.” I didn’t even tell you about the flying shrimp — there are flying shrimp. Or the British socialite. Or the silent monk. It’s a lot of plot.

The Good Place can feel more like a thought exercise than a human narrative; the universe it presents is, so far, more compelling than its characters, although Schur shows tend to need some time to bloom. Remember that The Office started as a jagged impression of its British predecessor, and the first season of Parks and Rec is a sour forgery of The Office. By comparison, the world of The Good Place is far more fully realized from the start.

Schur’s philosophical comedy is a reminder that he is an avid David Foster Wallace fan (he owns the film rights to Infinite Jest) and his fandom often manifests in his work. Wallace wrote an essay about television in 1993 calledE Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In it, he decries the role of irony and cynicism in culture, and specifically how television has promulgated it. It’s a highly dated essay that dismisses TV as a “low” art, but the thesis about the corroding impact of cynicism remains striking. Schur has cited Wallace’s writing as an influence for Parks and Recreation’s theme that “optimism beats pessimism.” Parks was both flamboyantly sincere and explicitly about the value of sincerity — watching it is like watching Schur’s rebuttal to Wallace’s stance on television as ironicist’s junk food.

With The Good Place, Schur is weaving the biggest ethical quandaries into his chosen medium, and he may be confronting another Wallace essay. In “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” Wallace hails the Russian for his willingness to confront serious moral problems without sacrificing a juicy story. “His concern was always what it is to be a human being — that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal,” Wallace wrote.

“The truth is that we seldom get a chance to know whether anybody behind any TV show is creative, or more accurately that they seldom get a chance to show us,” Wallace wrote in “E Unibus Pluram.” The Good Place feels like Schur showing us.

When I read a plot synopsis for The Good Place, I immediately thought of Pushing Daisies, the beloved, quickly canceled 2007 fantasy comedy. Shows about dead people usually don’t do well. Do you remember Teen Angel (1997), about a teen who dies because he ate a moldy cheeseburger? What about Teen Angel (1989) the pre-90210 Jason Priestley flop? Neither made it past one season. Showtime’s Dead Like Me — a similarly odd, high-concept ensemble — lasted for two seasons, but even human angel Mandy Patinkin couldn’t turn the “hip Grim Reaper” dramedy into a hit.

One of Parks and Recreation’s strengths was its enormously deep roster; remember that Aziz Ansari and Chris Pratt were in third-tier supporting roles. Schur plans on a deep roster for The Good Place as well. In addition to Harper’s queasy, quietly desperate Chidi, there’s posh socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her assigned “soulmate” Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), a monk who has taken a vow of silence. There’s also Michael’s assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a celestial version of Siri who isn’t so great at pretending to be human. In the grand tradition of farces, even the squeakiest members of the gated community have secrets.

“It gets much more ensemble-y as it moves along,” Schur said. “It becomes much more of an ensemble piece and I think by the end it will seem retroactively like it’s sort of been an ensemble piece the whole time.”

Then again, Pushing Daisies might have had a different fate had it been released in 2016. Ardent fandoms can sustain or revive niche favorites more easily now. Kristen Bell’s cult favorite Veronica Mars got a belated movie capstone after fans funded a Kickstarter campaign to give it a conclusion. Community, which, until The Good Place, probably held the title of NBC’s weirdest sitcom, wrapped up on Yahoo after getting canceled, and Schur’s ex-colleague Mindy Kaling moved The Mindy Project from Fox to Hulu. There’s simply more room for a weird show with a narrow but devoted audience. NBC ordered 13 episodes of The Good Place, and I hope it will give the show more time to grow into itself, to expand its sinister, candy-colored celestial bureaucracy, and to let Ted Danson say “Elea’ner” in an inexplicable mid-Atlantic accent as many times as possible. And if not, maybe it’ll end up in canceled-show heaven — Netflix.