The afterlife, being unknowable, is a great blank canvas, a gift to the arts. While perhaps offensive to the most scrupulous believers, we have long deemed heaven and hell allowable subjects not just for religious contemplation but for comedy (divine and profane), horror, treacle, New Yorker cartoons and art rock songs.
In the smart and delightful “The Good Place,” getting a two-episode preview Monday before taking up its regular time slot the following Thursday, Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, who opens her eyes to find herself in the afterlife. Ted Danson is Michael – a famous angel name, though the milieu is essentially secular – who manages and also designed the portion of it where Eleanor has been assigned to spend eternity.
It also turns out that she is there by mistake, having lived an insufficiently good life on Earth to get into what turns out to be an extremely exclusive post-life club, its members selected “using a perfectly accurate measuring system” that weighs good deeds and bad. On the negative side these might include “Use ‘facebook’ as a verb” or “Ruin opera with boorish behavior,” and on the plus, “Hug sad friend” or “Remain loyal to Cleveland Browns.”
It’s a system that condemns almost all of normally imperfect deceased humanity to implied eternal torture elsewhere (“Don’t worry about them,” Michael tells new arrivals). And as in any system where nothing supposedly can go wrong, things will. That’s not a spoiler; that’s just comedy.
Created by Michael Schur (“Parks & Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), it has the feel of an NBC sitcom from the golden age of just a few years back, when shows like “Parks,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Community” ruled Thursday night. But where “Parks” was the story of a good woman who lived in a place she considered heaven, “The Good Place” has as its hero a bad person who, living in an actual heaven, must impersonate a better one.
At the same time, in the familiar transactional formulation, she is just the trouble this Good Place — a pastel blend of studio backlot, New Urbanist shopping center and botanical garden, where cursing is impossible and frozen yogurt is everywhere — needs.
Bell (“Veronica Mars,” “House of Lies,” “Frozen,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) naturally projects the air of a hometown girl with an impish, impious streak; she can play nasty, she can play nice, and she can mix them up into, like, nicetiness. Thoughtlessness shading into thoughtfulness, selfishness into selflessness, Eleanor is just her meat.
Danson, whom many will have known all their sitcom-watching lives, from “Cheers” to “Bored to Death,” is an actor with great taste in roles, who can play dumb, mean, smart, stoned or sophisticated while seeming to be completely himself; here, he is gentle and fretful. Preston Sturges would have had work for both these actors had their schedules and lifetimes aligned.
Like “Parks,” “The Good Place” is a utopian small-town ensemble comedy whose less well known players also shine. William Jackson Harper plays Chidi, Eleanor’s official “soul mate,” a professor of “ethics and moral philosophy” she convinces to school her in the attitude of doing right. (This is the rare sitcom where you’ll hear a joke like, “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” “Plato.”) Jameela Jamil is Tahani, her fabulous yet insecure neighbor, soul-mated to a silent Buddhist monk (Manny Jacinto). D’Arcy Carden plays Janet, an omniscient concierge with revolving personalities.
This is a serial story – its 13 episodes are introduced as “chapters” – with surprises in store. On the one hand, I like the short-order model; it makes the long arc shapely, sharpens focus, increases the likelihood of the show completing its season. On the other, having already watched five episodes, I’m sad I have only eight left to go.
‘The Good Place’
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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