Heavenly New Comedy Lampoons Technocratic Rule
Two new sitcoms mark the start of fall premiere season.
Kevin Can Wait. CBS. Monday, September 19, 8:30 p.m.
The Good Place. NBC. Monday, September 19, 10 p.m.
Choose your metaphor—the buzzards returning to Hinckley, the lemmings to Lapland—but every year around this time, we swarm to our TV sets for the new fall broadcast season. And a few weeks later, like—choose your metaphor, sated ticks or Zika-bloated Aedes aegypti—we roll dazedly off our couches, wondering what just happened and why.
Between now and Halloween, as the networks roll out 21 new shows, the tube will reel with time-traveling homicide detectives, visionary doctors, bewildered corpses, Mexican exorcists, girl pitchers, Jack Bauer clones, doomed lovers trying to cross stuff off their apoca-lists, stay-at-home dads amazed to find out what wretched little swine they've spawned, and remakes of movies you hated the first time around.
Fully half the new shows debut next week as the nets, after several live-and-let-live years of staggering their premieres to avoid quick head-to-head knockouts, resume their ancestral kamikaze ways. The strategy is puzzling, especially since the networks are otherwise proceeding conservatively, avoiding the huge start-up costs of new series (20 is the smallest number in years) and padding out their schedules with sports and one-shot specials. But who am I to question the wisdom of the collective industry braintrust that gave us Supertrain and Viva Laughlin!
Admittedly that's a low bar, but the comedies that kick off the season Monday night are several hundred thousand cuts above those two epic disasters. NBC's The Good Place, in fact, is a gem of subversive mockery, trashing everything from New Age cosmic-muffin deism to central planning with gleeful comic bloodlust.
The Good Place stars Kristen Bell (Showtime's House of Lies) as Eleanor Shellstrop, an amiable young amnesiac who wakes up in a nondescript office that turns out to be the placement center for the afterlife. But, she's warned, "It's not the heaven or hell idea you were raised on."
And yeah, "warned" is the appropriate verb. The great beyond is managed not by some thundering Big Guy but a cadre of technocrats who assign souls based on a strict numerical scoresheet. (Was a commissioner of a professional football league, minus 824.5 points; never discussed veganism unprompted, plus 9,825.41 points)
Those like Eleanor who make the cutoff go to the Good Place, which is subdivided into neighborhoods made up of exactly 322 people "selected to blend into a blissful harmonic balance," explains Michael (Ted Danson), the rookie commissar of Eleanor's little chunk of eternity. As for those who don't make the strictly enforced cutoff—including Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, "basically every artist who ever lived," and even Florence Nightingale—Michael's ominously vague advice is "don't worry about it."
So Eleanor has the run of the neighborhood, including shops like The Small Adorable Pet Depot and Your Every Anticipated Need, as well as a just-the-right-size cottage decorated in the celestially approved Icelandic Primitive, all in the company of her kind-hearted, officially selected soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper, Paterson).
There's just one problem: mistaken identity. Eleanor, prior to shuffling off the moral coil, was not a lawyer who worked pro bono to get wrongly convicted inmates off Death Row, but a whorish telemarketer who huckstered old people into buying worthless herbal remedies. (Only rule: "We can't call it medicine because it doesn't, technically, work.") And though she doesn't tell anybody, the presence of a reprobate soul soon sends the Good Place off the harmonic rails, with attacks by giant rampaging ladybugs and other Old Testament-ish plagues.
From there, The Good Place becomes a whimsically cockeyed entry into the long Hollywood tradition of movies and TV shows about karma-challenged souls trying to work off their debts in the waiting room of the hereafter, going back at least to Spencer Tracy in 1953's A Guy Named Joe. (For the theologically disinclined, Christina Applegate's 2007-2009 series Samantha Who?, in which she played an amnesiac slowly coming the realization that before her accident she was an Olympian-quality bitch, is a kissing cousin of the line.)
What elevates The Good Place from sardonic wit to dark hilarity, though, is its withering lampoon of technocracy and the idea that human beings are interchangeable widgets for social engineers to play with. It's impossible to look away from the merry collision of Danson's bland assurance that he's capable of making the decisions for his flock of souls for literally all eternity with Bell's wide-eyed innocence as she systematically wrecks his plans. The imperfectability of man has rarely been so funny.
There's nothing revolutionary about Kevin Can Wait, though some female critics will doubtless call it devolutionary for its continuance of a Hollywood tradition of casting younger and hotter women against pudgy leading men, while the reverse is considered beyond the pale. No matter, I suspect, to star Kevin James, the plus-size comedian who is surely the patron saint of Scruffy Blue-Collar Chubs, after being married to hotties Leah Remini in the nine seasons of The King Of Queens and Erinn Hayes in this one.
Scrumptiousness disequilibriums aside, it's hard to imagine a more conventional sitcom setup than the one in Kevin Can Wait. James is a newly retired cop planning a decade-long playday with his pensioner buddies. But their dreams of go-kart paintball and indoor ziplines go awry when James discovers what his wife has known all along—that their three kids are a pack of sociopaths and idiots who need constant tending.
Even the daughter at college has announced her plan to quit school and move into the garage with her nerd fiance, who is too busy inventing the next big app to actually work for a living. "That's not a plan," sighs Hayes. "That is literally every stripper's back story." Like that one, the punchlines fly thick, fast and pointed in Kevin Can Wait, and enough of them land to make it a diverting, if unenlightening, experience…though not nearly as exciting as that indoor zipline sounded.