Roush Review: A Good Place, Kevin's Intolerable Wait
True originality is so rare in network comedy that it can almost feel heaven-sent. And so it is with NBC's clever and quirky The Good Place, which imagines a deathlessly perky Kristen Bell (who can make snark sound sweet) as bad girl Eleanor, who's inadvertently raising hell in Heaven, where she has mistakenly been sent.
High concept alert! This fantasy comedy from Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) at first appears to be trapped in its precious out-there premise, piling up silly jokes that threaten to grow old quick—the most constant being Eleanor's frustration at not being able to curse, which she thinks is "bullshirt." Can't really blame her, since the heaven of The Good Place looks like a pastel suburban theme park, where yuppie-ish newcomers are assigned to neighborhoods overrun with frozen yogurt shops.
Welcome to eternal happiness? Depends on your definition. Soon, Eleanor gets her bearings and realizes how lucky her selfish soul is not to have ended up in the "bad place"—"I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati" (apologies to the Indiana-adjacent city of my youth). But karma's a bigger bitch than she was, even in the hereafter, and her scamp-out-of-water presence has a cataclysmic impact on her benign surroundings, leaving her terrified that she'll be discovered as a fraud and banished from this ersatz Eden.
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Throughout, Bell is charming even at her worst, and the delightful Ted Danson is a joy as her chipper but befuddled guide, Michael, who's at a loss to explain the Paradise Lost conditions that ensue upon her arrival. William Jackson Harper is a find as her supposed soulmate, Chidi, whose vow to keep her secret taints his afterlife afterglow. "I'm in a perfect Utopia and I have a stomach ache! This is awful," he groans.
The best thing about The Good Place, judging from the first five episodes (two air Monday, before moving into its regular Thursday time period), is that there's an actual story beneath the torrent of jokes, with so many surprises and cliffhangers that even non-believers might want to check out the out-of-this-world Place.
WAIT FOR IT—OR DON'T: On the other extreme of the comedy spectrum comes one of the new season's least inspired star vehicles, CBS's Kevin Can Wait. Which is basically The King of Queens 2. No!
Much of the raucous charm of Kevin James' long-running breakout hit Queens had to do with the fact that Doug was just a big kid, unfettered by responsibility for rugrats (unless you count the hilarious Jerry Stiller as the needy Arthur), so you could accept his all-about-me immaturity as an endearing character trait. Nearly a decade after Queens ended, James is back on CBS, back on Monday, back playing basically the same character, back with an attractive and overindulgent wife (Erinn Hayes), only this time with the requisite three kids in a father-knows-least set-up that went out of style in the ’80s. What once was kind of fun now just looks lazy, and unbearably stale.
In this comeback, James takes his own name, Kevin, as a newly retired policeman whose meager ambitions include hanging with his generic buds in his man cave and plotting adventures like go-karting with paintballs. (Yes, this sets up a painful "balls" joke.) Of course, Kevin's dreams don't always go off as planned, or this wouldn't be a sitcom, and he's especially aggravated when his eldest daughter, college-age Kendra (Taylor Spreitler), moves back home with a bizarrely mannered fiancé named Chale (Ryan Cartwright, who belongs in a better comedy).
Mediocrity infests every aspect of Kevin Can Wait like creeping mold, making you appreciate ABC's brand of family comedy even more, especially something like The Middle, with its distinctly drawn and terrifically funny characters of all ages. Kevin, and CBS's upcoming Man With a Plan starring Matt LeBlanc, have the depressing whiff of having started with a talent deal, where the show becomes a mere afterthought.
Given James's celebrity, there's every possibility that his fans will look upon this as comfort food, the same way Kevin scarfs down burgers in the pilot, leaving none for anyone else. Truth is, Kevin Can Wait barely even qualifies as leftovers.
The Good Place premieres Monday, Sept. 19, 10/9c, on NBC with back-to-back episodes (regular time period, starting Sept. 22: Thursday, 8:30/7:30c).
Kevin Can Wait premieres Monday, Sept. 19, 8:30/7:30c, on CBS.