There are two ways to do a television pilot: a premise pilot or a non-premise pilot. In a premise pilot, the show will show the inciting incident for the series. Think Breaking Bad (he gets cancer and starts making meth in the pilot) or Scrubs (it is JD’s first day working at Sacred Heart). A non-premise pilot throws the viewers into the series without seeing how it all started. Think Mad Men or even Friends (though that one is more debatable). I’m not sure I’ve seen a better example of a premise pilot than The Good Place.
The pilot was so premise oriented, that they had to do a two-part premiere, but I’m getting ahead of myself. As Daniel Fienberg said in his review of the early pilot, “Comedy premise pilots don’t get much more premise-ier than The Good Place.” To be fair, jumping in this show without explanation would be a nightmare. The show is about the afterlife, though not the life anyone in our world would know about. According to Ted Danson’s Michael, each religion only got about five percent of the afterlife right. The pilot spends most of its time explaining the rules of the Good Place and introducing the audience to the five or six main characters. I bring this up because there’s barely a hook in the episode, even in the last few minutes.
Many premise pilots give the audience the main premise of the show then end by hooking them with a “What will happen next?” moment. The Good Place spends so long explaining exposition that they squeeze in one moment at the end, but not one that’s terribly surprising. The Good Place is falling apart, probably because of Kristen Bell’s Eleanor, who shouldn’t be there. It is intriguing, but it isn’t until the second episode (which aired directly afterwards) that we really see what the throughline for the series is: Eleanor must learn to be a good person and her “soul mate,” Chidi is going to help her. The twist, she can’t let anyone know she isn’t who they think or she’ll be kicked out of the Good Place and have to go to the ominous and mysterious Bad Place. Another twist, the Good Place isn’t all it seems to be. Intrigued? Yeah. Watch it.
What may be most interesting about this technique is that it is network television. Were this to be on a streaming service or a cable network, it would be more understandable to have such an odd premise pilot. It would be daring (as it is) and edgy (again, it is) and also a bit expected. On network television, it is more shocking. Though the second episode seemed to be aired directly after so the viewers would tune in for episode three. While the idea is great and the characters are (mostly) lovable, viewers of network shows generally need more. On cable and streaming, often the viewers seem to put their trust that something will happened eventually even if it doesn’t in the pilot. Networks don’t get that trust. Their viewers are more fickle. Also more plentiful.
The Good Place is at times experimental and while the premise was spelled out in the pilot (as I said, little else happened), more of the world and the mysteries are revealed as the show progresses. Watch it if you enjoy a good mystery. Or laughing. – Max Dosser