Why ‘The Good Place’ Had One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy of NBC

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

Main Cast: Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Marc Evan Jackson, Jameela Jamil, Maya Rudolph, Adam Scott
Casting by: Ben Harris, Allison Jones
Created by: Michael Schur
Distributed by: NBC

There are shows that go to great lengths to cast a deep ensemble, only to quickly focus in on one or two central characters. There are shows that require tinkering well into their first (or second) season in order to strike the right narrative tone. There are shows that have to recast, rewrite, and rework themselves as ensemble members cycle on or off the call sheet. NBC’s “The Good Place” is not one of those shows. The core cast members of Michael Schur’s comedy established themselves over four beloved seasons as one of the strongest and most infectiously charming ensembles the small screen has ever seen, right from the day their characters died.

Despite its otherworldly premise, filled with explorations of both philosophy and the space-time continuum—not to mention the fact that its four primary characters led dubious existences before reaching the afterlife—the series has not featured a single moment in which viewers aren’t rooting for the group. It’s true even in their darkest, most demonic moments, including when Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) admits that her favorite book is “Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed.”

Led by the hilarious Bell, an self-admitted earthside piece of human garbage, our gang includes William Jackson Harper’s Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy who’s constantly paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong decision; Jameela Jamil’s upper-class, celebrity-name-dropping Tahani Al-Jamil; Manny Jacinto’s Jason Mendoza, Jacksonville’s greatest undiscovered amateur DJ and failed criminal; 4.5-billion-year-old demon in disguise Michael, played by the affable (and Emmy-nominated) Ted Danson; and all-knowing afterlife guide Janet, played by series breakout–turned–Emmy nominee D’Arcy Carden

Casting a series is no joke, but casting a series with a mutable premise, time jumps, memory wipes, and constant built-in reboots is even harder. In order for it all to work, the audience needs to empathize with characters who definitely don’t belong in the Good Place. Fortunately, Bell, Harper, Jamil, Jacinto, Danson, and Carden are irresistible. It’s so fitting that this series, whose entire premise argues that interpersonal bonds and human connection are utterly essential to live in this world, features an ensemble as cohesive as this one. And they blend seamlessly with outsized recurring and guest stars, including Marc Evan Jackson, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Adam Scott, and 2020 Emmy winner Maya Rudolph.

During its run, “The Good Place” was one of the purest illustrations on television of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The stars are individually brilliant, seamlessly playing off one another, shining when it’s called for, and backing off when necessary. But as an ensemble, these misfits of the hereafter took Schur’s hellishly clever, twisty premise and elevated it to places that managed to be both hilarious and touching. Every scene is equal parts zany, ingenious, and emotional. (Yup, even when Michael explains the finer points of torture in the Bad Place, including penis flattening and butthole spiders.) 

It was a series about four people (plus one reformed demon and one all-knowing Janet) struggling to figure out what it means to be capital-G Good. And while no one can tell you how to make it to the Good Place, we can say unequivocally that “The Good Place” and its cast are very, very good. 

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

Want more? Stay in the loop with everything you need to know this awards season right here!