Q&A: Jameela Jamil enters sitcom heaven in NBC’s ‘The Good Place’

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jameela Jamil (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “Holy mother forking shirt balls!” Your newest TV binge-watch awaits.

It’s the latest comedy creation by brainchild Michael Schur, who won two Emmys writing for “The Office” and “Saturday Night Live” before becoming the show runner on “Parks and Rec.”

If you liked those shows, you’ll love NBC’s “The Good Place,” turning hellacious humor into sitcom heaven as Season 2 returns from its midseason winter hiatus Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

“It’s a comedy about dead people,” debut actress Jameela Jamil told WTOP. “This might be his craziest idea yet. … He doesn’t condescend to network audiences. A lot of times people feel that network comedy can be safe or dumbed down, but he doesn’t do that. He believes in the intellect of the American public and world public. He’s not afraid to take it to a high concept.”

Set in the afterlife, eternal being Michael (Ted Danson) welcomes four new arrivals into “The Good Place.” Kristen Bell is the sarcastic Eleanor who thinks there’s been a mistake; William Jackson Harper is the indecisive ethics professor Chidi; Jameela Jamil is the British bombshell philanthropist Tahani; and Manny Jacinto is the secretive monk Jason with a vow of silence.

“Our main character [has] gotten into heaven, but very quickly realizes she’s not supposed to be there because she is, as we would describe in the show, an ‘ash-hole,” Jamil said. “It’s all of us around her trying to help her learn how to be a good person. … It’s complete chaos.”

It’s great seeing Danson back on a hit show after Emmy-caliber turns in “Cheers” (1982-1993), “Becker” (1998-2004) and “Damages” (2007-2012). He appears to be having a ball in “The Good Place,” solidified by his shark’s grin in the Season 1 finale. Often, he plays the straight man to the zany antics of D’Arcy Carden, who plays his robotic sidekick Janet, a glitch-prone assistant programmed to appear at his command — that is until she develops feelings of her own.

“Ted Danson may well be one of the greatest comedic actors of all time,” Jamil said. “His acting is so terrifyingly brilliant in it. I was in the room watching him perform the big [final] scene that really defines the show as groundbreaking, and I remember all of us just had complete chills and couldn’t really speak afterward because his performance is so extraordinary.”

Mostly, it’s an ensemble piece with a special chemistry between the four new D.O.A. arrivals, particularly Bell and Harper, who are told they are soulmates but share very little in common. Their clashing styles form a love-hate relationship that evolves from frustration to mutual affection, a journey that has us rooting for a romance the characters can’t quite see (unless the pop in “Cannonball Run II” courtesy of Maribeth Monroe’s coke-craving Mindy St. Claire).

“They have ridiculous chemistry, but they’re also separately extremely talented people,” Jamil said. “Harper might be the best undiscovered secret on the show. He was actually going to give up acting before this audition came. … He’s such a phenomenal talent like Bill Murray and Jim Carrey had a baby. … He plays brilliantly off of Kristen Bell’s amazing comedic timing.”

As for Tahani and Jason, their soulmate dilemma unfolds with a lovable awkwardness. Jacinto works wonders with few words — rivaling the ingeniously idiotic comments of “Dumb and Dumber” — while Jamil is absolutely magnetic on screen, spitting zingers with an Elizabeth Hurley accent, tempting us to prejudge a conceited phoniness, then revealing a heart of gold.

“I play the annoying neighbor from hell,” Jamil said. “I’m English, so phony niceness comes very naturally to me. We’re the most passive aggressive people on earth!. … It’s such a great job when all you have to do is kiss and lie in bed next to the male equivalent of Angelina Jolie. [Jacinto] is the most beautiful person I’ve seen in my whole life. He’s my first ever on-screen kiss and my seventh kiss ever. … I’m also his seventh kiss ever, so we’re both losers.”

Not only do we get to see these character arcs grow in the present, flashbacks allow us to see their lives back on earth, making us question whether or not they actually deserve to be in The Good Place. Bell’s flashbacks show her character’s mortal selfishness and allow her to swing for the fences with physical comedy, particularly a Season 2 breakdown in Bed, Bath and Beyond, where she bawls over a family’s toothbrush holder and cries into a toilet plunger.

“A lot of bad people are really just sad people,” Jamil said. “[Schur] is great at building empathy for characters by explaining why people are so irritating or so weird or so dysfunctional. So as the show continues on, you start to realize the layers and layers.”

As good as the performances are, the secret sauce of “The Good Place” is the writing. With each passing episode, the dialogue is so consistently clever. It’s amazing the amount of mileage the writers get out of a running joke, be it recurring dialogue like a lack of cursing in the afterlife (“‘Bud-hole’ is one of my favorite words of all time now,” Jamil said) or recurring sight gags like a giant portrait of a college burnout hanging proudly in Michael’s office.

“Every major religion only got about 5 percent right,” Danson explains. “But one random night, a stoner from Calgary named Doug Forcett blurted out a theory while high on mushrooms that turned out to be 92 percent correct.” It’s a hilarious initial joke — with deceptively profound spiritual undertones — that later provides a recurring callback with each episode.

“Michael Schur is a genius,” Jamil said. “He’s got no ego, which is rare for such a big boss in Hollywood. He’s so open to being malleable with the writers, with the characters and with the actors. He believes the best idea wins and that’s why his projects are so collaborative. … It’s wonderful he can slip cocaine and masturbation jokes into a show that’s suitable to children!”

It all builds to a powerful revelation that I promise you won’t see coming. For this reason, I strongly recommend watching it in order, starting with the pilot on Hulu or the NBC app (you can knock it out pretty quick with half-hour episodes). If you missed Season 1, please don’t jump ahead to Season 2; the story won’t make much sense and you’ll spoil the juicy final twist.

“It has been called by many people one of the greatest twists in sitcom history,” Jamil said. “I really urge you to start with the [pilot]. It starts extremely weirdly, then builds. By Episode 3, you start to get to know the characters, start to love them and care about them. That twist is so worth it that even just the final episode of Season 1 is worth watching if you can. There’s a huge twist coming up for Season 2, just when you thought we couldn’t top the Season 1 twist!”

If anything, Season 2 feels more fragmented. While Season 1 followed a more straightforward season arc, Season 2 ramps up the pace with each episode feeling more like a stand-alone sitcom, particularly “Dance Dance Resolution” and its hysterical “Groundhog Day” vibe.

As we return from the show’s winter break, it remains to be seen whether the current pace is sustainable, but the cast and premise give us reason for optimism. “The Good Place” will certainly remain entertaining — the writing is just too clever — even if subsequent seasons can’t match the magic of Season 1, which was one of the smartest sitcom seasons I’ve seen.

That’s no hyperbole. It’s the forking truth, plastered on the wall in bold: “Everything is great!”

Click here for more on NBC’s “The Good Place.” Hear our full chat with Jameela Jamil below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jameela Jamil (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Good Place' (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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