"When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, the wave also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddah's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
The elevator pitch for this show, according the showrunner and writer Mike Schur, was "dead people read philosophy". Which is a hell of an elevator pitch for a 22-minute, multi-camera network TV sitcom. Then again, Mike Schur also created the US version of the Office, Parks & Rec, and Brooklyn 99, all of which are shows that are smarter than their premises would seem to indicate. So someone somewhere was willing to take a risk on the show, which I imagine was FANTASTICALLY expensive to shoot, given that the number one and number two on the call sheet were Kristen Bell (of Veronica Mars fame) and Ted Danson (of, well, the entire last 30 years of Television?). Rounding out the rest of the main cast were D'arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto.
The amazing thing to me, however, is that this is a show that is not afraid to lean on the audience. The writing always assumes that the watcher is just a little bit ahead of the cast, and that means that it rewards the viewer for full attention and repeated watching. It's crisply and smartly written, and is never afraid to go for the obscure reference or clever gag; it assumes the audience will get there. At first, it feels practically cookie-cutter in the way it sets up the various characters and setting, and I was ready to be disappointed. But every time there's a choice between an easy laugh or a hard choice, the show makes the hard choice. Every time there's an opportunity to rest on its laurels and take its time, the show plunges forward, burning through twists and reveals, often taking just an episode to blast through a storyline that other shows would draw out for seasons. It's also a half-hour comedy, not an hour-long prestige drama, so it just tears through, often leaving the viewer absolutely convinced they've missed something (and, often, they have, because the screen and the dialog are stuffed, sausage-like, with in-jokes, easter eggs, and gags in literally every frame).
A twist that another, more unsure show would use as a season-ending cliffhanger this show blows through mid-season, and goes on to build and blow through at least two other perfectly cromulent season-ending events before sticking the landing on a note that could probably have been a series ender, if they hadn't been greenlit for another season. And it was. In fact, it went for four seasons, and ended on the note the showrunner and writers wanted it to end on, completing the story without rush or extra padding. It is a brilliant show and the ending is so amazing I get teary just thinking about it.
One of the regular guest stars was Marc Evan Jackson, whom if you haven't seen him in anything, you almost certainly have heard his voice in something. He repeatedly described working on the show as "the most unusual half-hour of network television ever made" and I can't think of anything better to say about it. It is amazing, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The first three seasons are available on Netflix now, with the fourth season coming Soon (tm). Give it a try.