D’Arcy Carden, Ted Danson
Photo: Justin Lubin (NBC)

“Is that bad?” “I don’t know, but it’s weird, man!”

The Good Place has been so consistently great at subverting our expectations that even calling “The Brainy Bunch” my least favorite episode of the series so far isn’t the warning flare it might be otherwise. Things are getting sweaty and desperate in this third episode (“Every part of my body is either too dry or too wet,” complains Michael to Janet), both for the Good Place and Bad Place teams. The thing is, it also feels a little uncharacteristically sweaty and desperate for The Good Place, too.

Restating the danger represented by Bad Place douchebag Trevor (Adam Scott, you were missed) as “a diabolical, sadistic agent of evil” sees Michael once more sneaking down to Earth. Thwarted by Trevor’s ability to disruptively blend with Chidi’s study group of the damned (since Michael is known to the group as Zack Pizzazz, Gordon Indigo, and the world’s most reassuring bartender and librarian, respectively), Michael enlists Janet to keep an eye on Trevor’s attempts to drive the group apart with bad advice, bottomless shots, incessant “dank memes,” and general try-hard Ned Flanders-esque chipper obnoxiousness. (Jason thinks Trevor is cool, which is a red flag.) But, since both Janet and Michael share Trevor’s earthbound powerlessness, they’re stuck trying to counter Trevor’s deviousness from the shadows. Or, in Janet’s case, from the beer-fetching cowgirl waitress persona she adopts at the garish Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet Trevor insists they go to. (“I will go physically pick those up I guess, and then walk them back there with my feet,” says the powerless Janet through clenched teeth after failing to make the group’s first round magically appear.)

Adam Scott as Trevor
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

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There, Trevor plants seeds of ethical misgivings in Chidi for hanging out with the subjects of his study, drives Eleanor back to her motel room with personalized team sweatshirts and reprehensible Jamaican accents (Adam Scott channeling Michael Scott at his worst), and tries to hook up a drunk Tahani and Jason, thinking that the morning-after shame will send Tahani home on the first private jet. Meanwhile, the rattled Janet is stuck being unable to just manifest things, ranting to Michael about how so much of humans’ lives is spent “just waiting for things to be over.” (Draft beer takes forever.) While Michael proclaims his faith that Chidi, like he’s done every single time over 800 do-overs, will choose to help Eleanor, he—decked out in a trenchcoat and fedora, as is his Dick Tracy conception of cool and surreptitious—can’t help but betray his shaken confidence. So much so that he tries to reprise his avuncular librarian character on the fly to Chidi, introducing his much-less-natural advice by introducing himself as “the librarian, from the library.”

But Michael, soulless creature from the pits of DMV hell that he’s been for all eternity, does have faith. “These four humans are all I care about in the universe,” Michael snaps at the smug Trevor, and, as ever, this immortal weirdo’s transformation remains terribly affecting, even as “The Brainy Bunch” admits some doubts as to the season’s direction. To start, the earthly shenanigans this time out aren’t as fresh as they have been. The Aussie all-American restaurant gags feel forced, from Trevor admiring the “swamp stench” of the Florida table, to the Mount Rushmore of Hulk Hogan, Judge Judy, Paris Hilton, and David Hasselhoff, to the restaurant’s “manifest destiny special” where you can pay extra to kick anyone off of any table you want, it’s all clever enough, I suppose. But it comes off just the wrong side of wacky, like a—and I don’t say this lightly—a latter-season Simpsons conceit. (The same goes for Eleanor’s choice of Australian gossip mag, Aus Weekly.)

Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

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And yet . . .

When Michael and Janet (and the gloating Trevor) are summoned by Mike O’Malley’s Doorman (we find out his name’s Jeff) back to the Judge’s realm, Judge Gen explains how all these repeated incursions have, as Michael hinted last week, caused “ripple effects” on Earth’s reality. There’s a lot to unpack in Gen’s assertions that some of the inexplicable changes (the Jacksonville Jaguars being sort-of good, The World’s Greatest Showman being a hit, Brexit) are things that have actually happened on our Earth. But it’s also tantalizing how the Cowboy Skyscraper Cafe and its attendant food gags (including the drink special, The Fourth Of July, consisting of half a blended apple pie, Southern Comfort, and Coke, served in a Chevy hubcap) smack of Michael’s effortful fake Good Place. (Think last week’s muffin cart, “We Crumb From A Land Down Under,” too.) It’s like the old reality of Michael’s neighborhood is infecting our Earth. If it is, indeed, our Earth. Conspiracy theories in the comments, please.

Manny Jacinto, jameela Jamil, Adam Scott
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

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And then there’s the Judge, played to loopy yet authoritative perfection by Maya Rudolph. Upon discovering that Michael and Janet have disobeyed the terms of their experiment, she—after a series of exaggerated vocal tics and hand gestures that suggest just how long Gen has been bored out of her mind in her NCIS-bingeing solitude—plans to summarily whisk them both back to the Bad Place. (She simply hurls suck-up Trevor into the void.) On one hand, that’s only fair. There was a deal, one that stretched the very rules of existence, and they violated it. Gen’s still willing to let their experiment play out sans interference (saying the humans “need to hit the regular point threshold” on their own), but is indifferent to the fact that her decision means Michael will be “retired” (a lot more painful than it sounds, as you recall), and Janet will be turned into an inert marble for all eternity. Again, fair enough, if fairness is indeed what the show’s universe, as presented, is truly built upon.

Gen is by far the fairest nigh-omniscient figure we’ve met, seemingly free from Shawn’s vindictive glee in tormenting others (goo-cocoons aren’t just for his enemies), or Michael’s muddled aspiration. When the four humans told her their plight, she listened, she empathized, and she sentenced them to hell, essentially, because rules are rules. There’s a gnawing unease about that aspect of The Good Place’s universe that’s a lot more existentially frightening than all the penis-flatteners and food that turns to spiders in your mouth that supposedly await the damned in the Bad Place. Rudolph makes Gen a figure of genial, even sentimental amorality in the service of supposed impartiality. Remember when the Judge teared up at the Facebook video she made of her brief time together with the four people she was about to send to hell? That chilling mix of personal mushiness with institutional coldness runs through the episode here, just as it’s lurked through every episode of The Good Place. If the so-called arbiters of good and evil can recognize, and even embody, human faults without sympathy for those struggling against them, then we have to ask again, what the fuck sort of moral system is this?

William Jackson Harper, Kirby Howell-Baptiste
Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

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And so we cheer on Michael and Janet’s decision to use Janet’s backlog of manifested items as distraction to make a break back to Earth. And we’re roused by the dour Doorman’s decision to betray his boss, tossing his sacred key to Michael with the tersely hilarious, “Good luck, frog man. I’m pulling for you.” Gen, hurling Janet’s heap of human wishes after Trevor into the void, is cast as the villain, not because anything she’s done is wrong, but because the system she’s enforcing appears rigged against anyone who steps out of line. (Remember, we have never received reliable information about a single person who’s racked up enough points to make it to the Good Place.) And so The Good Place blows itself up again, and, as it’s done repeatedly throughout, it does so by leaping through a door before we expect it.

If the squabbles and subterfuge taking place on Earth in this third episode paled in comparison to what we’re used to from The Good Place, the fact that The Good Place (episode written by Dan Schofield) rushes ahead of our expectations suggests that Michael Schur and company, as ever, have a grand design that will only come together in retrospect.

Stray observations

  • For all Trevor’s assholery , Chidi and Eleanor’s bond is tested most this episode by Chidi’s enthusiasm for his new study, leaving Eleanor feeling like she’s come all the way from Arizona only to be cast aside. As she explains, “I feel like last week I had my own personal ninja master and now I’m taking tai chi with a bunch of farting housewives.”
  • William Jackson Harper gets some fantastic physical Chidi comedy this time out, especially when his ethical quandary robs him of all but eight non-consecutive minutes of sleep. “It’s fine, you’re not even that blurry,” he assures Simone.
  • In the end, Chidi and Eleanor’s bond is reaffirmed, if only for a three-month trial period while Chidi tries to find a work-friendship balance. He also answers an imaginary door knock, and can’t remember how he got to Eleanor’s room, holding a socket wrench.
  • Tahani and Jason, too, show some promise in recapturing their former closeness, as Jason took the very drunk Tahani safely home, and then happily spent the night in a dumpster because he couldn’t remember where he was staying.
  • Tahani apologizes for the only semi-professional quality of her morning-after apology notes, explaining that she couldn’t find a decent 5 a.m. calligrapher.
  • Trevor is also like Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt at his worst, Ben’s Star Wars fandom transformed into Trevor’s enthusiastic wish for a Spaceballs reboot.
  • Another issue is that I’m not sold on Trevor’s reasoning that Shawn isn’t just outing Michael to the Judge because messing with his friends is “more fun.”
  • Read into Janet’s pile of manifested junk what you will: easy chair, tortoise, nachos, tractor, army tank, piles of cash, lots of cardboard boxes, backpack, bicycle, 24-hour donut hut, barrel of radioactive waste, traffic cones, steamroller, shopping cart, giraffe, and billboard (in Michael’s Good Place font) reading “Trevor stinks!—Janet.”
  • Judge Gen, further explaining the chaos Michael has wrought: “Blake Bortles is kind of okay, maybe? I don’t know, it’s being debated among experts.”
  • Also: Gen: “Byron Allen owns the Weather Channel now!” Michael: “Is that bad?” Gen: “I don’t know, but it’s weird, man!”
  • Planning to go into the MRI machine for Chidi and Simone’s study, Tahani wonders if her bra will be a problem, since it is made of “very thin but very pure gold.” Also, Jason brings in a very bitey spider, hoping for superpowers.
  • The group winds up at the restaurant’s Montana table, featuring a picture of the Church Lady. Dana Carvey is, indeed, from Missoula, Montana.
  • Janet freaks out because, robbed of her powers, she can no longer determine if a man in South American finished the ham sandwich he was eating. “I have to go find him!,” she tells Michael frantically.
  • As ever, check out our annotated Good Place, complete with stuff you caught but we missed because you’re all so smart.

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