Ted Danson, Kristen Bell (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC)

“There should be a medium place for people, like, who sort of sucked but in a fun, chill way,” complains Eleanor near the end of “Most Improved Player.” She’s got a point, although, as ever, Eleanor perhaps overstates her case. As we see in another flashback to the one long misdemeanor that was the life of Eleanor Shellstrop, Eleanor wasn’t the worst, but she wasn’t great. The thing is, as we see in this thrillingly eventful episode, there’s bad, and then there’s “taking off your shoes and socks on a commercial airliner” bad.

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When Eleanor stepped up to confess that she’s the fly in the frozen yogurt that is the good place last week, it suggested all manner of outcomes. Honestly, I was convinced there’d be a mitigating “I’m Spartacus!” save from the too-good-for-the-world residents of good place neighborhood 12358W (as Michael reveals his misbegotten domain is named). So much so that I was a little disappointed that the show seemed prepared to return to the lowered stakes that have marked a few of the (still quite good) episodes earlier in the season.

So it’s a happy development that this episode begins with Eleanor sitting in Michael’s waiting room again, staring—now ruefully—at the bright sentiment of the “Welcome! Everything is fine” sign she knows is way, way off base. When Michael summons her to his office, his curt “Eleanor” speaks pages about how not a diversion this is. The jig is up for Eleanor, and that sends The Good Place hurtling forward.

Hurtling like a train, one might say, as Michael—having determined finally that Eleanor is, indeed, not supposed to be in the good place—puts in a call to the bad place. It’s abrupt, and shocking, although, in keeping with the series’ sunny sense of menace, the voice on the other end of the intercom sounds less like the guardian of hell and more like a smug douchebag. (The formal greeting of, “Yello, what’s up, dummy?” introduces what sort of “down there” we’re dealing with with admirable succinctness.) So when the train we learned about last episode steams into the neighborhood and we meet Trevor, Michael’s counterpart, it’s only perfect that we find out that it’s The Good Place creator Michael Schur’s old pal Adam Scott.

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Scott may have had his biggest success on Parks and Recreation playing the soul of geeky good-heartedness, but he plays a fantastic smug douche, as Trevor, trailed by a cadre of disdainful hipster flunkies, comes to claim Eleanor. Not before attempting to prank Michael with the old “can of peanuts that actually contains magic, flaming snakes” gag, naturally. (The guileless Michael assumes that the snakes must have eaten the peanuts, leaving Trevor to sigh, “You’re too nice to humiliate.”) But apart from the prospect of a blazer-clad, snarky Adam Scott entering the mix, Trevor’s appearance is especially energizing for what it does to our understanding of the moral universe we’re dealing with here.

As ever, the eccentric nooks and crannies of the good place remain as compelling as they are comically goofy. As Michael questions Eleanor from an ancient, book-bound checklist of good and evil (since Janet is still on the fritz and hilariously delivering cacti in response to any request), we find out that Eleanor’s sins don’t include: the airplane shoes-and-socks thing; getting a vanity license plate; paying money to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers; or reheating fish in an office microwave. (Sure, also no murder or arson or anything.) As with the pilot’s master list of sins and virtues, part of the fun is rooting out the creators’ own prejudices. (I mean, Mother’s Milk wasn’t a bad album). But The Good Place remains cagier than mere cozy pop culture jokes. (Still, the runner about what a major no-no it is to care one iota about The Bachelor and any of its attendant spinoffs suggests a real TV writers’ mission statement.)

Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are extraordinary here, as Eleanor attempts to do her usual dance around truth and consequences. She doesn’t tell about her involvement in Janet’s murder (partly to protect Chidi), and still tries to contort herself around her confession in hopes of staying. But both Michael and Eleanor know that they’re most likely playing a futile game in assessing Eleanor’s fitness to stay in the good place, and Bell and Danson play the subtleties of their mutual awareness of that fact in a way that’s just heartbreaking. Danson’s Michael keeps adopting a dismissive, businesslike demeanor before admitting shades of the pain Eleanor’s betrayal has caused him, and glimmers of hope that her file (finally retrieved by Janet, who surprises him by not having a cactus behind her back) will somehow show that Eleanor should be deserving after all.

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She’s not. At least according to the rules we know, where her life of mediocrity and selfishness aren’t good place material. “You lied so much you forgot your own birthdate. Not a great start,” assesses Michael at the beginning of their interview, and tonight’s flashback backs that up. (An elaborate train of lies, theft, and roommate-destroying t-shirts seems inspired by that judge who threw a massive legal hissy fit over some pants.) Sure, Eleanor is shown not to be as big a jerk as her vanity-plate-loving roommate, but all it takes is the prospect of a check (from “Dress Bitch” t-shirt royalties) to overcome Eleanor’s moral quibbles. Even after all her dancing around Michael’s probing questions, to his final, somber “Do you think you belong in the good place?,” all Eleanor can respond is, “No.” (Michael’s little lie-detector cube chirps out its bonging “true” sound in response, a detail all the sadder because of how comically it had been used beforehand.)

With Scott coming on board, The Good Place simply adds another weapon to its arsenal, as William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto all have their turns to shine here. Jacinto’s Jianyu/Jason continues to embody the platonic ideal of amiable idiocy, accidentally inspiring Michael again with his non-verbal non-wisdom, and responding to Eleanor’s insult, “Bonehead Jones,” with an obliviously cheerful, “Hey, homies!” Tahani humblebrags about how hard it was when her friend Taylor got interrupted by her other friend Kanye on behalf of her other friend Beyoncé. And Chidi beams about Eleanor casually dropping Kant into her debate, saying this might be the proudest day of his life. (“No offense, but that’s a real bummer of a life,” snaps Eleanor.)

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

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But, as “Most Improved Player” raises the narrative stakes, the episode also delivers some of the most affecting emotional beats of the series so far. Keeping with the train metaphor, the episode runs by in a whoosh, an admirable briskness that nonetheless leaves room for Tahani to concede that her coldness toward Eleanor stems partly from Eleanor pretending to be her friend at a time she really needed one. (She also admits that she regards Eleanor with the affection one might show a “street cat,” which is about right.) And Chidi interrupts Eleanor’s motor-mouthed goodbye (he really did know she was sneaking her laundry in with his) with a hug that Bell sells all the way to Eleanor’s toes. When it’s time for Eleanor to board the train to her apparent actual just reward, Chidi’s impassioned appeal to Michael brings to a head just how many holes there are to a moral system that would take his “fake soulmate” to the bad place.

“This is not little league. There is no award for most improved player,” says Michael to Chidi’s complaint that Eleanor’s moral education has continued after her death. (Chidi also confesses his complicity in both Janet’s death and Eleanor’s ongoing charade.) So when Michael softens, admitting that he did enjoy Eleanor’s company (Danson finds such soulful earnestness here), and Chidi stands up to Michael with an angry, “Well, maybe there should be,” the stage is set for Eleanor to be reprieved.

There’s a lot going on here, apart from the feel-good sight of Michael storming aboard Trevor’s train to pull Eleanor off (at least until they can sort out what’s happening). For one thing, the horrors of the bad place seem more douchey than satanic. Yes, Trevor says he’s excited to torture Eleanor, and his moves here (the club car would only serve lukewarm Manhattan clam chowder if it were ever open, the train gets a degree hotter every time Eleanor thinks about how hot it is, he delivers 100 Hawaiian pizzas to Michael’s office) seem on par with the sort of life Eleanor led. But Michael mentions that the bad place also houses the truly monstrous as opposed to just the obnoxious and selfish. (Eleanor might be, as Michael puts it, “A giant chunk of spinach in the teeth of the universe,” but she didn’t kill anyone.) And, as Chidi says, if Eleanor—and, by extension, the rest of the good place’s residents—continue to feel and to learn in their afterlife, then there’s a serious flaw in a system that purports to be above human experience. In turning herself in to save Michael and Chidi (and the good place, for that matter) last episode, Eleanor did perhaps the first truly selfless thing in her life. (Or whatever it is you have in the good place.) By pulling Eleanor off that train, even temporarily, Michael is agreeing with that.

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But The Good Place continues to throw killer endings at us, and Trevor throws a monkeywrench into the wheels when he announces that, if their Eleanor Shellstrop is going to stay in the good place, he’s going to hang onto the Eleanor Shellstrop who’s supposed to be there. When we meet that Eleanor (Tiya Sircar), she’s a wide-eyed and wary young woman in a stained (presumably bad place-issue) uniform whose “Hi everyone, I’m Eleanor Shellstrop” drops yet another bomb, right before we’re left wondering (in something like wonder, in my case) what The Good Place can do to top it.

Stray observations

  • Man, Janet and the cacti never got old. The way Danson and D’Arcy Carden play out Michael’s wary suspicion that Janet is about to deliver him another cactus instead of the file he wants is a thing of beauty.
  • The little bloops and fart noises the lie-detector cube emits in response to questions are deployed expertly. Especially when it lets out the fart noise when Michael tells Tahani she’s been very helpful.
  • Adam Scott is so great as Trevor that I’m greedy for more. “You look like a piece of crap, are you Eleanor?,” is pitch-perfect in its offhanded assholery.
  • And Scott telling Eleanor she should really smile more? Maybe the bad place really is for the worst of the worst.
  • Michael quietly moves in front of Eleanor when Trevor shows up. It’s subtle, but touching.
  • Tahani: “Imposter who soiled our paradise with her moral turpitude.” Eleanor: “’Sup.”
  • “It doesn’t make me look great, so don’t judge me.” “That’s literally the purpose of this entire exercise.”
  • For noted sports enthusiast Schur, the episode’s title (and Chidi’s defense of the concept) seems a direct riposte to the sneering people like Trevor launch at the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. It’s not all about the winning. It is very much about the trying.

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