Ted Danson, D'Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)
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The third episode on a high-concept show is a test. Especially after the first two installments of The Good Place more or less functioned as an hour-long pilot in setting up the show’s fro-yo-flavored afterlife, the third episode is where Kristen Bell’s Eleanor has to really start living in it. And there are some worrying signs—before the last two minutes reveal that creator Michael Schur has a bigger and more ambitious game in mind.

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One of the problems inherent in The Good Place’s setup is that Eleanor has to change. In her cosily combative secret teacher-student partnership with William Jackson Harper’s Chidi, the risk is that her sharp edges will wear away too fast, something that looks ready to happen for most of “Tahani Al-Jamil.” After all, she follows Chidi’s advice and tags along on Tahani’s welcome wagon/“remember those giant ladybugs?” tour of the neighborhood, reluctantly advises the surreptitiously weeping Tahani that serenely distant soulmate Jianyu will come around, and, in flashback, reveals the reasons for (some of) her crappy behavior. Bell sells the guilty pain of her admission to Chidi well, but her revelation of why she broke up with a well-meaning boyfriend comes off as alarmingly pat. (“When I’m around someone better than me I try to drag them down to my level.”) If The Good Place is to be a show about a real jerk upsetting the balance of this particular paradise, than she can’t abandon her jerkiness too quickly.

Luckily, even before that twist (that we’ll get to soon enough), Bell is great fun. Barely restraining Eleanor’s eye-rolling contempt for all the bland niceness surrounding her (especially Tahani’s, accompanied as it is by condescending praise and repeated nose-booping), Bell conveys comically simmering hatred like a champ. She has a way of letting her eyes become dead little black pinpricks in the middle of her pale, smiling visage that’s hilariously unsettling. Vainly attempting to mine Tahani’s spotless life for dirt (it’s revealed she raised over 60 billion dollars for charity), Eleanor’s especially furious that she can’t even find fault in her nemesis’ baking skills, as Bell spitefully takes a bite out of a “burned” maple butter scone and registers disgusted delight in how damned good it is. The dual motors of Eleanor’s character so far are her desperate need to keep up the lie that she belongs in the good place and her stubborn belief that all these smiling “perfect” people aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Tonight, there’s an alarming amount of what looks like premature softening going on.

At least until that final scene when, responding to a second anonymous note under her door, she goes to the town square to find out who’s been tormenting her, only to find Jianyu waiting in the shadows. The running gag of this inscrutable Asian monk wandering through the good place, maintaining his vow of silence as he dispenses wise looks and nods, and even restoring the confidence of an angel (or whatever Ted Danson’s Michael actually is) via laying of hands, was starting to smack of lazy comedy and/or cultural stereotype. So the initial swerve that the guy can talk (“You don’t belong here, admit it,” he calmly demands of Eleanor) explodes with comic shock when it turns out that Jianyu knows he doesn’t belong in the good place either. (Manny Jacinto, who looked doomed to play a essentially comic prop, earns a huge laugh with his panicked, pop-eyed “I am freakin’ out, homie!”) Eleanor’s shock comes tinged, one imagines, with a little relief that she’s not the only one, and I know how she feels.

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In his pre-air interview about what, exactly, The Good Place is, creator Michael Schur revealed that he sought advice on high-concept TV world-building from Lost’s Damon Lindelof, and promised that he’d taken some important lessons to heart. (Snicker all you want about Lindelof heeding his own advice, but nothing instructs like being caught sweatily making things up on the fly.) Viewers are willing to follow an outlandish concept a long way—as long as they feel like the creators aren’t just doing outlandish things for their own sake. Here, as with the chaos wrought by Eleanor’s presence (giant ladybugs, flying shrimp) and the first anonymous note, Schur springs a surprise a beat ahead of when we expect, and it’s exhilarating. In that third episode paradigm, we expect the characters to just play in the new sandbox for a little while. Instead, Schur makes us question the ground we thought we’ve been standing on.

Take Chidi. His B-story tonight is classic sandbox plotting, as Michael (with hilariously unhelpful help from D’Arcy Carden’s unpredictably reprogrammable Janet) gently nudges the amiable Chidi out of his comfort zone. William Jackson Harper always manages to find the person inside Chidi’s bookish sidekick intellectualism, here smilingly trying and discarding Michael’s earnest attempts to get him into exploring, journalism, or very loud and dangerous arc welding. (Harper’s unashamed revelation that he’d once been diagnosed with “directional insanity” is a big laugh, and the scene’s capped off with a “wrong exit” joke that’s just right.) But, considering what we learn about the cracks in the good place’s façade, Chidi’s story here raises intriguing possibilities.

When we find out that Chidi’s main claim to good place status is that he spent 18 years doing nothing but writing an incomprehensible 3,600-book about ethics, it begs the question of what it takes to get in the door. (Although, from his behavior in the good place, I’m sure he was a perfectly nice, helpful fellow.) When Chidi refutes Eleanor’s rationalization for why she might actually belong in the good place, Chidi restates his faith in the core concept, telling her, “In this place, everyone is better than you. It has been proven by an infallible formula.” But we already know the good place isn’t infallible since Eleanor (and now Jianyu) is here. We have our suspicions that Tahani’s lifetime raising ungodly amounts of cash for charity (and time as model, museum curator, “it girl” and “Baz Luhrmann’s muse for a little while”) doesn’t quite square with her poorly concealed self-aggrandizement. And what about Michael?

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When we first met Danson’s guide, he was the perfectly reassuring, avuncular figure anyone would want explaining that they’re not only dead, but that they’ve entered into a whole other plane of existence. (His kindly “You’re in the good place,” in response to Eleanor’s initial fear was pitched to soothing perfection.) But the show—again leaping ahead when least expected—almost immediately showed that this neophyte world-builder and de facto guardian angel not only was (it seems) responsible for screwing up in admitting Eleanor, but also possessed of some pretty human-looking insecurities. Danson’s delightful tonight, alternately pasting on a smile to ride over Chidi’s repeated unsuitability for the hobbies Michael’s chosen, dropping into colloquialisms while confiding how much he hated Chidi’s book, and, finally, showing his essential otherness in not realizing how insensitive he can be. Responding to Chidi’s request that Michael be his advisor as Chidi rewrites his book, Danson’s delighted delivery of his assent is the episode’s funniest moment. (“So if spending eternity getting blunt feedback on your circular, rambling ideas will make you happy, then of course I will be your advisor!”)

There’s something weird, if not rotten, in the good place. I have some ideas (and so do all of you, judging by the spirited debate in the comments), but I’ll restrain myself from playing “guess the afterlife” for now. Except to say that it’s rare enough for a sitcom to keep me guessing as nimbly or consistently as The Good Place has done so far, all while sneakily introducing its increasingly nuanced ideas about its theme at the same time. The running joke about Janet’s changing personas is laugh-out-loud material especially her deadpan interpretation of “fun facts.” (“Fun fact—a wheelhouse is part of a ship.” “Fun fact: Janet is me.”) Chidi and Eleanor’s developing partnership yields big laughs, too (“Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” “Plato.”), while allowing Harper and Bell to refine their prickly chemistry. After being shaken to his core by Michael’s appraisal of his life’s work, Chidi goes to his only student and asks if he’s a good teacher. Eleanor—who, to be fair, has barely been paying attention—tries to cheer him up, telling her only confidant, “Michael does not know everything. He doesn’t even know I’m not supposed to be here.”

Meanwhile, The Good Place continues to nibble subtly around the question of what makes a good person. In her flashback, Eleanor’s fight with her more civic-minded boyfriend sees her challenge his choice not to support a sleazy local business by stating, “There’s bad stuff everywhere man. It’s impossible to avoid.” When he protests, “Yeah but shouldn’t we just try? Whenever we can?,” Eleanor’s “Why? It’s so much harder to live like that,” says, especially as Bell delivers it, a lot about the show’s view. (Her offhand, “And it’s not like anyone’s keeping score” is unfortunate for her, considering.) What started out like a wacky fish out of water (or “sinner in Heaven”) sitcom has, in three short episodes, turned out to be excitingly unpredictable as to what its real agenda is.

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Stray observations

  • Tahani’s impeccably designed diary boasts forwards from both Malala Yousafzai and Kylie Minogue.
  • Tahani brings a plant as a housewarming gift, prompting Eleanor to do another of her comically British Tahani impressions: “Welcome to the neighborhood even though we all arrived here at the same time! Here’s some dirt I put in a bowl because I’m amazing.”
  • At Chidi’s urging, she returns the favor with a box of pears, smilingly digging, “It’s a plant just like your gift, but you can actually eat them!”
  • The idea that the plant blooms once Eleanor reaches out to help Tahani’s a little much, but I laughed hard at the poor thing weeping and shivering (then bursting into flame) when Eleanor was mocking her earlier.
  • More details about the good place: Columbus is not in (“because of the raping, and slave-trading, and genocide,” explains Janet). She does not explain why no deceased member of the Portland Trailblazers has ever made it.
  • Tahani’s full name translates as “Congratulations, beautiful.” Because of course it does.
  • “Oh, so now I’m supposed to be nice and make friends and treat her with mutual respect? That’s exactly what she wants me to do, Chidi. Wake up!” “That’s what everyone wants everyone to do.”
  • The name of Chidi’s book: Who We Are And Who We Are Not: Practical Ethics And Their Application in The Modern World; A Treatise On The… (Michael doesn’t let him finish).
  • Chidi’s horrified “Oh no!” when learning that Michael couldn’t even get through his life’s endeavor is delivered by Harper exactly as you’d imagine you’d respond in that situation.
  • “You’re not better than me because you won’t support a guy who grabbed a boob once!”
  • Speaking of sandboxes, Chidi’s example of Eleanor needing to be taught kindergarten-basic ethical concepts (like “don’t throw sand”) leads to another of their stellar exchanges. “First of all, throwing sand is an excellent way to put out a vodka fire.” “Why would you even know that?”

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