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Time runs out before you expect it on a breathtaking The Good Place

Kristen Bell
Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC
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“No one’s heart needs to break just yet.”

Well, that was impressive.

The Good Place loves to hop right over the brush-covered booby traps of predictable narrative potholes. But, as Brent finds out in tonight’s “Help Is Other People,” plummeting into an unexpected hole has its potential upside, in that, even as we hurtle toward we-know-not-what, we can’t help but marvel at the fiendishly clever construction.

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Not to be too dramatic about a show where everything blows up seemingly every fifth episode, everything blows the fork up here. First off, we’re introduced to a big, fat countdown clock, along with Eleanor’s sweatily casual video urging residents to squeeze in as many good deeds before the midnight end of their first year in the Good Place, “just in case.” Yeah, the Judge’s test is over, and the impenetrable obelisk of judgement (and unassuming bookkeeper Matt) is about to disgorge humanity’s ultimate fate. In episode 7.

Ted Danson
Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC

Then, as humans Chidi, Brent, John, Simone, and human plants (not plant-humans, but they’re plants—you get it), Jason and Tahani gather to prepare for the black tie one-year-in-paradise party, Simone wheels out a covered cork board festooned with a year’s worth of her data into just what the hell is really going on in the supposed Good Place. So not only has Simone’s gameness in palling around with her small peer group of residents (including the ever-odious Brent) all been a ruse so she can continue to gather empirical scientific evidence about something she’s never stopped thinking might be a coma hallucination, she’s also been lying to Chidi by hiding it while the couple—pet names revealed as “Ducky” (Chidi) and “Muffin” (Simone)—have been falling in love. No matter there, though, since, once John twigs to the logic of Simone’s pitch, he can’t help but reveal that Jianyu is Jason, something that Chidi, in the name of his own rigorous code of professional and personal ethics, has been lying to Simone about by not telling her.

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Jameela Jamil
Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC

Oh, and then Brent admits that, like Jason Mendoza, he’s absolutely sure he’s not supposed to be there, either. (“For the first time ever, I am desperate for you to keep talking,” says the intrigued Chidi.) Confronted with the utter cosmic impossibility of Brent’s conviction that he’s actually destined for some business-plus version of heaven by Simone, Brent’s, “I mean, it makes sense to me, I don’t know what to tell you,” might not be illuminating to the group, but the fact that Michael and Eleanor have been lying to them all sure is. An eveningwear-clad mission to snoop around Eleanor’s office by Chidi and Simone (and if you don’t want to see the spinoff “The Adventures of Muffin and Ducky,” then we are different people), produces nothing but the suspicious whiteboard with their pictures on it and Michael’s abortive lyrics to something called “The Purple Train To Groovy City.” Instead, it’s Chidi’s turn to reveal one more secret—that Eleanor has told him that he and Simone are soulmates, something Chidi, touchingly, tells Simone he genuinely hopes is true, regardless of the rest of it. That the ever-rational Simone maintains her charateristic stance that such an irrational concept doesn’t exist is in keeping with who she is (even though she’s really into Chidi)—but William Jackson Harper makes Chidi’s brave-faced reaction show a guy crumble inside.

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Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC

So, not great, everyone. Especially once the big party—at which Simone urges her fellow humans to watch out for any architectural sketchiness—goes semi-intentionally pear-shaped thanks to Eleanor and Michael’s on-the-fly attempts to right their listing neighborhood at the razor-sharp wire. After Michael (sorry, the Magnificent Doctor Presto) shows off some iffy human magic tricks (Earth magic being way harder than Janet-assisted magic, you guys), he summons another sinkhole, leaving magical assistant Brent dangling precariously (while assuring everyone he’s in no way scared of falling to his doom). Back in Eleanor’s office to regroup, it’s Jason, of all people, who finds just the right tone of Team Cockroach edge-of-doom optimism, leaving the astonished Tahani to wonder if it’s really Jason or a demon in a Jason suit. But it’s Jason, complete with his lifelong Jags fandom, that correctly susses out that their last-ditch plan—to see if John, Chidi, and Simone will choose to save a total d-bag in Brent—is a Hail Mary, while they’d been playing “prevent defense” in hoping to shore up some scores before the final gun.

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Such care has been taken to shade in Jacksonville’s number one fan and number one suspect, Jason Mendoza, over the course of the series, that these moments of inspiration emerge not as plot devices, but the one bedrock benefit of being completely guileless and optimistic. Here, Jason counsels that, “it’s risky, but if you complete it, you win the game,” and damned if Manny Jacinto doesn’t, once more, make Jason’s words sound frighteningly like improbable wisdom from the unspeaking mouth of the holiest, football-loving monk.

Manny Jacinto, Ted Danson, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Kristen Bell
Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC
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Still, the fact that, halfway through this final season, Team Cockroach is left chucking up a Hail Mary for the fate of all the humans in the universe only throws more suspicion on the nature of the test itself. Earlier in the episode, Janet (calculating her odds of success at 1-in-970 trillion) attempts to sneak a peek at Matt’s scorekeeping. “It did not work,” she explains one second later, re-emerging in the office smoking and disheveled. Eleanor, Michael, and the rest don’t know how the test is going for them and their human charges, and neither do we. But we—with our oh-so-clever ability to read TV schedules—know that, if the ultimate test finishes up at the final season’s midway point, it ain’t no ultimate anything. The game being played here is being withheld, from them and us, which doesn’t remotely diminish the power of the test’s culmination here.

Debating whether to help the totally not-panicking Brent, Chidi can’t comprehend Simone’s willingness to cut their losses and split in Brent’s gas-guzzling paradise-mobile before what she assumes is actually the Bad Place pulls them in, too. Simone can’t understand why Chidi would make the illogical decision to help out someone who clearly deserves the Bad Place if anyone does. John—siding reluctantly with Simone—may pronounce the couple’s nearly wordless recognition of their incompatibility as “the most boring breakup I have ever seen.” But episode writer Dave King understand how to craft an understated but devastating gut-punch of love’s departure, as Chidi and Simone’s matching “I respect your position” responses to the others’ intractable positions on Brent’s fate show that being freaking adorable together (even as Ducky and Muffin) isn’t enough when it comes down to the essentials of who you are, and what you truly believe.

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Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC

Simone’s not a villain in this. Sure, we’re predisposed to be on Chidi’s side, for a variety of reasons—our desire to bring him back together with Eleanor among them. But, like Chidi, we have to respect her position. Telling Chidi with her scientist’s pragmatism that expecting an experiment you’ve done a thousand times to come out differently just doesn’t make sense, Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Simone remains the straight-shooting goofball that won Chidi—and us—over back in Australia. Chidi’s a scholar, too, although his intellectual scruples—centered as they are on the vagaries and possibilities of the human character—allow for something like illogical hope, and the occasional ethical Hail Mary. So Simone and John take off for—somewhere—and Chidi doggedly attempts to haul the braying, bigoted jackass who’s never been bothered to learn Chidi’s name back from the pit. That there’s no villain in Chidi and Simone’s dissolution makes the stakes that much higher—and Chidi’s perhaps too-rigid ethical stance that much more idealistically heroic. But it doesn’t make the sheer, bloody unfairness of the universe seem any less cruel.

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Well, Chidi tries to be heroic, anyway, having to be rescued by the returning Eleanor, Janet, Jason, Tahani, and Michael as they come back to check the results of their own buzzer-beating half-court heave. Seeing their initial plan has failed, at least when it comes to everyone but Chidi, allows Jason’s Jacksonville dirtbag optimism and Eleanor’s Arizona trashbag stubbornness to attempt just one more, even-more-desperate ploy. They blow it up again, since, as Jason tells them sagely, “You can always blow up the same thing twice.” So Eleanor, defiantly telling the others that she’s never played a game she couldn’t win (by any means necessary), explains to the rumpled and befouled Brent and Chidi that this is the Bad Place, both she and Michael busting up in a recreaiton of Michael’s infamous, show-shattering devil-smile back in the first season.

It’s the Hail Mary of Hail Marys, especially since, as Eleanor notes, their human team has “snapped in half,” Brent remains impervious to any cracks in his douchebro ego-armor, and the Judge’s test is literally ticking down to zero. “C’mon, dum-dum, faster,” Michael urges, watching Chidi and Brent on a viewscreen, as they take in the newest impossible twist in their bananas afterlife journey. What’s Michael hoping for? A miracle, really. Or at least one by whatever definition this particular afterlife holds. Does he get one?

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Maybe. It’s Brent who was the key all this time, his un-budging self-regard and American middle-aged white male thoughtless bigotry that was the one nut they ultimately simply had to crack. I spoke earlier in the season about what a risk it was to bring someone like Brent into The Good Place’s moral and comedic universe as a major player, but damned if The Good Place doesn’t pull it off here. Ben Koldyke’s been fine at playing another in his long career of egomaniacal pricks, even showing the occasional, quickly repressed, flash of pained self-awareness. But here, as Chidi finally confronts him with how completely and unredeemably awful he’s been—his entire life—Kolyde’s Brent finally cracks. “No I’m not!,” he snaps, softly, back at Chidi calling him a bad person, before the ever-present self-assurance drops from his eyes and Brent, glancing around desperately, lets out a string of pleading, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Pulling himself together as time runs out, he pleads with the still-skeptical Chidi, telling him, “Whatever happens next, I need to say this to you—I am so, so s—”

Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC
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They freeze in a prism of colors. Eleanor, Michael, Jason, and Tahani goggle in anticipation at the merest glint of unthought hope. Janet returns from her void with the pitcher of margaritas Eleanor had requested immediately upon the test’s completion. And we’re left, once again, wondering just how the hell The Good Place is going to dig itself out of another exquisitely designed pit.

Stray observations

  • I’m with Jason. Prevent defenses are stupid. You’ve brought yourself to the brink of victory and then you change your entire defense into a puffy zone cover scheme? Me and Jason Mendoza—football geniuses.
  • Eleanor, summing up the team’s initial reliance on said prevent defense, says they just have to “hope our early successes make up for the embarrassing mess we’ve become. Like Facebook, or America.”
  • Jason reminisces fondly about the time when everything in the neighborhood was made of solid chocolate, including the Reese’s peanut butter cup he ate. Never change, baby.
  • Chidi, confronting that he may, in fact, be in the Bad Place, places the blame for his doom squarely on that damned almond milk once more. Never change, baby.
  • One unexplained horror of the neighborhood’s construction: Janet tells everyone that she, to reset her processing power, “will be violently eating” her Janet-babies.
  • It’s a shame that Simone, John, Chidi, and Brent seem to be done, as their dynamic upon Simone’s Pepe Silvia-style revelation is the first time they’ve ever reminded me of the old Team Cockroach in their agency and drive to work together.
  • Eleanor, furious, compares Brent to “the opposite of a box of donuts,” which Jason calculates to be “a toilet full of broccoli.”
  • Eleanor: “Shut up, what do you know?” Janet: “Literally everything, but keep going. I am loving this energy from you!”
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.