The Good Place settles into its regular time slot tonight, and more important, it answers two burning questions: Who threatened Eleanor Shellstrop with the “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE” note? And how exactly are Eleanor’s wacky afterlife adventures going to fill a half-hour every week?
The answer to the second question is less satisfying than the first, though not enough to cast doubts on the long-term viability of The Good Place. All sitcoms — even ones that get off to a great start — go through early growing pains as writers figure out the strengths of their cast and characters. This show has the added burden of advancing a long-range story arc while delivering satisfying, stand-alone chapters, so it may take some time for Michael Schur and company to find the right balance. Ultimately, what matters is that “Tahani Al-Jamil” is entertaining and amusing, even if its individual elements lacked the pop of “Pilot” and “Flying.”
The episode title refers to Eleanor’s impossibly beautiful, annoyingly self-satisfied next-door neighbor, whom we get to know throughout the bulk of this half-hour. So, how did someone so vain and shallow end up in the Good Place? It turns out that back on Earth, Tahani was a wealthy model and philanthropist who raised billions for charitable causes. Even Eleanor grudgingly comes to empathize with her new frenemy, after spending a frustrating day watching her help people, then finding out that Tahani is secretly depressed about her eternally silent Buddhist soul mate Jianyu.
This is a fairly conventional sitcom story line: the heroine learning that a seemingly perfect person has flaws after all. But it’s a necessary bit of business for The Good Place to start rounding out its supporting cast. Plus, Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil get a lot of comic oomph out of their characters’ smiley, passive-aggressive conversations — especially when Eleanor brings Tahani a housewarming gift of pears, which she promptly tosses in the garbage because they’re a symbol of bad luck in Chinese culture.
The episode’s B-story finds Michael trying to give Chidi a more personally fulfilling afterlife by moving him away from academia and into a new hobby. He suggests cartography, which Chidi rejects because he has a condition called “directional insanity.” (He once got lost on an escalator.) Journalism’s a no-go too, due to the professor’s disdain for deadlines. (He never settled on a name for his dog, which eventually started responding to “long pauses.”) Eventually, Michael explains that his real reason for refocusing Chidi is because he tried to read his 3,600-page philosophical magnum opus Who We Are and Who We Are Not, and it gave him the first headache he’s experienced since taking corporeal form.
William Jackson Harper’s portrayal of Chidi as an easily flustered idealist was one of the highlights of The Good Place’s first two episodes, and he’s just as funny here, reckoning with the utter failure of his life’s work. But his subplot is undercut by a fairly weak running gag, which sees the neighborhood’s ethereal electronic assistant Janet trying on different personalities: chummy, flirty, mean, and super-informative. This feels like several weeks' worth of comic business burned through in a single episode — which is for the best, because none of it is especially funny. (The sole exception: Janet is pretty hilarious in hyperlink mode, responding to her own name by saying, “Fun fact! Janet is me!”)
What does go over well in “Tahani Al-Jamil” is Eleanor’s ongoing moral education, and the flashbacks that gradually reveal a more complex person than the self-centered party girl we met in the pilot. This episode covers Eleanor’s old arguments with her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend over whether they should boycott a conveniently located coffee shop because its owner is a serial sexual harasser. The answer to that question seems cut-and-dried, until Eleanor brings up boorish athletes, deviant entertainers, and Chick-fil-A, asking how it’s ever possible to do “the right thing” in every daily decision.
This is when The Good Place truly shines. It offers something that no other sitcom can: relevant ethical debates, coupled with intriguing mysteries about what the afterlife is really all about. It’s genuinely energizing to put Eleanor’s knee-jerk devil’s advocacy up against Chidi’s certainty that the universe is just and ordered. It also leads to exchanges like Eleanor saying of Tahani, “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!” and Chidi sadly muttering in reply, “That’s what everyone wants everybody to do.”
Even in an episode with middling plots and subplots, The Good Place offers something to ponder. It even drops a few good surprises — like the big twist at the end of “Tahani Al-Jamil,” when Eleanor learns that Jianyu has been sending her those ominous messages, and he’s only doing it because he doesn’t belong in the Good Place either. Is anybody really supposed to be in Michael’s neighborhood? We may soon discover that this “paradise” is catastrophically problematic.
- I look forward to more of Chidi's Ethics 101 classes, in part because they’re generally informative, and in part because his stupefied reactions to Eleanor’s skepticism make for comedy gold. The funniest moment in this episode happens in the opening minute, when Eleanor scoffs, “Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” Chidi simply points at his blackboard and says, “Plato.”
- The surrealism is mostly kept to a minimum in “Tahani Al-Jamil,” aside from the occasional cutaways to the plant that Tahani gives Eleanor, which wilts or thrives (or catches fire) depending on the state of their relationship. For some reason, this visual gag never quite works. It's something to keep in mind as the show takes shape: Are the special effects whimsical and fun, or laugh-killing?
- I failed to note this in my recap of the first two episodes, but I love the way that Eleanor punctuates her sentences with “bro,” “dude,” and “man.” That’s a nice character touch, defining a woman who’s apparently spent much of her life trying to be one of the guys.
- In the pilot, Michael delivered the somewhat shocking news that most artists, nearly all U.S. presidents, and even Florence Nightingale weren’t good enough to qualify for the Good Place. In this episode, Janet delivers the much less surprising fun fact that Christopher Columbus is also in the Bad Place “because of all the raping, slave trading, and genocide.”
- In addition to the Jianyu revelation, the episode's other big incident is Michael asking Eleanor to be his assistant, since he needs help figuring out what’s wrong with the neighborhood. The investigator assigned to find herself? That’s a classic bit of pulp plotting. Well done, The Good Place.