No matter what else The Good Place does, we’ll always have Michael’s “I wanted more time to be human” speech. A classic example of the comedy list — where a character keeps naming off things, each more random and hilarious than the last — Michael’s long lament during what he believes will be his last day in the Good Place quickly turns into another of his weirdly touching salutes to the wonderful mundanity of humankind. He starts pining for all that he’s never going to get to do in his new body, from pulling a hamstring, to getting a rewards card (any rewards card), to ending a conversation by saying, “Take it sleazy.”
There are a lot of great reasons to hire Ted Danson to star in a sitcom, but none better than the way he can put an extra spin on his dialogue, just by delivering it in his deep, breathy, eternally wistful voice. Here, Danson pulls that little vocal trick over and over in a scene that keeps topping itself, sentence by sentence. Then, in a perfect punctuation to the joke, Michael mentions that he’s always wanted to eat a saltine. So Tahani hands him a cracker. He takes a bite, then softly and slowly mutters, “Pretty dry … and too salty. Going out on a real low note here.”
“The Eternal Shriek” is another terrific episode of The Good Place, and though it doesn’t have any other scenes as funny as Michael’s sad grumbling, it does hold together from start to finish about as well as any chapter of this show so far.
The episode title refers to what Michael’s “retirement” from being an architect actually means. The universe is going to rip him to pieces, and then torture each of those individual bits. And it’s a measure of how smartly constructed “The Eternal Shriek” is that when Michael talks about how the universe will beat him with a rod, the show cuts to an insert shot of a celebratory Michael-shaped piñata that Tahani procured for what she assumed would be a bon voyage party.
“The Eternal Shriek” makes good use of the dynamic between Michael and Tahani, who are usually so mutually upbeat, but here have a hard time getting on the same page because one of them is bracing for an infinite dismemberment. Tahani would rather lighten the mood by pointing out all the fun food she got for the gathering — including a “retire-mint chocolate cake.” Michael though keeps staring forlornly off in the distance, talking about how his favorite color is a ninth-dimensional shade that resembles a soldier seeing his dog for the first time after coming home from war.
The depth of Michael’s misery doesn’t just make for good comedy; it also establishes the horrible stakes for Eleanor and Chidi, who previously had hoped they could just keep skating by with her big lie. Now that they know Eleanor’s disruptive un-goodness will condemn a nice, innocent divine being to unceasing pain, their situation is a lot more urgent.
But who’s it more upsetting to? Is it rougher for Eleanor, who’s so accustomed to deceit and a Machiavellian “ends justify the means” philosophy that she once pretended to have a terminal illness just so she could meet Scott Wolf at a Sunglass Hut? Or will this be the final straw for Chidi, who’s so scrupulously ethical that he once stewed for three years after he lied about liking a colleague’s stupid-looking red cowboy boots? (“This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors,” he heard from both his girlfriend and his “boot brother” back on Earth.)
Ultimately, the two choose to do exactly what they’ve been doing for a while now: making everything worse. Together, they’re the afterlife equivalent of trying to cover up a broken plate by knocking over a china cabinet. In “The Eternal Shriek,” they try to keep Janet from transporting Michael to his doom by activating her kill switch. They assume that it’ll be easy to destroy a nonhuman cyber-aide, but her defense mechanisms make her whimper and beg in a way that creeps Eleanor and Chidi out. Even after they accidentally push her termination button, they can’t keep their crime a secret because an image of Janet is projected over the entire neighborhood, saying, “Attention: I have been murdered.”
The episode ends with Eleanor finally confessing to everyone that she’s in the Good Place by mistake, which has all kinds of narrative and philosophical implications that we’ll surely get to next week. For example: Are we about to find out that Eleanor and Jason aren’t the only anomalies? Can Chidi cope with his guilt if Eleanor is damned instead of Michael? What will The Good Place be if it’s not a sitcom about an impostor?
The answer to that last one may be nestled within something Eleanor asks at one point in tonight’s episode: “Why do bad things always happen to mediocre people who are lying about their identities?” The answer to that is meant to be amusingly self-evident. But is it? Given how much joy this show has taken in Michael’s lumpen form of humanism, The Good Place’s actual raison d’être might be to answer Eleanor’s question with an obstinate, “Yeah … why?”
- Among the many neighborhood mistakes that Michael blames himself for is, “I grossly underestimated the number of shrimp needed for the opening-night party.” This is where intricate continuity can give a sitcom a boost. If you’ve been watching from the beginning, you know that the shrimp shortage is really Eleanor’s fault, for gorging herself. Of course, it’s not essential to remember that detail to get what Michael’s saying. (“Grossly underestimated the number of shrimp” is a funny phrase regardless, especially when spoken with gusto by Ted Danson.) But if you do, it makes the joke more darkly humorous. It turns out that even the smallest selfish acts by Eleanor have made Michael more miserable.
- This episode was easily the best one yet for the character of Janet, who’s perpetually cheerful even when her master is preparing for a fate worse than death. (“This will not affect me in any way,” she says with a meant-to-be-reassuring smile.) We learn a lot more about her kind this week, including that the original model was controlled by a click wheel, and that when she’s destroyed, she essentially reboots and takes a few days to come back online. In the meantime, if you ask her to recite the alphabet, she’ll say, “A … B … Janet.” (“At least she knows her A-B-Janets!” Eleanor enthuses.)
- I’d share more thoughts on Janet, but what’s there to say about her that hasn’t been said already by the giant Janet-alarm in the sky?