This week’s Good Place opens with an exact copy of the shot that kicked off the pilot episode, with Eleanor Shellstrop sitting in the afterlife’s waiting room. But everything’s changed now. Eleanor now knows where she is — and that she’s not supposed to be there. And Michael now knows who she is — or at least she wasn’t a crusading altruistic attorney who loved clown paintings. For the first time, these two meet on something like equal footing. She’s not hiding anything, and he’s not being deceived. And so, with that as the backdrop, they begin to talk.
“Most Improved Player” is a fine example of a TV show doing a lot with a little. Just count up the locations. We see Michael’s office, Michael’s waiting area, Eleanor’s living room, a train depot, a train, and (in flashback) Eleanor’s old apartment. Oh, and for a few seconds, one clothing boutique. But that scene’s an anomaly. For the most part, this episode doesn’t jump around as much as The Good Place usually does. Instead, we get lengthy conversations between people who are sitting down together. Most of this episode could’ve been shot in a day or two. Heck, about half of it could’ve been knocked out in an afternoon, provided that all the actors remembered their lines.
Yet given how surreal this show can get, there’s something affecting about the simplicity of “Most Improved Player.” Much of that has to do with Michael. Still deeply emotionally bruised by the catastrophes in the neighborhood — including the murder of Janet — he does his best to be calmly officious when it comes to figuring out how Eleanor may have been misfiled. He gives her the broader “good vs. bad” litmus test, and she passes that just fine. She never murdered anyone. She never committed arson. She never paid money to hear music performed by California funk-rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s when Michael gets into the particulars of her case that he can’t disguise his disappointment. He’s delighted to hear about Eleanor’s best work on Earth, which involved taking her messed-up cousin’s young daughter Julie to the mall to eat Churro Dogs. (That’s a hot dog between two churros, tied together with a Slim Jim, served with unlimited ranch dressing. It’s an Arizona delicacy.) But he almost has to beg her to stop talking when she tells the story of the time her roommate Madison was hammered on social media for suing a dry cleaner out of business, all for a rip in a dress that was actually Eleanor’s fault. To make matters worse, our Ms. Shellstrop profited from Madison’s public shaming by taking profits from their other roommates’ line of “Dress Bitch” T-shirts. “This doesn’t make me look great, so don’t judge me,” Eleanor says sheepishly and futilely to Michael.
The “Dress Bitch” story provides this week’s flashbacks, and the way that Eleanor behaves throughout — not nobly, but not outright evil either — speaks to the larger case that she’s been trying to make to Chidi ever since she arrived in the Good Place. The fact is, she’s not terrible. There should be an afterlife for people like her, who preferred women’s MMA to opera, and who “kinda sucked, in a fun, chill way.” Why should people like her be “royally forkin’ forked?”
Because as this episode makes clear, there are real consequences to Michael’s ultimate judgment. Once he decides Eleanor has to go, Michael calls up the Bad Place’s unctuous Trevor (played by a perfectly cast Adam Scott), who arrives on his Hell Train to transport her away to an eternity of torment — a place where the Manhattan Clam Chowder is always served at room temperature. It’s a cruel, cruel system that these semi-deities serve. Even after Chidi confesses that he killed Janet, and persuades Michael to give Eleanor another chance to earn her spot in the Good Place, “Most Improved Player” throws in a wrenching cliff-hanger twist, by introducing the “good” Eleanor Shellstrop who’s been suffering for her namesake’s sins. Man, the universe is harsh.
No one wants a worthy human being to fail to get her due. But what makes this is such an entertaining episode is that it reminds us that Eleanor has her redeeming qualities, too. Among other things, she’s unfailingly cool, even when Michael calls her his greatest failure (“Good to see you too, bud,” she replies), and Tahani says that she’s the “impostor who soiled our paradise with her moral turpitude” (“… ‘sup,” Eleanor nods). Right now, The Good Place’s main narrative is too much in flux to say whether it’s all on the right track. But the show is definitely working on an emotional level. If nothing else, when Michael says of Eleanor, “I did enjoy her company,” it’s hard not to wholeheartedly agree.
- Among the other Bad Place–level offenses on Michael’s checklist: microwaving fish in an office kitchen, being a Bachelor contestant (or just generally being emotionally invested in the franchise), taking off shoes and socks on a commercial flight, and having a vanity license plate like “MAMASBMW,” “LEXUS4LIZ,” or “BOOBGUY.”
- One of the first things Trevor says to Eleanor is that she should smile more, which was one of the major negative scores listed in Michael’s original Good Place orientation.
- In her flashback, Eleanor chalks Madison’s ripped dress up to “the risk you take when you keep your clothes clean.” And as she packs for the Bad Place train, she tells Chidi, “Sorry that I dragged you into this … and that I never did laundry.” The lady hates washing clothes.
- Some prime name-dropping from Tahani this week, who casually refers to her friends Taylor, Kanye, and Beyoncé, and later says that she won’t mention another of her pals but that he once “asked me to co-host his show Anderson Cooper 360.” (According to Michael’s lie-detector cube, that’s true!)
- While Janet is still recovering from being murdered, she interprets every request as a demand for her to hand over a potted cacti. When Jason pricks himself on one of Janet’s plants, Michael assumes the fake monk is teaching a lesson about how “a cactus on its own intends no harm.” And he’s right — save Eleanor!