For the most part, The Good Place has burned through plot at a thrilling rate, avoiding the tease and insinuation that so many shows rely on to keep their wheels spinning. But this week's episode exposes some of the problems with rushing so quickly ahead. There hasn’t been quite enough setup for the enormity of the stakes in "… Someone Like Me As a Member." Nearly everything that happens involves the eternal fates of two Eleanor Shellstrops: one of whom we don’t know at all, and the other of whom The Good Place has had some trouble convincingly defining.
First up is the human-rights crusader Eleanor, henceforth known as Real Eleanor. Despite the best efforts of Tiya Sircar, Real Eleanor comes off as a blandly virtuous non-entity in “… Someone Like Me As a Member.” That’s neither the actress’s fault nor the character’s. This Ms. Shellstrop hasn’t had the benefit of humanizing flashbacks and nuanced comic moments like the similarly “perfect” Tahani. In the absence of a proper introduction, we have to settle for Real Eleanor’s quick rundown of her life on Earth: abandoned as a baby, yadda yadda yadda, adopted by parents who died, yadda yadda yadda, learned English through Seinfeld, et cetera. Her existence ultimately led up to the moment when she tried to save Fake Eleanor — our Eleanor — from getting run over in a Phoenix grocery store parking lot. This, ultimately, killed them both and caused the universe’s cruel mix-up.
As for Fake Eleanor, this episode argues both why she does and doesn’t deserve to live out her afterlife in paradise. Her flashback sequences this week mostly muddy the waters further. In past episodes, the earthbound Eleanor has come off as so colossally selfish and jerky that it’s hard to believe that she ever had friends, lovers, or even a job. This most obnoxious version of her pops up throughout “… Someone Like Me As a Member.” She’s in the scene where Eleanor makes a public announcement at her new high school that she’s not interested in joining any cliques, and she’s seen again when Eleanor turns down a lucrative employment offer because her co-workers seem too chummy.
But the complexity of her "bad" side is represented here too, most notably in a flashback where she ends up seeing a movie separate from the rest of her gal pals … because she didn’t want any of them to buy her a ticket, and she’d be damned (literally, as it turned out) if she was going to pay for theirs. This is The Good Place’s more intriguing vision of the world and the afterworld, where evil and Hell are more mundane, self-made constructs.
For example, Fake Eleanor believes her worst moments were justified because she was the child of two divorced “dirtbags.” When she hears Real Eleanor’s tale of woe, though, she’s somewhat ashamed to realize that a broken home is no excuse to be a broken person. There are quite a few revelations like that in this episode, including the news that in the Bad Place, Fake Eleanor would’ve lived in a home with a “clown nook” a lot like the one she has in the Good Place, and that she would’ve spent her days throwing a baby shower for a woman she doesn’t know. That’s a funnier conception of torture than some the other ones mentioned this week, such as giant lava monsters or food that turns into live spiders in your mouth.
“… Someone Like Me as a Member” is plenty entertaining, because this show so far has exhibited a baseline level of quality that all but assures each half-hour will be time well-spent. But whenever the series gets more into the specifics of how the Good Place and the Bad Place work, the humor skews a little broader, bordering on the abrasive. Case in point: Adam Scott is spot-on as the malevolent mega-bro Trevor, but the character and his odious entourage aren’t that much fun to spend time with, because their horribleness is so extreme.
In the end, this episode chooses to punt on the ultimate destination for Fake Eleanor. Her “Real” namesake gets to stay in the Good Place, for sure. But Michael decides that he has too much faith in this flawed human to let her be tormented forever, and that he’s willing to risk destruction — or even the wrath of the universe’s final arbiter, “Shawn” — to see if Fake Eleanor can become deserving.
So the drama continues, with a trip to see Shawn likely on the table for this season’s remaining four episodes. In the meantime, here’s hoping that The Good Place will lean less on the threats of physical pain and discomfort for Eleanor, and more on the idea of everyday annoyance. This episode is most affecting when our heroine winces at hearing Chidi diminish their relationship as “teacher-student, nothing more,” or when Trevor insists to everyone that he slept with Eleanor and that if she denies it, “Who are they gonna believe, me or a woman?”
What’s most insidious about Trevor is his insistence that even if Eleanor’s not being jabbed with red-hot pokers in the Good Place, she’ll still be miserable because she’ll be struggling to fit in with the kind of folks she purposefully avoided her whole life. That’s more like what this show does best, suggesting that a restless soul’s true punishment could be to realize — too late — that she’s always needed to be a part of something bigger.
- There’s a surprise subplot in this episode, though it mostly flies under the radar until the epilogue, when it suddenly becomes a very big deal. It has to do with Jason, who’s having a very good day after Janet asks for help with one of the universe’s most important questions: What are jalapeño poppers? He's so happy to be asked something that he knows the answer to that he hugs Janet, and confesses that he kinda likes her, because she’s the only one in the Good Place who’s ever truly nice to him. All seems swell … until he gets back to his Bud-Hole, and sees Tahani waiting for him, ready to learn who he really is. Cue dramatic cliffhanger music.
- Apparently the Bad Place has its own “Bad Janet,” who answers requests for where things might be found with answers like, “Up you mom’s butt, you dink.” As Michael notes, it’s remarkable that his counterparts would go to the trouble to create an all-knowing computer program that’s completely unhelpful.
- I haven’t spent much time theorizing in these reviews, mainly because my some of my initial guesses have been very wrong. Still, what’s the fun of reviewing a sci-fi fantasy show if you can’t speculate wildly? So here goes: What if Fake Eleanor’s divorced dad remarried and adopted Real Eleanor? What if they’re actually stepsisters?