By and large, TV today is overly concerned with long-form storytelling, at the expense of the good old-fashioned self-contained episode. So in theory, it’s nice that The Good Place has always balanced its larger plot arcs with shorter stories about the ups and downs of the afterlife. Yet with rare exceptions, the show’s best episodes have been more actively engaged with these humans and demons making plans, telling lies, and fighting to survive.
This week’s “Existential Crisis” wasn’t one of the better Good Place episodes. It was frequently very funny — thanks in large part to Ted Danson, who’s been at his comedic best all season — but just as frequently uninspired, with bits of business that feel either warmed-over or out of character. Put it this way: Remember the start of the episode, when Michael rolls his eyes at the run-of-the-mill torture Vicky has cooked up for Tahani? In retrospect, that was more like a warning to the home viewer.
To be fair, the Tahani torture only constitutes about a third of this chapter; and it’s the one story line that lands in an interesting place, rather than just circling back to the norm. Vicky’s big idea to make Tahani miserable is to have her throw a party that nobody attends because they’re all at a much better party — with a “Build a Real Bear” workshop and an actual unicorn that leaves rainbow ripples everywhere it steps. Michael privately dismisses this as a lazy idea, and complains that “these millennials have no work ethic” before explaining that, in the Bad Place, a “millennial” is someone who’s only been torturing for 1,000 years.
And he’s kind of right. Given that the whole premise of The Good Place’s second season is that the humans are now aware of where they really are, it’s a little disappointing to see Tahani — who knows that she’s being tortured — get so bummed out because no one wants to come to her party.
Similarly, after it seemed like this show ditched its flashback structure at the end of season one, it was a mildly unpleasant surprise to see a not-that-revelatory look back at Tahani’s life on Earth last week, followed by a similarly “been there, done that” flashback to Eleanor’s life in “Existential Crisis.” In the latter case, we get to see how Eleanor dealt with the concept of death, as a child and as an adult. All we really learn from these scenes is that she developed a hard shell early on because her parents were awful, which is information we already had.
That said, while it may have been unnecessary, the Eleanor flashback features what’s easily the funniest scene in this episode, wherein the drunken Donna Shellstrop confesses to her preteen daughter that she killed her dog by leaving it in a hot car. Everything about these few minutes is beautifully written and well-played by Leslie Grossman, from Donna’s initial explanation that the dog is in a magical place called “Guam” to her eventual admission that she actually stuck the dead pooch in her favorite duffel bag, which was pretty stressful for her. All of this is so snappy that it almost compensates for the off-key, over-the-top later scene where an adult Eleanor breaks down crying at a Bed Bath & Beyond when she sees a family-size toothbrush-holder.
Similarly, the weak Tahani plot is redeemed by how it ends: with Jason consoling her by saying that she’s the most amazing person he’s ever met, and the two of them sleeping together. This is a welcome development inasmuch as it’s one of the few pieces of this episode that introduces something new, which could potentially complicate things going forward. It also comes after a sweet and hilarious bit of schtick where Jason describes his 1-to-13 rating scale (with 8 as the highest score) for his 60-person dance crew, where applicants were judged based on “dancing ability, coolness, dopeness, freshness, and smart-brained.”
By contrast, Michael ends “Existential Crisis” more or less where he began, even though he’s actually the one who gives this episode its title. The chapter begins with the neighborhood’s evil architect sneering at Chidi’s ethics classes as “stupid garbage,” and mocking humanity for their physical limitations. (Did you ever notice that our breathing tubes are next to our eating tubes, and that our arms end in stupid little sticks? Michael has.) But then Chidi gets Michael to confront his mortality, and the thought that “I would be … no … me” causes the demon to crater emotionally.
Michael eventually pulls out of his spiral by channeling his angst into typical midlife-crisis behavior. He gets a calligraphic tattoo. (“It’s Chinese for ‘Japan,’” he enthuses.) He douses himself in Drakkar Noir. He guzzles cans of Red Bull. He reprograms Janet so that she’s a blonde named “Janette” who giggles like a ditz and validates his arrested adolescent impulses.
Even though this is far from a top-shelf Good Place, it is one of Danson’s best showcases to date, as he careens from smug to despairing to desperately “cool.” The best reason to hire a sitcom vet as accomplished as Danson is that he can make even the word yeah funny, depending on whether he mutters it, deadpans it, or belts it out enthusiastically. He’s a master of timing and inflection, and he’s a joy to watch each week.
But perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the wild turns that this show took over the half-dozen or so episodes that preceded these last two. At one point in “Existential Crisis,” the newly committed party animal Michael suggests that Janette should “make us a Dubai” so that he and his human confederates can all jet off somewhere fun. It would’ve gotten in the way of the larger story if she’d honored his request. But at least it would’ve been unexpected.
In The Neighborhood
• Is it me, or is Jason talking a lot in public for someone who’s still supposed to be a silent monk?
• I hope everyone caught the contemporary political resonances in Vicky saying that she wants Michael’s torture reports to be one-page memos, preferably with pictures. Apparently, Vicky wants to make the Bad Place great again.
• Eleanor tries to comfort Michael by offering something to eat, but is unsure what demons would crave. Maybe a baby? A cool-ranch baby?
• For you p.c. folks who sweat terminology, Michael would like you to know that while technically it’s appropriate to call him a “demon,” to do so is “a little racist.”
• As a kid, Eleanor was apparently a fan of a kids’ show called ThunderBats, which featured a super team who had the ability to … form one enormous bat.
• My relative lack of enthusiasm for this episode might have something to do with how little Chidi appears in it. However, he does get one of its most endearing throwaway lines when he responds to Michael’s mortality crisis by enthusiastically running offscreen, shouting, “Gonna go grab some Camus!”