After two weeks of accelerated plotting and clever alternate realities, The Good Place settles down and scales back this week. Aside from a brief flashback, nearly the entirety of “Team Cockroach” takes place in a single location, in something close to real time. But while the ambition level is lower, the show hasn’t abandoned the meta approach that’s defined this second season so far — where “the Neighborhood” and its inhabitants have been functioning like the creators of a struggling TV show, fighting to stay on the air. Michael even makes a comment about the pressure he’s under to sell his new plan to Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani. “Vicki thinks she can run this Neighborhood better than I can,” he gripes. “And she wants to start her version in 30 minutes.”
I confess to being disappointed in The Good Place’s relative return to normalcy, but only mildly. Even at its most routine, this show can crank out a snappy half-hour of comedy. The main problem with this latest chapter is that there’s nothing especially surprising about it. Going back the end of season one, showrunner Michael Schur and his writers have been in the habit of delivering one fun twist after another.
Most of “Team Cockroach” just asks one question, the answer to which we all should’ve been able to assume: Will Eleanor and her fellow humans agree to team up with Michael to fool Shawn and subvert Vicki? Well … sure. If they didn’t, this season’s main plot-arc would remain stuck on the “perpetual reboot” of last week’s “Dance Dance Resolution” (which was super-fun, but couldn’t sustain several more months of episodes).
We do though get a few more details about what Michael has in mind. He says he’ll stop wiping the humans’ memories, and that they’ll get to enjoy the benefits of their fake paradise in private while pretending they’re being tortured in public. Then, when the time is right, he’ll find a way to get them into the real Good Place. In the meantime, they can all keep studying ethics and moral philosophy with Chidi. Eleanor isn’t thrilled about being asked to “make a deal with an actual devil so that I can then do homework in secret,” and considers taking a train full of cocaine and escaping to Mindy’s Medium Place.
Of course, she eventually changes her mind. But while she’s wrestling with her decision, The Good Place digresses for what feels like a leftover flashback from season one, as Tahani finds out from Michael exactly how she died, and why she’s in the Bad Place. On Earth, Tahani was a hopelessly shallow and insecure person, who only performed good deeds for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, so that she could be like one of “the women or yachts” on the cover of International Sophisticate magazine. Eventually, her all-consuming envy of her pop-star sister Kamilah led her to weasel her way into Kamilah’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction party (“like some common weasel”), where she was crushed while trying to tear down an enormous golden statue of her sibling. Finally fully cognizant of her flaws, she urges her fellow condemned to work alongside Michael, to “try to build a better Tahani.”
Again, the Eleanor and Tahani storylines are fairly predictable, and nowhere near as inspired as this show has been lately. But that doesn’t mean they’re not funny. Heck, “Team Cockroach” is time well-spent just for all the good jokes at Jason’s expense. When told that Michael will let them do anything they want in their own homes, Jason immediately asks, “Can I play iPad?” When he says that he always trusts dudes in bow ties, Eleanor slaps the lollipop out of his mouth. Confused about the extent of Michael’s powers, he begins to ask a dozen or so questions about the future of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And when Eleanor sums up herself and her cohorts as “an Arizona dirtbag, a human turtleneck, a narcissistic monster, and literally the dumbest person I’ve ever met,” Jason responds, “And who am I? Describe me now!”
Although I was left wanting more, there is a twist of sorts in “Team Cockroach.” As her condition for playing along with Michael’s scheme, Eleanor demands that he also join Chidi’s “good person” class. So while this episode is mostly about closing out old business and restoring order, it does plant seeds for some potentially fruitful material in the weeks to come. For example, one aspect of Michael’s season one persona that hasn’t been properly addressed since last year’s big switcheroo is his love for all things human — like paperclips, suspenders, and Western hemisphere brunch banter. Was that all an act? Or did he redesign the Bad Place’s torture methods because he’s always secretly wanted to spend time with us, the foul-smelling beasts of the universe with our dumb habits and “hanging bits?” As he learns what it means to be a decent guy, perhaps we’ll learn more about what it means to be Michael.
• The fake reboot at the end of the episode installs Vicki as the sash-wearing Neighborhood MVP (who takes every opportunity to sing in public), and returns the food theme to frozen yogurt. So, sad to say, we’ll never get to visit interactive soup restaurants like Pump Up the Clam (where they had a chowder fountain) and A Little Bit Chowder Now (where they had a lazy river).
• There’s a slightly different comic dynamic between Eleanor and Tahani this season, with the former more openly — and hilariously — hostile to the latter’s humble-bragging. During one name-dropping story, Eleanor glares at Tahani and hisses, “Stop talking. Do not talk again for a hundred hours.” Later in that same scene, Tahani chimes in again and Eleanor snaps, “I’m sorry, has it been a hundred hours?”
• A casual aside that may prove to be important: Janet mentions that every time she reboots, it increases her social awareness, which means that she “might be the most advanced Janet in the universe.” Something tells me that line was thrown in for a reason, and that by the end of the season we’ll find out why. (In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy Janet’s cheerful corrections, like when Eleanor boasts that the Bad Place is about to be outsmarted by “a cowardly traitor, four dum-dums, and a robot,” and she pipes up with, “Not a robot!”)