The Good Place
Let’s take a moment to appreciate how great D’Arcy Carden has been on The Good Place. Early in season one, the show’s writers didn’t seem entirely sure how to use the supercharged Siri that is Janet, trying out different personalities before episode seven’s “The Eternal Shriek” (the one where Eleanor and Chidi “murder” Janet) cemented the character’s default mode of cheerfully perplexed. In season two, Janet’s humanity has become more sophisticated thanks to multiple reboots, and in the process, Carden’s performance has become more subtly real and less robotic. She’s recognizably the same character — and every bit as hilarious — but with a wider range of expression.
The distinction is clear in this week’s terrific “Janet and Michael,” which flashes back to when Michael stole Janet from an unguarded neutral zone where the all-powerful neighborhood assistants are manufactured and stored. In the scenes set in the past, Janet is more of a blank, like she was when we first met her in the show’s first episode. When Michael swipes her, she greets him with a blandly peppy, “Would you like to get started?” — adopting the same tone that an app uses right after installation — and tacks on a probably contractually obligated mention that she’s “brought to you by the makers of light, darkness, and everything.”
In the present-day scenes, though, Janet’s pleasant demeanor and friendly voice are shaded by something that almost sounds like anxiety — and even a sense of her own mortality. As expected, Janet’s “glitches” in last week’s “The Trolley Problem” are due to her emotional attachment to Jason, and her inability to express any happiness for his relationship with Tahani without dangerous consequences. It’s not in her programming to lie, and whenever she does she suffers side effects like copiously vomiting pennies, causing a giant party sub to fall from the sky, and shaking the very foundations of the Neighborhood itself. (“Fun fact!” she enthuses, “Mathematically, it’s equally likely to either im- or explode!”)
Like a lot of the recent Good Places, “Janet and Michael” suffers a little from what seems to be budget-consciousness on the part of the show’s creators. The cost of the elaborate sets, costumes, and special effects in this season’s first three chapters may explain why lately we’re getting episodes that take place in just a few rooms with just a few characters, with maybe one short, splashy sequence to break up the monotony.
Last week, the “trolley problem” itself was the big-money interlude. This week front-loads the fantasy elements with Michael’s original Janet heist. The other special-effects-heavy moments are sprinkled lightly through a sequence wherein she pulls out her manual (through her nostril) for a systems check. Of course, there are still some amusingly whimsical images, like when Michael uses a random object generator to see if Janet can conjure up an ostrich steak impaled on an oversize novelty pencil, or when he shines a light in her right ear and a rainbow flows out of her left ear.
But really, who needs eye-popping imagery when you have Carden? This episode’s core is a surprisingly poignant scene where Janet tries to convince Michael that logically, the only thing he can do is to hold down her nose, insert a paper clip behind her ear, and begin the self-destruct sequence that will cause her to be crushed down to an object the size of a marble — which can then be either jettisoned or consumed as a healthy snack. (“I’m very high in potassium, like a banana!” Janet chirps.)
Carden has never been better on The Good Place than she is in the moments when Janet swings from eagerly urging Michael to kill her and nervously blurting out phrases like, “Ohhh, nuts!” and “Adios, Janeto!” Her basic adorability sets up this chapter’s big payoff, when Michael admits he can’t destroy her. “The reason is … friends,” he says, surprising even himself with how much he legitimately cares about another being.
In the larger scheme of season two, this moment may probe pivotal, since it means that Chidi’s ethics lessons actually stand a chance of taking hold with Michael. In the short-term, it also matters because Michael convinces Janet to seek advice from Eleanor, who in turn suggests that she cut loose and “get it, girl.”
“I’ll get everything, just to be safe,” Janet decides. “Everything” in this case includes Derek (played by Jason Mantzoukas), the dim-witted new boyfriend that she creates out of nothingness. Given that next week’s episode is called “Derek,” it looks like we’re about going to get another half hour of bonkers Janet business. D’Arcy Carden fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the Neighborhood
• Not only do the human characters barely appear in this episode, but The Good Place’s top-line star Kristen Bell only gets that one scene, wherein Eleanor urges Janet to get over Jason by going full dirtbag: dying her hair, listening to some No Doubt, and ingesting some powerful magnets (which is the Janet equivalent of getting wasted).
• Poor Chidi, meanwhile, is (literally) stuck on the receiving end of Vicki’s bright idea for a sly new torture: “Needles.”
• As for Jason and Tahani, they spend this week waiting for Janet to be well enough to conjure them up some jalapeño poppers. (Also, when a stunned Michael asks if those two are sleeping together, Jason sheepishly admits, “Only after we have sex.”)
• As someone obsessed by Michael’s earlier fascination with human behavior — which I’m still not entirely convinced was just an act — I was happy to see the return of the big bowl of paper clips in his office.
• Before littering his first version of the Neighborhood with frozen-yogurt shops, Michael considered feeding his human subjects pudding, at restaurants with names like “Custard’s Last Flan.” It is Janet who helpfully suggests fro-yo as something that humans would find both enticing and disappointing. When he takes his first bite of the stuff, Michael realizes, “It’s just … okay. Which means it’s perfect!”