It’s a special moment whenever a TV series’ writers realize the potential chemistry in a character-pairing that they hadn’t really considered before. Just look at the new season of Stranger Things, where matching the cocky stud Steve with the even-cockier nerd Dustin for several episodes down the home stretch pays off in comedy gold. Or more on-topic, consider the second half of The Good Place’s first season, where the romance of Jason and Janet injected some inspired weirdness.
Of course, it’s possible to run a good thing into the ground. There are inklings in this week’s Good Place, “Derek,” that the show has just about exhausted the comic potential of its latest odd couple, Jason and Tahani. For the third week in a row, the couple are essentially isolated from the rest of the cast, off in their own story line. And frankly, the well’s running a little dry on their side of the Neighborhood.
These two still have their share of laugh-out-loud lines. Jameela Jamil brings her usual crack comic timing to the Hartfordshire Academy for Expressionless Girls’ former prize student Tahani, as she tentatively embraces her new life with “a swamp-dweller who once asked me if the presidents on Mount Rushmore have butts on the other side.” And Manny Jacinto is still charmingly guileless as Lynyrd Skynyrd High School grad Jason, who’s excited to be spending time with “basically like a hot genius teacher who sometimes has sex with me.”
But a certain amount of repetition is setting in. Each week so far, a semi-appalled Tahani participates in some Jason-approved activity — like watching the “horror film” Home Alone — while he tells quirky stories about his life in Jacksonville. That’s all the writers have really come up with for these two to do.
Compare that to Janet and her new boyfriend Derek, who over the course of this episode go from doting on each other to screaming at each other, before reaching a mature understanding that their time together has come to an end. Their scenes together in “Derek” are like the multitude of Neighborhoods in this season’s “Dance Dance Resolution,” and D’Arcy Carden and Jason Mantzoukas make the most of the opportunity to play everything from goofily romantic to sincerely distraught. Carden in particular makes Janet sound far more human than artificial, explaining that she’s upset about not knowing how to handle heartbreak because, as she says, “The whole point of me is that I know everything.” (Next to Michael’s “because … friends” last week, this line may be the most moving in The Good Place’s short history.)
“Derek” is the midseason finale, and as such does a lot to restore the status quo in some areas of this season’s story line, while pushing other parts forward. Jason and Tahani almost get married, but the wedding gets interrupted. Janet comes to terms with Jason’s new relationship and boxes up Derek, packing him away in a dark corner of her eternal void. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael makes great strides on his path toward becoming more human, while Eleanor finally confesses to Chidi that the two of them were lovers in one of Michael’s earlier Neighborhood reboots.
Despite the title, the bulk of this episode is really about Michael, who finds himself in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of trying to solve Janet’s Derek problem without resorting to murder — something that Chidi assures him is “frowned upon” by ethical philosophers. Michael tries to work within what he learns from his professor is “the doctrine of double effect,” wherein he can cause something horrible to happen to another person (i.e., Derek) only if he’s genuinely trying to do something good. And that doesn’t mean he can perform the noble act while winking, either. “You should not be winking,” Chidi stresses. “Or saying the word ‘wink.’”
Compared to the relative stasis of the “Jasani” story line, a lot happens with their neighbors and with Michael. All the chatter about honesty and ethics coaxes Eleanor into showing Chidi the Cannonball Run II tape of the two of them sharing a moment of postcoital bonding at Mindy St. Claire’s house, so that they can start talking through why those other versions of themselves might’ve said “I love you” to each other. (“I get why you said it,” Eleanor shrugs. “I’m a total smoke-show.”)
But given that so much of this season has been about Michael’s crises and his personal journey, it’s apt that the half-season ends with him and Eleanor “shooting the shirt” about their mutual struggle to be better. These two are this show’s original and perhaps most important pairing. Now they’ve become like AA sponsors for each other, as they slowly learn that it’s not easy not being mean.
• At the start of this season, creator Michael Schur and his writers seemed to be using their “perpetual reboot” plot to comment on the process of making television. That subtheme crept back in tonight with Michael’s comment to Janet that, “You can’t just go around inventing people!” That’s always a temptation for serialized TV, to throw another character into the mix to solve a narrative problem. “Derek” demonstrates how this doesn’t always work.
• I don’t want to sound too down on Jasani as a comic device, because again, these two actors are very funny together. Jameela Jamil shows fine comedic range, whether Tahani is praising croquet for combining the classic aspects of British sport — “whimsy and restraint” — or she’s following her partner’s carefree lead by walloping a ball and shouting, “The Jaguars are very good!”
• Speaking of Good Place pairings, Eleanor and Janet have their own fun dynamic, built around the latter’s computer-brain knowledge of nearly everything and the former’s lizard-brain attraction to anything pretty. The natures of these two women (cue Janet: “not a woman”) connect this week when the all-powerful Neighborhood helper offers to make Eleanor her own boyfriend. “Based on your last 10,000 comments, it would be Stone Cold Steve Austin’s head on Tahani’s body,” Janet says. “Or vice versa!” Eleanor suggests.
• Not a lot of visual wackiness in “Derek,” but there’s one gag pulled straight from Looney Tunes, when Janet’s makeshift man glitches while thinking about her ex-husband, and he holds up a little sign: HELP I CAN’T STOP SAYING “JASON.”
• After several weeks of focusing on the interpersonal connections between humans, demons, and Janets, The Good Place gets back to the main plot at the end of this midseason finale. In a cliff-hanger stinger, Shawn shows up at Michael’s office, and in his best Mad Men boss voice, grimly says. “Shut the door. Have a seat.” To be continued …