The Good Place
Writing for The Good Place must be like doing a fun little puzzle, every week. You’ve been gifted with a premise that allows you to put pretty much anything you like into the story — within budgetary, casting, and special-effects limitations. Yet solving every thorny plot problem with “Michael and Janet used their magic powers” would get old, fast. So the writers have to keep imposing artificial restrictions on what the characters can and can’t do, because even Superman stories need Kryptonite.
Here’s the problem the two-part Good Place season three premiere “Everything Is Bonzer!” has to solve: Michael and Gen the Judge sent our favorite human foursome back to their old lives at the end of last year’s finale, but after brief attempts at becoming better people, they all backslid … and now they’re scattered across the world, thousands of miles away from the folks who in the past have helped them become their best selves.
If he wanted to, the show’s creator Michael Schur could’ve spent the first weeks or even months of this season following Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in their adventures on Earth. Or if he’d wanted to, he could’ve granted Michael (the character) the power to snap a finger and reset Earthly reality with his human guinea pigs all in the same place.
Instead, Schur (along with the premiere’s co-writer Jen Statsky and director Dean Holland, both Parks and Recreation veterans) uses the tricks of televisual storytelling to speedily get the characters where he needs them to be, while still introducing enough obstacles and complications to keep the narrative lively. By the end of these two opening episodes, Eleanor and her friends have all made it to Australia, to begin working together on self-improvement. But the arrangement comes at a cost.
Michael is the one constant through the two halves of “Everything Is Bonzer!” He’s not supposed to put his thumb on the scales in his little experiment with Gen, but since she’s too busy binge-watching Mark Harmon TV shows, he’s able to keep lying and bribing his way past the celestial Doorman (played with amusing indifference by Mike O’Malley), plying him cups of warm antimatter and tchotchkes featuring pictures of frogs. (“I’m a frog guy,” the Doorman shrugs.) Michael has been warned that he won’t have any powers on Earth, so he has to rely on ingenuity and improv — and a series of truly terrible accents — as he visits each of the humans by turn, posing as “Gordon Indigo,” “Professor Charles Brainman,” and “Zack Pizazz,” while urging them to sharpen up.
Forcing Michael to slog his way through getting the gang back together serves two purposes. First off, it shores up what’s been one of the most consistent aspects of the demon’s personality: his weird affection for human mundanity. Spending more time among us means that he can marvel at our fast-food establishments that are “at once a Pizza Hut and a Taco Bell,” and he can get giddy that “I put a coin in a thing and got a gumball.” (“I didn’t even think to chew it … Missed opportunity.”)
But the longer it takes Michael to herd these sheep, the more he risks being detected by Shawn, who’s been stewing over just how badly he got bamboozled at the end of season two. He’s now cocooning his fellow demons left and right, and forcing everyone to listen to “something deeply terrible” — Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” — for inspiration.
But just because Michael has to spend months coaxing everyone to the Land of Oz though doesn’t mean that Michael Schur has to put all of that onto the screen. “Everything Is Bonzer!” operates with efficiency. Last spring’s finale explained what Eleanor did after her second chance, and how she ultimately ended up in Australia, in Chidi’s office. Part one of the premiere quickly catches us up on how Chidi’s “take two” has been going.
In short: He briefly became confident enough in himself to start choosing his own breakfast muffin, until he heard that blueberry harvesting is cruel, after which he went right back to a life of indecision. He also met a lady! A nice neurosurgeon named Dr. Simone Garnett, who bluntly says to him, “Everyone hates moral philosophy professors … No offense,” to which he replies, “None taken … We suck.”
Part two of “Everything Is Bonzer!” brings us up to speed on Tahani and Jason. Tahani at first abandoned celebrity culture to pursue a life of asceticism, until getting lured back to the dark side by the Vice-like “Squalor News” (and their docuseries Society Is Effed), which led to her best-selling book Get Out of the Spotlight, with blurbs from Malcolm Gladwell and Cormac McCarthy (the latter of whom just writes, “Ditto”).
Jason, meanwhile, is inspired by his near-death experience to gather the members of Dance Dance Resolution at the Carmen Electra Auditorium in Jacksonville’s Smith & Wesson Performing Arts Center & ATV Repair Shop, to prepare a competitive dance routine based on that time he almost suffocated inside a bank safe.
Part two reveals both the advantages and disadvantages of The Good Place’s compressed storytelling. Tahani’s story line has some funny moments, mostly related to her name-dropping. (For example, she gives all her possessions to “Good Will,” which is her name for Prince William.) But for the most part, it’s exactly the right length.
But I could’ve watched a full episode’s worth of Jason Mendoza absurdity. He was once interviewed on the news for finding a foot on the beach! He once did a wheelie on a dirt bike through an entire Waffle House! He demands that his ridiculously oversize crew “eat, breathe, and vape dance!” His dancers insist that if anyone leaves their ranks, “We can legally rob their houses!” I wouldn’t want The Good Place to be all Jason, all the time, but the show’s writers obviously have a lot of fun ripping on the Jacksonville lifestyle.
In between all the backtracking, these episodes move into some new directions — and not just toward bringing everyone together again. When Eleanor starts hanging out with Chidi, she can tell right away that he has a crush on Simone, and she starts conspiring with the prof to get Chidi to make a move. (“I was practicing virtue ethics while helping the two of you bone down!”)
None of this is according to Michael’s plan. He thinks Chidi and Eleanor need to be romantic partners for the ol’ “being a good person” magic to happen. But Janet can see how good Chidi and Simone are together, and what a positive force Eleanor is when she’s trying to help them.
The problem is that Simone’s not the only new addition to the group. At the end of the premiere’s second part, just when Simone and Chidi are about to start their scientific study of Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason’s brains, someone else joins the party: Trevor, from the Bad Place, presumably sent by Shawn to be a disruption.
So there you go: Trevor’s the Kryptonite in this Superman story. And not the green kind, but the red — the radioactive rock who’s about to make everything go absolutely bonkers.
• New year, new premise, new name for the notes section of these Good Place reviews. I’ll keep this one for as long as our gang’s in Australia … and in homage to the name of Chidi’s favorite muffin stand, “We Crumb From a Land Down Under.”
• One major bummer with “Everything Is Bonzer!” is the relative lack of Janet, who’s stuck back at the office while Michael’s on Earth. But she does get a few memorable lines like, “How’s Jason, is he still cute?” and (referring to Mark Harmon), “He’s very sexy in Stealing Home, according to the private thoughts of more than 7 million Caucasian women.” Her best line? Saying of Chidi and Simone’s potential children that, “One of them is hot enough to be on The Bachelor, and smart enough not to go The Bachelor.”
• On some genre shows, the main character’s the least interesting. (See: Walking Dead, The.) Not so The Good Place, which has one of the best supporting casts on TV, but also has a legit MVP in the lead. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed Kristen Bell as Eleanor, until I heard her describe herself as “a trashbag” and a “hot rando” from Arizona (where “the biggest exports are racist sheriffs and HPV”), who got 12 out of 12 on a quiz about all the slang words the Kardashians invented … but only because, “I did cheat.” From thinking Aristotle is pronounced like “chipotle” to encouraging her friends to have sexy daydreams — “Do you not do that? You can do it for free!” — there’s no one quite like Eleanor Shellstrop.