overnights

The Good Place Recap: The Butterfly Shrimp Effect

The Good Place

The Brainy Bunch
Season 3 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****

The Good Place

The Brainy Bunch
Season 3 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: NBC/Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The Good Place isn’t what anyone would call a hit show; but it has seeped into the popular consciousness, if only because the premise provides such a useful shorthand for describing our shared sense of where we are as a culture. Eleanor’s repeated eureka moment — “This is the Bad Place!” — says so much about the sublime absurdity of life in 2018, where the world looks more or less like the one we’ve always known, and yet something still feels deeply wrong.

Just ask Gen the Judge. Her fiery rant at the end of this week’s episode, “The Brainy Bunch” — a speech so funny that I had to rewind it three times, because my viewing companions were laughing too loud — doubles as a kind of State of Reality address. She blasts Michael and Janet for interfering with life on Earth, and points to all the ripple effects their tweaks are already having. Great Britain left the European Union. Hugh Jackman starred in a hit movie musical about P.T. Barnum. Blake Bortles led the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game. Everything’s off.

“The Brainy Bunch” is a fine example of a “season three” sitcom episode. The great TV comedies (and The Good Place is definitely one) find their voice early in season one, deepen it in season two, and then by season three the writers, directors, and cast usually have enough command of the material that they can just pull back and let fly, week after week, confident they’re going to hit the target.

There’s nothing unusual or experimental about “The Brainy Bunch.” It’s just very, very funny — a joy to watch from start to finish. What makes it especially delightful is that it’s fully staffed. Every main character appears, often in the same space, pinging off each other.

They’re drawn together by Trevor, that “diabolical, sadistic agent of evil.” Shawn, having figured out Michael’s latest gambit, decides that rather than snitching to Gen, he’ll send Trevor in to wreck everything, with his wicked combination of obnoxious self-confidence and subtle irritants.

Michael, working through Chidi and Simone, hopes that if Chidi gives ethics lessons to Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason, and if Simone scans their brains while reminding them all they almost died, then somewhere along the way, all four of Michael’s humans will become genuinely good, and pass on to the real Good Place when they die (again). But then Trevor joins the group, all smiles and homemade lemon bars: the kind of guy everyone’s supposed to like, but no one really wants to be around. His mission is to made Chidi’s group more unpleasant, by getting under Eleanor’s skin, by making Chidi doubt whether he should be fraternizing with his subjects, and by pushing Tahani and Jason together.

Michael tries to mitigate the Trevor situation, but can only do so much, given that the humans already know him under different guises. So he stalks the halls of Chidi’s university in a trenchcoat, fruitlessly trying to insult the interloper into retreating. He also tries to steer Chidi back to Eleanor, by adopting his librarian persona (complete with an accent that has evolved from Bad Australian to Bad Michael Caine) and sharing what he calls a librarian’s unique wisdom: There’s only room for one male subject in an academic study. “I’ve been in every situation,” he insists. “Because I’m a librarian.”

The most wonderful surprise in this episode is that Michael is joined on Earth by Janet, who shows up unexpectedly as a waitress when Trevor invites the study group out for drinks. Like Michael, Janet has no powers in our mortal sphere. She can’t even summon a Jet Ski or a giraffe on command, let alone a tray of draft beers. And she’s not handling this as well as her former boss. She complains that humans spend too much of their lives waiting on things, and she doesn’t know how to hurt Trevor. (“I guess I could kick him with my soft feet?” she grumbles.)

Ultimately, the decision of what to do about Trevor is taken out of Michael and Janet’s hands (or whatever a reformed demon and a humanoid super-computer have at the end of their arms). In the biggest shocker in “The Brainy Bunch,” an inter-dimensional portal opens up while Michael, Janet, and Trevor are arguing, and out pops the Doorman, to announce that Gen needs to see them all. That’s when Gen launches into her diatribe, and angrily flings Trevor into an eternal void. Fortunately for Michael, everything Janet tried to conjure on Earth suddenly arrives when she’s back in the great beyond, effectively blocking the Judge and allowing them enough time to escape.

All of this business with The Good Place’s immortal characters is pretty hilarious. (A running “Hey, Dick Tracy called …” joke never fails to kill, though it’s almost impossible to replicate in print, given how much it relies on Ted Danson’s inflections.) But while Michael and Janet’s emerging humanity is a major part of what this show is about, the real focus remains on these four messed-up humans.

The bad news is that this particular foursome prove to be easy pickings for Trevor, who succeeds in driving Eleanor out of the circle, and in getting everyone else so hammered at happy hour that the next day they’re filled with regrets. Tahani’s so embarrassed at calling Jason “pretty” that she hands out formal apologies — and then apologizes for the apologies, because she failed to find “a proper calligrapher.” And Chidi’s so foggy in the morning that all he can write on the chalkboard under “HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY” is “PALTO.”

But here’s the good news: It’s reassuring to know that even an “Arizona trash bag” like Eleanor can tell something’s not right about Trevor, starting with the way he condescendingly chastises her for not responding to his “dank memes.”

And then there’s this: When the gang goes out boozing, Trevor suggests they hit the Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet, an “America”-themed joint that uses guns as pagers, serves enormous platters of fried meat, and offers a “Manifest Destiny” package that allows diners to forcibly remove other customers from any table. The eatery’s a bottomless source of visual gags for this episode. It’s also, tellingly, an extension of the restaurant jokes from seasons one and two.

In other words: Who needs the Bad Place to push mediocre frozen yogurt and bug-infested chowder-fountains on us? Even on Earth, that kind of Bad is ever-present. When we’re able to recognize it, and call it what it is? That’s oddly inspiring.

Down Under

• Ah, the Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet. What do I love more about you: your Mount Rushmore poster with pictures of David Hasselhoff, Paris Hilton, Judge Judy, and Hulk Hogan, or your recipe for a “Fourth of July” cocktail that contains half an apple pie, blended with Coca-Cola and Southern Comfort, served in a Chevy hubcap?

• At the end of Gen’s big speech, she adds, “Because of you, Byron Allen owns the Weather Channel now!,” to which Michael meekly asks, “Is that bad?” Gen yells back, “I don’t know, but it’s weird, man!” That’s how messed-up everything is. Sometimes things feel askew and we’re not even sure why.

• Good to see Eleanor and Tahani bonding again in their special way, by comparing brassieres. Tahani’s is spun from a thin, pure gold. Eleanor’s sports bra, meanwhile, has rust-colored stains around the armpits.

• Jason assumes that if he brings a spider with him into the MRI machine, and Simone cranks up the radiation … Boom, Spider-Jason! It’s not a bad theory. After all, the spider already bit him several times and, “He gave me the power to swell up my hand.”

• The title of this episode comes from the matching shirts Trevor forces on everyone, which have the group’s pictures on the front and this text on the back: “I Went to Australia and All I Got Was This Cross-Disciplinary Academic Study and a Ton of New Best Friends!” (Plus … it’s a sweatshirt! The most stifling of novelty shirts. This is the Bad Place!)

The Good Place Recap: The Butterfly Shrimp Effect