The Good Place creator Michael Schur has often cited Lost as one of his primary inspirations, which means he’s probably more than aware of how loudly that show’s fans would grumble whenever an episode failed to answer any questions or move the plot forward. I was covering Lost back then, and tended to side more with the head writer-producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who kept insisting they were making more of a character-driven drama than a white-knuckle adventure. Still, I understood the complaints. Whenever a series known for big twists spends a whole chapter just hanging out, it runs the risk of having regular viewers snap, “Well, that was a waste of time.”
I have no such qualms about this week’s The Good Place, even though one could argue that nothing of consequence really “happens,” per se. At some point, years from now, when we consider this show’s whole story arc, I suspect we’ll remember “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” for exactly two plot points: finding out that Donkey Doug is Jason’s dad; and Chidi breaking up with Simone. But I hope we’ll also remember this as one of the funniest episodes of the series. Because boy is it ever.
“The Ballad of Donkey Doug” slays from start to finish. It does something unusual for this show: separating the characters into two groups, not just with separate story lines, but in different locations, thousands of miles apart. Back in Sydney, Eleanor, Chidi, and Janet work to wrap up the last of their business at St. John’s; while in Jacksonville, Jason, Tahani, and Michael begin the first of the Soul Squad’s missions, trying to “save” Donkey Doug.
As I mentioned in my write-up of the season premiere, it’d probably be exhausting if the entirety of The Good Place were nothing but rips on Florida. But wouldn’t you kinda like to see the writers give it a shot? Just about every Jacksonville gag in this episode works, from the gang’s arrival at Randy “Macho Man” Savage International Airport (where they’re picked up by the monster truck “Cabz” company) to their first look at Donkey Doug’s apartment, where Tahani notes, “There’s an awful lot of dog hair on the furniture, and I have not seen a dog.”
The plan is simple(ish). Get Jason’s dad off the grift by setting him up in the electrician business that he’s actually trained for. The problem? Jason’s bud Pillboi has already won over Donkey Doug with a much more exciting “legit” money-making scheme (“and this time it’s not fake meth”). He’s invented a combination energy drink and body spray. “Sharks,” he pitches, “how much do you spend on energy drinks and body spray in one week? Three hundred dollars? Ten hundred dollars?”
Just when Michael’s shrugging his shoulders and suggesting to Jason and Tahani that maybe this is the way Donkey Doug goes straight — by manufacturing and distributing “24-Hour Lemon Musk Extreme” — Pillboi notes that their plan will necessitate robbing a factory. Well, actually three factories: for the energy drink, for the body spray, and for the bottles.
So Jason makes a tough decision. Realizing that his dad’s a hopeless case, but that Pillboi’s soul is still salvageable, he lets Michael and Tahani pretend to be “secret astronaut spies,” to persuade his friend to focus his energies more on his day job at the nursing home. Meanwhile, Jason accompanies Donkey Doug on the heist, which gets broken up by the cops — prompting his dad to nobly sacrifice himself, shouting, “Bortles!” before leading the police away from his son.
Part of what makes The Good Place’s Jacksonville jokes so funny is that while Jason and his friends and family are amoral doofuses, they’re also legitimately sweet. Sure, Donkey Doug was banned from Disney World for biting Buzz Lightyear, because he thought he was somebody else (“Who?” puzzles Tahani); and sure, he answers the door to his place clutching an oversize novelty fist/bong, then tells Michael that if he’s a cop he has to say so, and that he has to ignore everything he saw up until then. But he’s also genuinely happy to see his son, greeting him with the most touching Florida hello: “Aw, damn!”
All the dopey, slapsticky stuff in “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” is even better because it’s set against the other half of the episode, which is equally tight and gag-filled, but with a different approach.
Chidi’s stressing out about the Simone situation, because he’s too ethical to lie to her, but also can’t spill the beans about the Good and Bad Places, lest he permanently consign her to the Bad. So Janet builds a virtual-reality simulator that allows him to practice different breakup scenarios, resetting each with the snap of a finger. Thus we get another of those classic Good Place comedy montages, shuffling through multiple variations on the same scene, all connected with a soothing transitional saxophone solo (added to the program by Janet).
It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from the rapid-fire barrage of breakups. It’s probably a toss-up between Chidi adopting Michael’s alias of “Special Agent Rick Justice, FBI,” and him trying to distract Simone with a puppy. Even the real version of the breakup — where Chidi gets flustered at the restaurant by constant interruptions from the servers, and just blurts out, “Ya dumped!” — is comic gold.
Eleanor doesn’t have much to do this episode, besides sit back and enjoy Chidi’s torment. She suggests he just ghost Simone, or say he’s bisexual. (“More guys should be bi. It’s 2018! It’s like: Get over yourselves.”) She makes fun of how badly he botches the simulations, and tries one out herself, which ends with her almost making out with Simone.
At the end of the half-hour, when the whole sextet is back together, Eleanor finds out that her mother faked her own death, setting up what should be an interesting reunion in next week’s The Good Place. As for Simone, she finally accepts Chidi’s weird, vague reasons for splitting, and says good-bye with, “See you in the next life,” a very Lost-y phrase.
I doubt we’ve seen the last of Simone. She represents a real sacrifice on Chidi’s part: a choice, of the kind he’s usually terrible at making. Spending half an episode on the end of this relationship may end up being exactly what’s needed to give Simone’s eventual reappearance into the narrative more weight, should it happen.
But even if we never see Simone again, she was a good addition to the cast: pleasant company, and someone who played well with the others. And was she funny? Aw, damn.
• The Good Place has been cheating a bit by giving earthbound Janet so much stored knowledge. Anyone who can rig a VR device so advanced that it can conjure up realistic images of “Jason in a steam room in an old-timey strongman onesie” is practically a superhero. The main difference in the non-afterlife Janet is that she can’t instantly conjure anything — not even herself, which is why she now enters and leaves rooms while self-consciously muttering, “Bing.”
• Eleanor uses Janet’s gifts to find out which of her high-school classmates found her intimidating (all of them) and which of her exes have never gotten over her (ditto).
• If you like last week’s “Drinking Nemo” pub, you’ll love this week’s Australian eatery, the “French Pressing Nemo Cafe.”
• By the way, we’re leaving Australia now, so this section will have to get a new name next week. What’ll it be? Watch this space.