Because of The Good Place’s twisty, overlapping timelines — all “Jeremy Bearimy,” as Michael put it — it’s easy to forget that in the show’s current reality, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason don’t know as much as we do about what they’ve all been through. As far as they’re concerned, they were terrible human beings who nearly died, then made a stab at being better people, then failed again, then were pushed together by the mysterious Michael, before learning from him and Janet that no matter what they do, they’re destined to spend eternity in the Bad Place. As of right now, these four humans can’t recall the many, many times they’ve already tried to compensate for their garbage pasts.
Most of the time, The Good Place’s seemingly infinite series of blank slates gives the show the crackle of possibility — every time a new episode begins, anything can happen. This week’s “A Fractured Inheritance” is a rare case in that Eleanor and company’s baby-stepping toward ethical awakening feels too much like circling back over ground that’s already well-trod.
To be fair, both of this episode’s missions are entirely new, both to the characters and to us. In Tarantula Springs, Nevada, Michael helps Eleanor reconnect with her long-lost mother, Donna, who isn’t dead, but has instead been hiding out under Eleanor’s favorite alias, Diana Tremaine. Meanwhile, in a Budapest art museum, Janet, Jason, and Chidi stand by helplessly as Tahani nearly botches her long overdue reconciliation with her sister, Kamilah.
These fixes to Eleanor and Tahani’s relationships would’ve been impossible during the hundreds of years both these women spent in the afterlife. Yet while both storylines this week have some funny moments — and surprisingly sentimental payoffs — neither hits the comic highs of last week’s simultaneous trips to Jason’s Jacksonville and Chidi’s breakup purgatory.
The problem with the European half of “A Fractured Inheritance” may be that Jason, Chidi, and even Janet are effectively sidelined, as Tahani repeatedly tries to get Kamilah to accept her apology for a lifetime of bad sisterhood. Jason has fun pointing out which of the museum’s paintings symbolize women’s breasts (and how they “come in all shapes and sizes and distances apart”), while Janet enjoys impressing Jason with her encyclopedic knowledge of how much all the art is worth. But for the most part this The Al-Jamil Show, heavy on jokes about the younger sibling’s Marina Abramović-esque conceptual art.
As part of Kamilah’s exhibition, Tahani has to join the throng queuing up at an omelet station — prompting her to grumble, “I have never waited in any kind of formation before, let alone a line.” And when Chidi tries to intervene in the Al-Jamils’ family spat, Kamilah turns him away by looking deep into his eyes and saying the words he most longs to hear: “All of your fears are now mine.” (Don’t worry: Chidi gets his fears back.) The episode satirizes the pretensions and hero-worship of the art world, in ways that are disappointingly pat and mild, compared to the inspired lunacy of, say, the Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet.
The Budapest scenes, though, do come to a sweet end. Tahani almost gets arrested for smashing up the installation with a hatchet, but then looks closely at one of Kamilah’s paintings and has a revelation: All of her sister’s work is really about how their parents conspired to pit the girls against each other, creating a rivalry that’s made them both miserable. She gives Kamilah a sincere hug, which is reciprocated. It’s genuinely moving.
Also unexpectedly poignant? Eleanor’s gradual understanding of why her mother’s new life in Nevada makes her so mad. She finds Donna living with a likably dorky single dad and architect (!) named Dave, played by the always great Andy Daly. While Eleanor initially assumes her mom’s running a scam, it turns out that, no, “Diana Tremaine” actually likes PTA meetings and yoga with the gals … and, most annoyingly, enjoys raising a young daughter. If her mother was capable of change all along, that just means that Eleanor wasn’t worth the effort — or so she thinks.
The Tarantula Springs material is the best source of comedy in “A Fractured Inheritance.” Donna Shellstrop herself is a very funny character, both in the reminiscences about her past exploits (she once bid $30,000 on a date with Gene Simmons, outbidding the loser by $29,800! She claimed to have died by getting trampled while bending down to adjust her toe ring at a Rascal Flatts concert! Her favorite drink is a “7 & 7 & 7,” which is seven shots of Seagram’s 7 consumed in 7 minutes!) and in her current genial befuddlement at the classiness of her boyfriend Dave, whose napkins are “made out of, like, shirt material.” (“Cloth,” Michael clarifies.)
Even with those good Donna Shellstrop punchlines, though, this episode is lighter on laughs than any Good Place so far this season. It functions more as a low-key tear-jerker, taking its cues from Eleanor’s emotional words of forgiveness to Donna: “No, Mom … ya basic. And that’s okay.”
I had to see the slogan for the MGM Grand Elementary School — “Always bet on read!” — several times before the joke finally sunk in. Then I had to pause the show for a few seconds to compose myself.
Donna shares her daughter’s gift for describing the attractiveness of others in elaborate metaphors, as evidenced by her calling Michael a “stretched-out, sexy Alex Trebek.”
Eleanor hasn’t spent a lot of time around children — not even when she was a child. She’s utterly baffled by Dave’s 9-year-old daughter, who (according to Eleanor) is either a toddler who sleeps in a crib or is getting ready to take her SATs.
Michael tries something new with Eleanor, embracing his role as her father figure and sternly addressing her as “young lady” whenever he chastises her for being petulant. This, however, doesn’t stop her from casting a vote in the MGM Grand PTA election for “Bofa Deeznuts.” (“You’re not my real dad,” she snaps, when Michael objects.)
Second-funniest line-reading of this episode? I call it a tie between Ted Danson and Andy Daly, in the exchange between Michael and Dave, when the former says he met Eleanor when they “‘lived’ in the same ‘neighborhood,’” and the latter replies, “What a fun way to say a normal thing.”
The funniest line-reading? The prize goes to Danson, when Michael becomes embarrassed that he forgot to add bathrooms to his designs for Dave’s combination Subaru dealership-burlesque club, and quickly insists that he definitely uses human toilets. “Love to sit on … the thing, and just, y’know … shoot one out.”