The Good Place creator Michael Schur ended the show’s first season with one of TV’s all-time greatest twists, effectively resetting his story. He’s made a similar move with the endings of each subsequent season, though with a somewhat different approach. For the past two years, The Good Place’s big reset has happened before the very end. The humans returned to Earth toward the beginning of season two’s finale; and Michael’s Neighborhood experiment recommenced in last year’s penultimate episode. In both cases, the finale’s real climactic moment has been less about where our heroes have ended up, and more about the relationship between Eleanor Shellstrop and Chidi Anagonye.
Eleanor tracked Chidi down on Earth at the end of season two; and season three ended with him deciding to have his memory of their romance erased. Some Good Place fans — and more than a few TV critics — have been frustrated by how much the Eleanor-Chidi pairing has driven Schur’s storytelling. This kind of “Will they or won’t they?” sitcom plot can seem rather run-of-the-mill for a series otherwise grappling with grand philosophical issues.
Personally, though, I find the Eleanor and Chidi love story deeply moving, for two reasons. First off, The Good Place is in a lot of ways a show about making television: about collaboration, creative potential, and how human weaknesses demand compromise. Rooting the narrative in a Cheers-like on-again-off-again couple fits that motif. (Having Ted Danson hovering around in the background doesn’t hurt.)
Second, “Eleanor and Chidi” as a concept is about more than just two characters. It’s about how feeling bonded to other people — and, in some ways, responsible for them — often makes us better humans, but can also push us to make rash, selfish decisions. As I see it, what’s really at stake in The Good Place now, as season four premieres, isn’t whether Eleanor can get a mind-wiped Chidi to fall in love with her again, but whether working toward that goal will help her achieve the larger purpose of proving humans can be decent, given the right circumstances.
There’s still a lot of game left to play, but so far, our heroes’ strategy isn’t really working out — and Eleanor’s feelings for Chidi are partly to blame. In the episode titled “A Girl from Arizona (Part 1),” the girl in question discovers that running an entire Neighborhood can be pretty tough … especially if you’re a person who habitually cuts corners.
To be fair, Shawn and his Bad Place minions do keep throwing obstacles in Eleanor’s way. This week’s Good Place introduces the two remaining Neighborhood residents in Michael and Judge Gen’s new experiment. First up: Linda, a frustratingly stoic Norwegian knitter, unimpressed by the Good Place’s unlimited bounty. Eleanor tells Linda that if she wants, she can have Janet conjure up a baby elephant made of pure light that tells her the secrets of the universe (like “Shirley Temple killed JFK” and “Stonehenge was a sex thing”). But all Linda wants is a peppermint.
Even more irritating is Brent, an aggressively un-PC “materials” salesman who died just as he was about to be #MeToo-ed by multiple women who, in Brent’s eyes, “need to loosen up.” Brent refers to Janet as a secretary, and when she corrects him, he rolls his eyes and complains, “Here we go with all the terms we gotta learn, like ‘vice-president in charge of helping,’ or ‘Captain Marvel.’”
Unexpectedly, though, Eleanor’s biggest problem turns out to be Simone. The neuroscientist is convinced she’s in a coma, and that her subconscious is conjuring up this “afterlife.” When she’s not trying to wake herself up by singing the Third Eye Blind song she heard every morning as a kid, Simone wears bizarre outfits and knocks over objects — and residents — determined to test the limits of her surroundings.
The obvious solution here — so obvious that even Jason thinks of it — is to introduce Simone to Chidi, a wise and calming influence who “looks like one of those owls that graduated from college.” But Eleanor hesitates, because she knows Chidi and Eleanor have proven chemistry, and she doesn’t want this story to take that turn. She’s already hurt enough when Chidi can’t remember her name (a fact that makes Michael say, “Oof!” and then try to correct it to, “Cool … f”).
Making matters worse — and adding to the idea that emotional attachments can be bad — Jason and Derek keep failing to stay on-mission, because they’re too busy fighting over Janet. Derek keeps popping up at public events (holding his usual cocktail, which is a martini glass filled with various garnishes), making Jason so mad that he finally pushes Mindy’s plunger and resets him. “I have been Dereked!” his giant head announces on a screen over the Neighborhood. “Murder has been me!”
Eleanor’s quick fix for all her mounting problems is to offload them onto Janet. But between keeping the Neighborhood running, her Derrick/Jason drama, Eleanor randomly asking for baby elephants made of pure light, and Brent wanting a BLT, Janet’s starting to crack. The situation takes a turn for the worse when “Linda” turns out to be the demon Chris in a skin suit, sent by Shawn to drive everybody a little batty (until he flakes out and starts body-slamming folks).
An angry Judge Gen decrees that Linda/Chris be sent back to the Bad Place, and decides that Chidi will become the fourth subject in the experiment, alongside Simone, Brent, and the Tahani-torturing gossip columnist John. Shawn complains that because they already know Chidi’s capable of improving, this is “like studying for a test and then acing the test,” which to him is “cheating.”
But one of the major recurring ideas in The Good Place is that every time these characters try to repeat something they got right once before, they somehow screw it up — either through impatience or due to a lack of understanding of what worked the first time. Not only is there no guarantee that Chidi will pass muster again, but it’s highly likely that Eleanor’s interventions will harm rather than help.
That’s what “Eleanor and Chidi” really does for this show, as a plot driver. Together, at times, these two have represented this elusive paradise that The Good Place keeps dangling: a place where people are kind to each other, enjoy each other, and accomplish great things side-by-side. But they also represent the all-too-human insecurities that keep heaven just out of reach.
In the Neighborhood
Not a lot of Easter eggs or sight gags in the Neighborhood this week, but we do get a peek at a new restaurant: Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow.
The first question “Linda” asks about her afterlife of limitless options is, “Is there a fitness center?” That line’s even better in retrospect, once we know it’s actually spoken by Chris, the demon who always rips off his shirt to go to the gym.
In case you weren’t aware, last week NBC teased this new season of The Good Place with the six-episode web series The Selection, which tells the story of how Shawn came up with his plan to sabotage the new Neighborhood experiment. The series isn’t essential viewing, but it’s short (about 15 minutes, total), and anyone who enjoys the sick humor of the show’s Bad Place scenes will enjoy the part where the demons order lunch, and one of them says she’s not hungry enough to eat a whole baby but might order a baby “for the table.”
Nothing in The Selection, though, is as funny as in this week’s episode when the demons sing the Bad Place anthem: the “1-877-Kars-4-Kids” jingle.