The Good Place
It’s been a season of disguises on The Good Place. The demon Chris pretended to be the irritatingly unexcited Linda Johansson. Bad Janet played Good Janet. Vicky’s dressed up as Michael. And now this week we get Jason as Glenn as Jason, and Michael as Vicky as Michael. (Got all that?)
But we haven’t talked enough about perhaps this season’s most important undercover persona: Architect Eleanor. Kristen Bell has been doing something different with her voice and carriage whenever she plays Eleanor in Architect mode; and her pitch has been evolving throughout the season. Eleanor initially played this part with exaggerated authority, to compensate for her panic. But as she’s grown into the role, she’s begun to master its precise tone, which is part kindergarten teacher, part wizened sage. The point is always to instill confidence in the Neighborhood’s new human subjects that there’s a wonderful purpose behind everything they’re being subjected to.
In this week’s episode, Eleanor adopts this reassuringly calm demeanor to cover for the loss of Janet. She pretends this is a normal, wholly intentional development, meant to reconnect the residents with “lo-fi” activities like knitting and gardening … or, in the case of the actual humans, swimming and water-skiing at a luxurious lake house. (“Suck it, gardeners!” a stoked Brent says, to which Simone mutters, “Why do I feel like that’s not the first time he’s screamed those words?”)
But when Chidi surprises everyone by staying back in his apartment to read, Eleanor has to put on her best Architect voice to keep him occupied and unconcerned … because chaos reigns outside his window. With Bad Janet chained by incapacitating magnets, the team has to rely on Derek — the misbegotten bot who drinks champagne glasses filled with Scrabble tiles — to manage the Neighborhood’s basic functions. Inevitably, within hours, all the Janet Babies are bumping into each other and saying, “Bargdy-bargdy-bargdy-bark.”
Eleanor’s big idea to keep Chidi from seeing the bumbling Janetoids is to pretend she knew all along Chidi wouldn’t go to the lake house, and that she’d already planned a kind of open-ended puzzle to entertain him. Without explaining the rules of the game or how to win, she tells him to keep looking around his apartment for “clues.” She convinces him that he can trust her, because she knows everything about him … which is true, in a way. Eleanor is at her most Architect-like — and movingly so — when she’s using her bond with Chidi to steer him toward safety and happiness.
Complicating matters for Eleanor — but making this episode much, much funnier — is that she’s stuck throughout the day trying to mop up messes made by a well-meaning Tahani. Frustrated that she’s been assigned to play hostess to the humans, Tahani urges Eleanor to give her more responsibility. (“Insert me, coach-man!”) But she keeps overstepping while trying to pitch in. She tells Chidi that the prize at the end of his game will be “the truth about the universe.” When a blindfolded Chidi hears a frustrated Eleanor kick one of the Janet Babies, Tahani explains that “a unicorn died,” then tries to clean that lie up with an even worse one, saying the noise was just “a regular horse that someone stabbed in the head.”
Jameela Jamil has her best episode so far this season, playing all of Tahani’s ineptitudes and insecurities. She fusses over the snack menu at the lake house, proudly announcing that she’s serving “full-sized sandwiches” because it would be improper to set out finger-sized ones at a waterfront property. (“What am I, Welsh?” she quips to Eleanor, who exasperatedly answers, “Are you? I don’t know!”) When Eleanor complains that Tahani has “made things difficult in a new way,” she half-proudly trumpets, “The important thing is, I did something.” At times it feels like this entire episode is designed to feed The Good Place fan community a bunch of new Tahani memes and GIFs. (I look forward to the “no context the good place” Twitter account posting, “The whatever spoon is really only used for certain festive jellies.”)
Manny Jacinto is on top of his game this week too, as Jason and Michael attempt their daring Janet-rescue in the Bad Place. (“Population: Your Mom.”) The nattily attired pair arrives just in time for DemonCon, where Shawn is planning to introduce his innovation of the Michael-suit. Seizing the moment, the actual Michael pretends to be Vicky in the Michael-suit, with Jason posing as Glenn in a Jason-suit, ready to torture Janet.
Jason is hilarious through all the Bad Place scenes, as he keeps looking for opportunities to throw a Molotov cocktail or to use Bad Janet’s demon-exploder. His ability to destroy things — and to stroll blithely through the wreckage — serves the good guys well, allowing them essentially to walk into the headquarters of all evil, grab their Janet, and walk back out. Jason’s ability to forgive himself also helps him ease the mind of Michael, who hates having to confront the demon he used to be. “It’s okay to plead guilty about the things you used to do,” Jason says, reminding Michael that he’s now “just a weird happy old dude.”
And that’s ultimately the point of all the disguises these characters wear. When Vicky mentions that she’s having trouble getting into character as Michael because she doesn’t understand his “motivation,” Janet replies that Michael is motivated by loyalty, empathy, and love … and that’s why he’ll prevail. If these demons and humans keep pretending to be better than they are, who knows? Over time, they may get good at being good.
In the Neighborhood
• This was a really funny episode, and there’s a lot of this season left to go, but… I have to admit that I don’t think the whole “new humans” plot arc is working yet. For the past two weeks, Brent, John and Simone have essentially been sequestered from the main action before the first commercial; and then the writers have contrived some excuse to get Eleanor a scene or two with Chidi. It reminds me of that old sitcom trick of introducing a pregnancy subplot to goose ratings, and then ignoring the characters’ babies once they’re born. This may be a problem for the show down the road, since the eventual improvement/redemption of the Neighborhood’s new additions seems essential to the story this season is telling. The Good Place throws curveballs frequently, though, so maybe I’m being unduly alarmist.
• It was nice of the Jacksonville Jaguars to pick up another QB whose name is fun to shout. (“FOOOOOLES!”)
• Shawn is in rare form at DemonCon, addressing forward-thinking torture questions like, “Sharp sticks: Should they be, counterintuitively, less hot?” He gets downright enthusiastic discussing the potential of the human-suit program, asking the convention’s attendees to imagine humans getting tortured by someone who looks like “their wife … or ex-wife … or some mouthy broad.” He also expresses something essential about his values when explains why it’s time to move on from the tried-and-true torture tactic of butthole-spiders: “Humans get used to it, and worse, the spiders get bored.”