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The Good Place Doesn’t Need a Love Story

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

This week’s episode of The Good Place is a return to what the show does best. “Patty” brims with ingenious turns, bursting with imagination in everything from a large puppy flying in the night sky to the reveal that eternal paradise is more complicated than how it appears. But more than anything else, the episode is undergirded by the strength and purpose of friendship. It’s a welcome change from the one sour note in this otherwise delectable confection: the relationship between Eleanor and Chidi.

The Good Place is a show of constant reinvention. Eleanor started as a self-described Arizona dirtbag — selfish and self-centered to an extreme degree. Yet through hundreds and hundreds of reboots in the afterlife, she became a kinder, more emotionally open human being who’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the greater good. Chidi was once a perennially anxious man who overthought everything from the kind of milk he drinks to his line of work, driving away friends and loved ones in the process. He’s now — after regaining every memory of his many afterlife existences — confident and self-assured. As the show evolved, Chidi and Eleanor’s romance went from a pleasant possibility to endgame. At first blush, they make sense in an opposites attract sort of way. But just because a romance has the right kind of logic doesn’t mean it works.

Last year, Jen Chaney wrote that the issue with this romance stems from the untraditional, non-linear way it has been written: “The connection between Eleanor and Chidi has evolved in a way that’s much more challenging than the traditional rom-com route. […] Keeping up with the plot machinations of The Good Place, not to mention the philosophical subtext underneath all of those developments, involves a ton of mental energy on the part of Michael Schur and the writers, as well as the audience.” But there’s also an even more essential problem: chemistry.

What makes a romance work on television? Complication, intrigue, warmth, and of course the bond between the actors themselves. Chemistry is the kind of magic no amount of good writing can engender, that no hard work amongst actors can force into being. The complications of Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship — the constant reboots that wiped their slates clean — shouldn’t create distance between the audience and these characters, but make us root for them even more when faced with the impossible. For all of Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper’s impressive efforts, Chidi and Eleanor simply don’t have the kind of swooning chemistry necessary to make the twists in the story of their romance work. Every time Chidi and Eleanor kissed or declared their love for one another, I was left feeling nothing at all. Or worse yet, annoyed, because the lack of romance serves to highlight how marvelously their chemistry works within a friendship instead.

The friendship between Chidi and Eleanor beguiled because The Good Place is at its best when interrogating the nature of community — how they’re formed, the ethics that undergird them, the wonder they inject into our lives. All of these ideas come to the fore in “Patty,” as our beloved group of friends deal with unforeseen pitfalls in paradise. Endless perfection in The Good Place gets old has turned the denizens of the afterlife into hollow, mush-brained figures, as they learn from Hypatia of Alexandria a.k.a. Patty (a turn full of whimsy by Lisa Kudrow). It’s Eleanor who eventually inspires the solution, asking Michael if he remembered what she told him when he went through an existential crisis in season two: “You said, every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” This moment is both charming and heartfelt, serving to remind us that what makes this ragtag group so endearing is how intimately they understand the nature of communities and what they need to thrive. It’s their friendship, their most useful power, that operates as the lens with which they view the world around them.

The most important relationships in my life have been with my friends. They’ve been by my side through movie nights that encroach upon dawn, late-night escapades, mental hospital stays, broken bones, and broken hearts. It’s these relationships that give my life meaning and make my heart swell. Pop culture can often times forget this fact of life, although shows as different as the arch comedy Broad City to the neon-drench spiky fantasia Dare Me remind us of the importance of friendships. It would have been intriguing to see Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship rest not on romance but that kind of intimate friendship, something too rarely explored on television between men and women. Their relationship was at its most fascinating in the early days of the series when they were making overtures at a nascent friendship. Has The Good Place revealed more about the human condition by forcing them into a romance in the seasons that followed, or has it narrowed its vision of human possibility in the process?

There’s still some worth in Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship, thanks to the writing that uncovers the wrinkles in how these characters have evolved over the course of the series. Last week’s episode, “Mondays, Am I Right?”, provided intriguing complication as they’re each faced with the possibility of reading the file of their time on Earth — a decision that reveals notions of longing, personal evolution, and the nature of long-term relationships. At first, it is Eleanor who grows frazzled at this possibility, frantically reassuring Chidi of their love and vowing that he shouldn’t read her file, before changing her mind and encouraging him to do so. With such a plot line, fascinating considerations bloom: If you could know everything about your partner’s greatest mistakes and most dastardly weaknesses, would you? How does knowing such things shift a relationship?

But once Chidi reads Eleanor’s file, it’s he who becomes anxious and afraid about what it suggests about their relationship’s future. (Which will be for eternity. No pressure.) Eleanor lived so much more fully than Chidi, he contests. Won’t she grow bored of him? The weight of spending eternity with a single romantic partner opens up a worthwhile door of exploration, but The Good Place snaps it shut almost immediately: Jason gets Chidi to give himself a pep talk, and he realizes who they were on Earth is a small part of who they are now. The love between them is all that matters. (A sentiment that glosses over the ways their relationship feels ill-fitting.)

In “Patty,” that romance blessedly takes a backseat to exploring Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, Tahani, Janet, and Michael as a community who work best when bouncing ideas off one another and looking to make the universe a more beautiful, ethical place. But despite the efforts of the writers and actors, it’s hard to ignore the way Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship has weighed down a show whose greatest strength has always been its lightness and charm. Their friendship felt not only a natural evolution in ways their romance doesn’t, but it more thoroughly and movingly uncovered truths and yearnings about each character. Revelatory questions swirled around their dynamic in its earlier incarnation: How far are you willing to go to aid a friend? How do friendships develop under scrutiny and tension? How do friendships enrich our lives and ethical stance?

We already have cultural scripts that adhere to romantic love as the kind of intimacy we should all aspire to hold, but the friendships we nurture deserve just as much as consideration. With Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship once again strengthened and everyone settling into paradise, there’s little doubt that their love story is here to stay as The Good Place draws to a close. But I wish the show was aware of how deeply that romance curtailed its greatness.

The Good Place Doesn’t Need a Love Story