The Good Place
One of my favorite movie quotes — applicable in so many situations — comes from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, a low-key caper comedy starring Owen Wilson as a wannabe outlaw named Dignan, who works for a landscaping company that’s actually a front for a criminal operation. When asked why his continuing employment as a mobster’s lackey requires so much lawn-mowing and hedge-trimming, Dignan explains, “Just because it’s a front doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t have to do the landscaping.”
In other words: Even your dream job is, y’know, work. That’s something our The Good Place heroes quickly realize this week. They barely have time to celebrate Judge Gen’s ruling in their favor before they have to get cracking on designing the new afterlife system they promised. About half of this episode — the aptly titled “Mondays, Am I Right?” — is about the resistance Michael runs into when he tries to train his former Bad Place colleagues on how to be architects for these new neighborhoods.
And the other half? Eh … It’s kind of a big nothing. But at least it has a few good Jason lines.
The funniest scenes in this episode involve the Bad Place demons, who — like any midlevel corporate employees after a change in management — are feeling anxious and confused about whether their particular skills are still needed. (“What the here is going on?” one asks.) Michael doesn’t help matters much with his orientation video, which stiffly explains the new “final exam” method of evaluating dead humans before ending with a bastardized version of a Tina Turner anthem. (“It’s simply the teeeest! …”)
The demons insist that they shouldn’t have to change anything because, “Torture works!” But Michael is certain they’re just resentful of his success and too lazy to try something new. They sort of prove him right when they run a sample testing scenario on Tahani — placing her at a ritzy cocktail reception for her sister Kamilah — and then can’t resist rushing straight to one of their tried-and-true nightmares, the “chainsaw bear.” When Michael asks them to try smaller, more relatable fears, the architects respond by confronting Tahani with a cub-sized chainsaw bear, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Epic Bacon Much?”
Just when it seems like the demons are never going to understand, an unlikely savior emerges: Vicky Sangupta, who draws on her actorly gift of getting into other people’s heads. Vicky devises a much more elegant examination for Tahani, asking her to imagine giving a toast for Kamilah immediately after hearing other people at the party talking trash about her sister. The demons grasp what Vicky’s going for, comparing this subtler, more soul-testing kind of torture to “flattening the penises of their heart.”
There’s a lot to like about the Michael half of “Mondays, Am I Right?” (I mean, the chainsaw bears alone … C’mon!) But I especially liked the direct acknowledgement that change demands effort, even when — or perhaps especially when — that change is inevitable. Michael can’t just will his new system into place; he actually needs employees to buy into it, to “do the landscaping,” as it were. He also can’t help but feel hurt when Vicky takes over and excels. He dismisses her test as a “C+” effort, filled with “technical issues only I can see,” before adding, “It actually kind of stunk, you’re bad at this,” then reiterating, “C+.”
This may be why I found the other half of this episode — the parts where Chidi and Eleanor worry they’re too different to remain passionate toward each other for eternity — so disappointing. For one thing, this fear seems to spring from nowhere. It’s not like Eleanor hasn’t spilled a chili pot’s worth of appalling anecdotes about herself (even if she may not have specifically told Chidi about “that time I was subpoenaed by the Make-a-Wish Foundation”). And it’s not like Eleanor doesn’t already know Chidi is “a damn drip,” who’d be happy forever living alone in a tiny apartment that’s “essentially a bookcase and a toilet.” So compared to the rest of this chapter, the emotional stakes here feel a little contrived.
What (sort of) saves the Eleanor-Chidi storyline this week is that Jason gets to be the hero. While he’s having fun reading the afterlife file about his Earthly misadventures — “I siphoned a lot of gas!,” he marvels — Jason senses Chidi’s romantic anxiety, and he alleviates it by turning it on himself. He pretends he’s worried that Janet will tire of him in the Good Place. Getting Chidi to reassure him has the intended effect, convincing his friend to give himself a break.
Still, much like last week, I couldn’t help but feel that the writers are spinning their wheels a bit, idly filling some space before the big finish. It’s possible this Eleanor and Chidi material is all laying the groundwork for what’s to come in the final episodes, in which case I’ll gladly withdraw my objection. But given how many potentially fun stories The Good Place could’ve spun out of “humans and demons sit around the Bad Place devising new afterlife tests,” spending nearly ten minutes of one of the show’s last chapters on routine sitcom relationship angst seems like a waste of precious airtime — especially since everything resolves so easily, with a reassured Eleanor and Chidi hopping on a balloon to the Good Place with their friends.
As always, The Good Place’s creative team has earned a lot of trust over the course of these past four seasons, so I see no reason to freak out about such a hit-and-miss episode, so close to the end. But I do hope that at least a few of the writers have watched Bottle Rocket.
The End Times
• Sometimes I feel like The Good Place goes to the “penis-flattening” well too often, but I have to admit they spun a few good, fresh jokes from the concept in this episode: From the observation that human males tend to be “worried something’s gonna happen to their normal, cylindrical penis” to the one demon admitting that he tried to meet his penis-flattening needs by flattening an eggplant. (Not the same.)
• My new favorite demon may be Phil, from the Bad Place’s “Performative Wokeness” department.
• I won’t try to list all of the “people” Jason thinks belong in the Good Place, but I’d like to give special shoutouts to Kool-Aid Man, Mini-Me, Pikachu, Grumpy Cat, and Wendy from Wendy’s.
• Don’t mess with Vicky Sangupta. She’s a strong, independent acid snake in the skin-suit of a strong, independent woman.