“What? Why? You do? What?”
Same here, Eleanor. Apart from the deliciously varied meal Kristen Bell makes of her last lines of “Dance Dance Resolution,” her tone—flitting at light speed through four different emotional responses in five words—is the perfect capper to an episode of The Good Place that leaves us in that tingly-queasy place where the unknown yawns wide. It’s goddamned exciting—The Good Place (this pell-mell mind-screw of an episode is credited to Megan Amram) has, in three episodes, burned through three seasons’ worth of plots and twists.
That anything can happen feeling also comes yoked to something like fear that this whole, delicious (unlike clam chowder) TV confection will suddenly realize that it shouldn’t be soaring like it is and plummet into the abyss. In his recent review of Rick And Morty, Zack Handlen talked about a similar fear, that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland will, in essence, disappear up the ass of their own anything-goes creation, leaving behind nothing but the bare bones of cleverness, all the genuine emotional meat stripped away. Some might say that Harmon’s previous show did just that, but the evidence doesn’t bear it out. (One Harmon-less gas-leak season notwithstanding.) For The Good Place creator Michael Schur and his writers, there’s the identical risk going on, that, in being so astute and original not only about the story they’re telling, but about telling that story, their fantastical (and fantastic) fictional balloon sculpture of a show will pop, or simply, slowly deflate.
But screw that. “Dance Dance Resolution” is a dizzyingly fun, inventive, and hilarious contraption that, once again in only this second season’s third episode, pulls rabbit after rabbit out of its hat. All the bunnies are adorable. All the bunnies are unique. By the end of the episode, when Eleanor (for the umpteenth time, it’s revealed tonight) figures out Michael’s “sick torture plan” and Michael proposes not only a truce but an alliance, I was happily, giddily up to my knees in freaking bunnies.
Opening on Michael, once again giving himself a recorded pep talk on his reel-to-reel, the episode indicates we’re heading for something predictable (Michael restarts his fake Good Place and really tries to nail it this time), only for the show to zoom through what we expect before the opening credits roll. There are introductions, the inciting phrase (this time it’s Eleanor calling the smug Tahani a “mean giraffe”) that gets the chaos element of the plan kicking, and then, just as the seemingly panicked Michael attempts to force his four victims to choose just who goes into a demonically glowing obelisk, Eleanor figures out that they’re actually in the Bad Place. “Aw farts,” says Michael. Roll credits.
Michael, this being his big shot and Michael being Michael, doesn’t give up, but his subsequent hundreds of reboots all show a signature lack of success, and imagination. Sure, the cutesy signs on the neighborhood’s eateries might swap from iteration to iteration (Sushi and the Banshees does not seem like the place to go, frankly), and the perils Eleanor and Chidi face flit amusingly, too. There are ornery pigs, angry bees (although not the “bees with teeth” that got some diabolical so-and-so his place in the Bad Place Hall of Fame), robed monks, three-hour spoken-word/jazz operas, a spooky clown, and the aforementioned giraffe stampede. But, as we see when Michael starts simply introducing new soulmates for Eleanor (including a very nice golden retriever at attempt #333), Michael’s flailing. He blows it on attempt #108 when Eleanor overhears him dictating his observation that Eleanor always figures out she’s in the Bad Place. Attempt #109 begins with Michael dictating that he’s remembered to lock the door this time, but he still finds his eternal life’s work being blown by Jason, of all people. (“Yeah, this one hurts,” Michael admits, before erasing everyone’s minds once again.)
When the focus shifts to Eleanor and Chidi (after they overhear some of the increasingly disgruntled Bad Placers griping about Michael’s failures), that Groundhog Day version of the Bad Place is only amplified. Striking upon the inspired plan to have Janet take them as far away from the neighborhood (and Michael) as possible, they find themselves back at the Medium Place—only for sole occupant thereof Mindy St. Clair (Maribeth Monroe) to exhaustedly inform them that this is the fifteenth time they’ve come to her asking for help. Eleanor and Chidi are shocked, then despairing, especially as Mindy is able to anticipate even their alternative new plans, verbatim. Showing them notecards of their previous gambits all taped to the back of the blandly inoffensive framed art over her fireplace, the universe’s sole “medium person,” not unkindly, assures Eleanor and Chidi that literally every bold, brilliant plot they can think of next, they’ve thought of before, and more than once.
The Good Place started out with such a premise, a can’t-miss rib- and imagination-tickler of a fantasy plot where a world of infinite possibilities was eventually (and masterfully) revealed to be the invention of one ambitious creator who was in over his head. Schur, Amram and company are not over their heads, although, as tonight’s revelations, feints, and counter-feints pile up, it often feels delightfully over ours. Unlike the immortal Michael’s idealistic (if evil) sketch for an infinitely renewable and unprecedented form of unending torment, this Good Place shoots sparks of creative possibility everywhere. As Michael gets more disheveled and desperate (at one point revealed to be drunkenly blurting out every facet of his unraveling scheme to a confused, just reawakened Eleanor during her initial meeting in his office), the by now well-trained viewer scans his lines for clues about what game is really being played. Can Bad Place supervisor Shawn actually be blind to Michael’s lies that he’s still only his second (and final) chance to get things right? There are dozens of Bad Placers in on the scam and they—especially Tiya Sircar’s increasingly demanding Vicky—are exasperated and bored at Michael’s aspirational shenanigans. So why haven’t they told Shawn? Sure, Vicky’s self-obsessed diva wants the chance to strut her acting chops in a central role, but when Eleanor and Chidi are going over their previous plans to thwart Michael, the one reading “Make Michael think he’s the one in the Bad Place” perks up our ears. After all, in the first season, Jason’s seemingly throwaway guess that they’re “on a prank show” paid off, in its own Jason-esque way.
In the end here, it’s another accidental pearl of wisdom in the form of Jason being Jason (aka: Florida’s most peerless dirtbag ding-dong) that provides clarity, his tale of the abortive dance-off between the rival dance teams of himself and betrayed pal Donkey Doug giving Michael inspiration to think outside the box he’s elaborately but unimaginatively constructed for them all. Just as Eleanor, having gathered her three compatriots around her for a showdown, lays out the start of her big idea, Michael comes back with a bigger one of his own. Chidi, faced with the apparent futility of fighting against their fate at all, had said to Eleanor earlier, “We are experiencing karma, but we can’t learn from our mistakes,” citing Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. Eleanor—while taking her inspiration from a philosophy professor rather than an unemployed DJ from Jacksonville—sees, like Michael, that spinning her wheels in the same unprofitable rut is only going to create more rut. Eleanor’s been on the lookout for users, cheaters, and con artists (like herself) her whole life, but here in the afterlife her attempt to blackmail Michael is cut short when Michael makes his desperate counter-proposal. Penned in by both Shawn’s looming threat of forced retirement (which, as we recall, is not as pleasant as it sounds), and Vicky and the other Bad Place actors’ unreasonable demands, he chooses his erstwhile victims as allies. “So, what do you say? New best friends?,” asks Michael, blowing The Good Place apart yet again, while we wait expectantly to see what shape it takes.
- Before Michael cuts her off, Eleanor’s ultimatum, “You have two choices here, buddy: Keep failing, over and over again, or realize we’re actually the ones with all the power,” is another line that gets my speculative radar pinging.
- In another big reveal that may or may not pay off as the crowd-pleaser it seems, Mindy shows (via her secret pervy camera setup) that Eleanor and Chidi have not only hooked up during their sojourns to the Medium Place, but have declared their love for each other.
- Oh, of their 15 times there, Eleanor and Chidi have hooked up on eight of them, with 20 lovemaking sessions in all. However, according to a grossed-out Mindy, they’ve only ever said they loved each other that once.
- “It’s like my mom always said: If a cop handcuffs you to a bike rack there’s always something you can gnaw through.” “Your mom always said that?”
- “I’m too young to die and too old to eat off the kids menu. What a stupid age I am!”
- In one of Michael’s re-jiggered neighborhoods, the formerly ubiquitous fro-yo has been replaced by an eternal clam chowder fountain. Eleanor isn’t impressed, referring to the bubbling slop as, at various times, “savory latte with bugs in it,” and “hot ocean milk with dead animal croutons.”
- Chidi is, once more, convinced he’s in the Bad Place because of his use of environmentally unsound almond milk, which he knew was irresponsible. He just couldn’t resist the way it coated his tongue with “a weird film,” though.
- Janet, engaging her “begging and pleading” fail-safe protocol every time Michael comes to reboot her, at one point seeks mercy by claiming she finally has Hamilton tickets, and that there’s a rumor Daveed Diggs is coming back for just that performance.
- Kristen Bell lands a joke so well. “I’ve only said ‘I love you’ to two men my entire life. Stone Cold Steve Austin, and a guy in a dark club—who I mistook for Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
- Maribeth Monroe continues to be a tricky delight. Mindy—the intensely mediocre person who nonetheless invented a selfless human betterment plan in a coke-fueled bolt of lightning—can’t ever get too good, or too bad, but Monroe makes Mindy’s blasé irritation subtly affecting. She’s resigned herself to the never-changing stasis of her afterlife (and, she insists, everyone else’s), but when she tells Eleanor that she’s actually rooting for her, it’s wistfully sincere.
- Speaking of Dan Harmon, the montage of Eleanor figuring out the game in a series of hitherto-unseen wacky predicaments recalls a certain clip show from episodes we never got to see.
- “Dance Dance Resolution” was directed by The Good Place executive producer Drew Goddard, who knows more than a little about meta-narratives.