After ducking the issue for a few episodes, the fact that Eleanor has been tapped by Michael as co-investigator of her own secret finally takes center stage in “What We Owe To Each Other.” If The Good Place has has a central flaw in its first five episodes, it’s that everyone seems more or less sunnily resilient about the fact that their heaven is broken, any building concern (away from the core characters) washed away in a fro-yo-flavored haze. Well, tonight, Michael’s determined to get to the bottom of things, finally bringing Eleanor in to help him figure out what’s the malfunctioning piece that has the good place going intermittently buggy. Or lady-buggy. There were giant ladybugs.
In an episode that deals in a couple of classic (and theoretically tired) sitcom tropes, “What We Owe To Each Other” rides confidently on its cast’s charm and skills. Michael’s recent study of human friends (by watching all 10 seasons of Friends) has him primed to recognize such sitcom staples as being yoked to a partner who’s desperately trying to hide something incriminating, but, being Michael, he can’t see the forest for the trees. Or rocks and twigs—he begins by gathering the 78 most “devious, sinister” rocks from around the good place and asking if Eleanor notices any of them plotting something.
The question of Michael’s inability to suss out the “design flaw causing everything to go haywire” right under his nose could be a flaw, too, except that the show keeps dropping hints about what, exactly, Michael’s deal is. Tonight, he confides to Eleanor that the whole idea of an architect being in residence in his neighborhood was his idea— and that his boss was against the idea. First—Michael has a boss. Second—he shows real fear that he’ll be “in big trouble” if his neighborhood fails. Again, the initial concept of “bad girl accidentally admitted to heaven” seemed limited. The way the show continually drops hints of the unseen forces at work behind the good place lends The Good Place a whole other level of dramatic interest.
Which is good, especially in the B-story tonight, which veers even further into sitcom cliché, as Jason begs Chidi to tag along on Tahani’s romantic soulmate spa day (with the now speaking Jianyu) so Jason doesn’t blow it. (Really, there’s only so long he can pass off his Magic 8-Ball’s answers as inscrutable monk wisdom.) We’re into Three’s Company territory here, the whole premise resting on contrived dramatic irony, but damned if the three main players (four, counting D’Arcy Carden’s always-funny helper, Janet) don’t make it work. William Jackson Harper is stuck in what could be a thankless role, and the cringe comedy of him forcing himself in between Tahani and Jason ratchets up his already heavy “reactive sensible guy” load even further. But he manages to wring laughs even out of clamping his hand over Jason’s mouth (just as Jason’s about to expound on why Pitbull is his favorite artist), claiming that his massage technique involves “working the oft-neglected mandible area.” Harper just has a way of channeling quick-thinking panic into very funny line readings, as when he responds to Jason reading the “Made in Taiwan” label on his 8-Ball in answer to Tahani’s question. There’s no reason Chidi’s enthusiastic “Yes you were!” should be as funny as it is. But it is.
As for Eleanor, Kristen Bell, too, tramples right over any concern that her predicament here would turn stale. Her enthusiasm in treating Michael to a mind-clearing day off at the arcade, bowling alley, fro-yo shop, and—blessedly—karaoke bar (Bell and Danson croon “Blaze Of Glory” with infectious gusto), sees Bell continuing to make Eleanor’s hustler’s soul and her awakening conscience war both feelingly and hilariously on her face. In the Sophie’s World-style philosophy tour she’s taking with the ever-forbearing Chidi, Eleanor is introduced tonight to the concept of the social contract, and, after a few false steps (Thomas Scanlon’s book on contractualism, What We Owe To Each Other does not refer to “that movie where Laura Linney lives alone in a lake house because Jude Law left her for his ex-wife’s ghost”), she decides to come clean.
However long she’s been in the good place, Chidi’s teachings have been working on Eleanor. She’s hardly a saint (or whatever you have to be to gain legitimate entrance there). Her immediate instinct after Chidi explains that contractualism means citizens can veto any act they find unfair is to try to game the system by vetoing the idea that anyone can veto her. (Chidi’s deadpan “Well, that’s called tyranny and its generally frowned upon,” defines their relationship perfectly.) But, as she teases Chidi, “Whatever, you love it.” Eleanor still has her awful instincts, but she’s trying, and seeing Michael undone by what her presence is doing to what he’s created is, in the end, enough to nudge her into doing something truly selfless.
She doesn’t, naturally, with Michael gathering everyone in the neighborhood together for a big meeting (instructing the ever-literal Janet that it’s to be of the “moribund and devastating” rather than “festive and casual” variety)—only to announce that he’s figured out that he’s the one at fault. Danson makes Michael’s mix of blithe condescension toward his human charges (“Oh I forgot, you don’t see in nine dimensions,” he tells Eleanor as he swats away at the tension only he can see), and childlike delight in them deeply delightful. (He has a precious—and forbidden—collection of human objects like scotch tape, an eraser, a cheese grater, a slingshot, what looks like a paper football, a Mark Twain bobblehead, and a huge urn filled with paper clips in his office.)
Once more, the idea of an ineffectual guardian angel (or “super-magical Orville Redenbacher-type guy who invented this entire universe” as Eleanor puts it) at the heart of the series would wear thin if not for Danson’s performance, and The Good Place’s ongoing caginess about what his role in the good place really is. He might not be the sharpest architect out there, but there’s something so, well, human in his “But I promised all of you that you would be safe and happy, and you just don’t break a promise.” There are stakes for Michael, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, and that keeps The Good Place from being simply innocuous fantasy. Even sitcom neophyte Michael can spot a threadbare TV plot, decrying season 8 of Friends when they were clearly “out of ideas and forcing Joey and Rachel together even though it makes no sense.” Going into The Good Place, there was a worry that its one-joke premise might turn out to be too slender to sustain a season. Now, it’s clear that, as Michael announces his plan to leave the good place forever, the tension is entertainingly thick enough that you’d have to brush it away in order to see the next episode.
- In her flashbacks tonight, Eleanor is unwisely left in charge of a reluctant friend’s dog. True, the dog ends up needing to be wheeled around in a wagon after it permanently bloats itself by eating the entire bag of dog food Eleanor left out when she left for a Rihanna concert in Vegas, but you don’t leave that Eleanor in charge of pet care.
- The gray failure-hoodie Michael puts on before sinking to the floor in defeat has to be a reference to another NBC series, right? A time-hoodie would help Michael figure things out pretty quickly.
- Michael sees his friendship with Eleanor as a Ross-Phoebe thing. Eleanor: “Weird combo to pick, but okay.”
- Even the preternaturally capable Janet can’t get a facial mask to stick to Tahani’s too-perfect tiny pores.
- Carden keeps socking the biggest laugh in an episode right off the screen, her robotic “Does not compute!” to Chidi’s tortured explanation of why he’s on the couple’s spa day seeing her downshift to a deadpan, “Just kidding. I mean it doesn’t compute, but I’m not gonna blow up or anything.”
- “I realize this is only the kind of observation that would occur to an eternal being, but how did they afford that apartment?”
- The hint that Chidi and Tahani might be soulmates based on their shared love of Degas (and Chidi’s Degas-inspired painting of her as a gift from Jason) is worth watching.
- “Do you like France as much as I do?” “Well, they enslaved my country for 300 years so, no.”
- Michael on frozen yogurt: “There’s something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”
- And on karaoke: “There’s no point to it, the images on the screen relate to nothing, some time passed and then it was over.”
- And Minions: “This ugly yellow toddler which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
- Manny Jacinto, too, makes Jason’s bottomless dimness a weird, weird place. Urged by Chidi to find a way to connect with Tahani, he asks, “Do I be nice to Tahani or do I throw all her jewelry in the toilet?” (Harper’s delivery of “That’s the opposite of being nice?” is more proof that no one on TV does better horrified bafflement.)
- And Jason’s version of an Impressionist painting is one of Frank Caliendo.
- Eleanor has named the unnerving clown paintings in her home Psycho, Creepo, Crazyhead, Stupid Juggling Weirdo, Freaky Feet, and Nightmare George Washington.