William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

“But it’s hilarious. Of course, I mean sad.”

Picking up right where “Dance Dance Resolution” left us, “Team Cockroach” is essentially a briskly funny bottle episode, as Michael attempts to persuade Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason (who’s not too hard to get) to team up. I say “essentially” because we do get a flashback to Tahani’s death (crushed under a gold statue of her dismissively superior sister, naturally enough), and a glimpse of how this Good Place is going to be different under the rule of the attention-hogging Vicky. (So far, it looks pretty much the same, except with more Vicky-centric spotlight songs.) As the show’s central quartet all debate, bicker, and occasionally scheme to escape to Mindy St. Clair’s beige Medium Place with a train full of cocaine (that’s Eleanor, also naturally), The Good Place fills in some tantalizing details about the show’s world, and sets the rest of this so-far breathlessly inventive season on its track. At least, that’s what it looks like.

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The Good Place has come so far from its original, easily-pitched high concept (selfish jerk accidentally winds up in heaven) that it’s hardly recognizable as the same show, especially since it’s reinvented itself so many times in just 16 episodes. If creator Michael Schur and his creative team (“Team Cockroach” is credited to Dan Schofield) have taught us anything through example, misdirection, and the occasional giant flying shrimp attack, it’s that getting confident that we know what’s actually going on is a sucker move. And Eleanor knows from sucker moves, having spent her entire life in a selfishly self-reliant quest to avoid getting scammed, by anyone. So Eleanor is the one who looks at Michael’s shocking offer of, if not friendship, then enlightened, symbiotic necessity with the most scorn and suspicion. “A lot of guys your age said that to me just as the bar was about to close,” says Eleanor to Michael’s assertion that time is getting short, and desperate.

Ted Danson (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Apart from Eleanor’s hard-learned worldly circumspection, however, the episode confronts her and us with the fact that this Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason don’t really know each other. There’s been a narratively necessary but genuine sense of loss this season in how the previous bond formed among these very unlikely sort-of friends has been shattered and scattered by Michael’s surreptitious rebooting of them, Janet, and his beloved fake Good Place itself. According to Michael tonight, the gang is currently on their eight-hundredth go-’round since we first met them in what was presumably their initial arrival. (Although, even there, one is wary about making definitive statements.) They’ve had a week this time to come together in mutual suspicion that their supposed eternal reward is actually Michael’s thousand-year torture plot, a conceit that keeps resetting elements of each actor’s performance as well. We find out here that the four invariably figure out the game, sometimes in as long as a eleven months, sometimes in only a few days. (That one time Michael accidentally “butt-reset” the Good Place shows up on his graph as just a few seconds, but that doesn’t count.) As we saw in last week’s brilliantly constructed, Megan Amram-penned episode, no matter what permutations of distance, fake soulmates, and giraffe stampedes Michael has thrown at them, the four misfits always find each other, and always discover the truth. (Sure, it’s almost always Eleanor, but even Jason nailed it once, to Michael’s deep chagrin.)

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The thing is, the characters we were invested in in the first season were just one iteration of themselves. So Eleanor’s grudging friendship with (and enduring attraction to) Tahani is, in this shorter trip through Michael’s maze tonight, marked by a blunter comic antagonism. (Hearing Tahani begin a humblebrag analogy of their current predicament to that time she and Javier Bardem got stuck in Vanessa Redgrave’s panic room, Eleanor snaps, “Do not talk again for 100 hours!”) The same goes for the even more sweetly improbable, not to say theoretically impossible, romance between “literally the dumbest person I’ve ever met” (according to Eleanor) Jason, and godlike not-a-robot Good Place guide Janet. Here, when the gang settles on a plan, Janet instinctively returns Jason’s high-five, which is sweet, too, if also a melancholy reminder of the show’s most ludicrously endearing relationship. (Jason hasn’t developed anything like his more soulful stupidity yet, either, here being bought off easily by a sparkler from Janet and the promise of iPad games by Michael.) And Chidi and Eleanor, here only a week into their antagonistic tutor-student secret partnership, can only be a shade of their former almost-soulmate selves. This Eleanor has only had a week’s worth of Chidi’s ethics lessons to work with, a fact that, coupled with Mindy’s recent revelation that they have all tried multiple strategies to escape Michael’s infernal paradise (and those several times each) informs her skepticism.

Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Sneaking out the back door (after leaving a pillow-and-mop decoy in the bed of her horrifyingly clown-festooned house), Eleanor is confronted by Chidi. When Eleanor (calling Chidi “bro,” for added offhand assholery) tells her former friend that they’ve only known each other a week, Chidi asks, “How long do you have to know someone before you do the right thing?” Nine weeks is Eleanor’s immediate reply, but she eventually drags herself back inside to ask Michael how many of the eight hundred times they’ve met has Chidi refused to help her. Michael’s answer, “Never, he always helped you,” is deeply affecting, even as he follows it up with the tetchy confession that, while Chidi offering to make Eleanor worthy of the Good Place was always part of the con, his efforts actually working was not. (“Pesky little nerd,” sneers Michael.) As unpredictable as The Good Place has been, it’s perhaps never realistically in doubt that Eleanor would really flee (as she did in season one) to Mindy St. Clair’s most neutral of neutral zones, but it makes sense that even this one-week Eleanor would find it hard to leave the other three to a fate of being boiled alive and buried up to their necks in scorpions.

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For one thing, she’s been to Mindy’s already on this trip and been shown Mindy’s surreptitiously recorded tape of her and Chidi having sex and declaring their love for each other. (Mindy really is, like, mediocre-minus at best.) She’s also heard Mindy’s bored but seemingly sincere conviction that the two of them are truly meant for each other, and that Mindy’s even rooting for them, in between eternally warm beers, live Eagles songs, and regularly scheduled masturbation sessions. And she’s touched by Chidi’s confession to her, “Look, I spent my whole life trying to learn about right and wrong and, apparently, I failed.”

So she throws in with her three comrades, and with Michael, although there’s still enough of the old, scamming and scam-alert Eleanor in her at this point to throw in some pretty harsh conditions of her own. Telling Michael that she and the others will help with his plan to best Vicky (and avoid the eternal shriek, or worse) only if Michael joins in on Chidi’s ethics lessons, Eleanor cuts off Michael’s scoffing in mid-objection. Michael had referred to the four of them as cockroaches (“or dung beetles—something gross that creeps on the ground in its own filth”), with him as their failed exterminator. But both he and Eleanor recognize the irony that they are all now in the same boat, and he, having no choice, agrees. During Vicky’s daily two-hour preparations for the next musical number, Michael (“the devil,” according to Eleanor) will sit with the mere mortals and learn how to be a good person. (Or demon, or lava monster, or whatever Michael actually was before he was stuffed into a randomly chosen human body, inconvenient testicles and all.)

William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, Kristen Bell (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

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Once again, this looks like a relatively straightforward setup for the rest of the season (Or at least as straightforward as it can be in a place filled with flowing chowder fountains, infernal torture-traps, and Janet.) But The Good Place has yet to follow the path we imagine it’s set upon. (For everyone claiming they saw the first-season twist coming, congratulations, you’re as smart as Tahani thinks she is, and just as insufferable.) We’re primed by this point to both look for clues and to appreciate that the real story being told here isn’t actually about solving the undeniably delicious mysteries-within-mysteries.

When Michael tells the four that they should definitely not trust him, but that they have no choice, it’s both tightly reasoned and open to all manner of possibilities. When Michael sees his pitch to the group is setting off Eleanor’s finely honed bullshit detector, he ups the stakes by claiming to be able to get them all into the Good Place for real, which does, indeed, seem like just the sort of bullshit a desperate evil guy would come up with on the fly. And yet, Michael is awfully convincing as he undercuts that glimmer of hope by telling them that there’s no guarantee the four of them will be allowed to stay once they get there. (Michael seems to be grasping at the same straw, counting on his rescue of “four pitiful, foul-smelling humans from eternal damnation” plus some judiciously deployed “puppy-dog eyes” to get him in as well.) After Jason’s initial guess about this being “a prank show” turned out to be more correct than anyone could have imagined at the end of last season, our collective antennae are up, and there’s something about the way Michael emphasizes his preference for “psychological torture” over the Bad Place’s more traditional butthole spiders and penis-flattening that vibrates. Same goes for Michael’s advice that lies are most effective when they hew closest to the truth. (Hey, it got some guy to tattoo Eleanor’s wedding alias “Eileen” right on his neck.) If The Good Place has taught us anything so far, it’s that we don’t know who’s getting played. And that it’s almost always us doesn’t take away from the fact that, for all the game’s twists and reverse-twists, the characters’ questioning humanity makes it gratifyingly worth playing.

Stray observations

  • After Eleanor protests to Michael that she’s not as selfish as she once was, Janet pops in with the exquisitely badly timed announcement, “Eleanor, your cocaine and escape train are ready.”
  • Michael, making his pitch despite being the gang’s tormentor up ‘til this point: “That’s ancient history.” Chidi: “It was happening until 20 seconds ago.”
  • According to Michael, neither Janet nor Mindy are part of his plan.
  • Jason decides to trust Michael because, like that guy who paid him $600 to smuggle some turtles that one time, Michael wears a bowtie.
  • Michael explains to Jason that, powerful as he is, he can’t see the future. He still tells the crestfallen Jason that the Jacksonville Jaguars will never, ever win the Super Bowl, however.
  • In her flashback, we find out that Tahani, in addition to all her other fame-grubbing accolades, was a “neck model.”
  • And the magazine (International Sophisticate) she finds out she’s only being featured in because her sister turned it down apparently alternates covers featuring women and yachts.
  • “Oh no, I died in Cleveland?” “I don’t think that should be your takeaway from that story.”
  • Still, she almost gets there by the end of the episode. “I want to become the person I pretended to be. I agree with Chidi—we should team up with Michael and all work together to build a better Tahani.”
  • “That’s what Chidi would do!” “That’s what I am doing.” “I know.” “It’s just, you’re talking about me like I’m not here or something, and that makes me feel weird.”
  • Janet speculates that, since a Janet gains more insight and humanity with each reboot, her 800 or so resets may have made her the most advanced Janet in the universe. Indeed, D’Arcy Carden imparts just the merest hint of un-Janet-like cheekiness to Janet’s decision to throw in with the four humans (and Michael), and conceal their plotting from Vicky.
  • Eleanor describes the lineup of “Team Cockroach” (Jason wants “The Bobcats”) as: “An Arizona dirtbag, a human turtleneck, a narcissistic monster, and literally the dumbest person I’ve ever met.” “And who am I?,” asks Jason, excitedly.
  • After Michael and Janet join, she switches to: “A cowardly traitor, four dum-dums, and a robot.” “I’m not a robot,” chimes in the uncomplaining Janet.
  • After Megan Amram tweeted out her abridged list of unused, gloriously terrible/hilarious punning Good Place restaurant names last week, we hear a couple that were, one imagines, intentionally left off so they could be used for the most recent neighborhood’s ubiquitous clam chowder joints. “Pump Up The Clam” versus “A Little Bit Chowder Now”: discuss.

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