“Why is it always the ones you most expect?”
In her recent interview with The A.V. Club, Jameela Jamil spoke about her willingness to sign onto The Good Place for the standard seven-year contract even before she really knew what secretive creator Michael Schur had in mind for her, and us. (Apparently, Ted Danson couldn’t stop blabbing about the big season one finale reveal, which is a pretty Bad Place move, although his loose lips somehow didn’t sink the shock embodied by that one, evil smile.) For Jamil—in a tie for The Good Place’s most enduringly delightful surprise alongside co-stars Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden, and William Jackson Harper—Schur’s track record as creator was enough for her to make a leap of faith that the tantalizing hints of the series’ potential were indeed indicative of the brilliantly funny, sneakily soulful sitcom it has become.
Or should I say “Leap Into Faith,” the pedantically exact translation of Kierkegaard that peerlessly pedantic ethics expert Chidi insists upon in this episode of the same name. For a show so rooted in both high concept fantasy silliness and risky narrative sleight-of-hand as The Good Place, viewers have had to be willing to take a similar leap of faith that Schur and company have a satisfyingly sweet, funny, and thought-provoking landing spot figured out each week. “Leap Into Faith” is one of the most overtly showy examples of The Good Place’s structural legerdemain, consisting as it does of a series of bluffs, double-bluffs, and hidden clues (some 1,200 of them, in deference to humans’ tiny brains, according to Michael) that resemble nothing so much as a caper film. And, if the script (credited to Christopher Encell) doesn’t pull off every twist flawlessly, the few rushed beats are redeemed in performance, especially from a pair of stellar returning guest stars bringing even more to the party than usual.
Picking up right when it seemed like supercilious superior Shawn had figured out Michael’s trickery in pretending that his experimental Bad Place was only on it’s first do-over (rather than its 800th or so), “Leap Into Faith” springs the first surprise when Shawn reluctantly reveals that he’s impressed. Impressed that Michael’s scheme to use individually calibrated psychological tortures on his four trial victims is even more effective than the Bad Place’s “squiggliest eyeball corkscrews.” It’s here that the first guest star all-star award has to be given out to Marc Evan Jackson. It’s part of the leap into faith that I’m not that concerned that Shawn is apparently so easily tricked into giving Michael not only grudging praise but also the promotion to Bad Place overseer of new tortures Michael’s always dreamed of. For one thing, there’s the fact that these immortal Bad Place demons (or whatever they are) have been presented as possessing their own decidedly human foibles and blind spots, if not outright blockheadedness. (See Vicky, whose overweening ambition makes her the perfect fall-jerk for Michael’s long con tonight.) For another, I’ve learned not to take everything that happens at face value.
Regardless of Shawn’s sincerity in appreciating Michael’s innovations (even though he still swears by the Bad Place’s good ol’ scorpion diapers), Jackson makes his archly evil supervisor such a masterpiece of wry absurdist deadpan that quibbling feels decidedly ungrateful. Like his other Schur-recurring turn as Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Kevin (where he and Andre Braugher form the deadliest deadpan duo on TV), Jackson delivers the most inventively goofy lines with a straight-faced condescension that turns every minute pause into a laugh line. When Shawn confesses that Michael’s long been the office laughingstock, Jackson’s tiny beat before the last two words of “Some people called you names, like the Thomas Edison of incompetence, or... that dick” is the sort of gift that could convince viewers that they’ve entered their own personal Good Place. Later, he pulls the same trick when, after the hoodwinked Vicky is sealed in one of those cocoons that seem to serve multiple Bad Place purposes, Shawn pronounces the restrainedly triumphant, “and it is gooey in there” with the same inimitable precision.
The resulting subterfuges that make up the bulk of the episode aren’t quite as sharp. Under Shawn’s gaze, Michael must pretend that he’s thrown over his new secret friends, calling in Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani to his office, where he blasts them with a comically lame rehash of the show’s masterful first season reveal. (“Surprise, idiots! You’re all in the Bad Place!”) Everyone plays along, assuming that Shawn’s presence has possibly turned Michael but definitely signals that they not reveal how consistently they’ve seen through Michael’s gambit. The conceit that we, too, aren’t sure about Michael’s allegiance is what doesn’t come off. Sure, Ted Danson sells Michael’s conflicted amazement at getting, as both he and Shawn term it, everything he’s ever wanted. But perhaps he sells it too well, as even his later, very Michael-like inept comedy roasting of his four victims is colored by how much we’ve watched this immortal weirdo reveal his endearingly human side.
Encell’s script does its damnedest to provide cover for the ruse, as Eleanor rallies the demoralized troops while they try to come up with a plan to escape their fate. (Shawn blithely mentions that their brains will be studied then batted around a stadium like beach balls, and the skin will be peeled from their arms, although that last one’s just for fun.) Janet’s no help, as the magnetic cuffs Shawn’s fitted her with not only are irremovable by humans but also render her about as coherent as a college freshman on Spring break. (“Let me braid your hair!,” she cries to the annoyed and suspicious Vicky.) The Good Place has always dealt in deception, putting us on guard for the next thing we’re going to guess wrong about. But the reveal here that Michael’s oddly specific public insults to the quartet have seeded just enough information for Eleanor to make the intuitive leap necessary to discover that he’s still their buddy isn’t the most astounding the show’s ever pulled off. (The final reveal that the group has only actually discovered a handful of those 1,200 clues he sprinkled around does undercut the potential lockstep predictability of the game.)
That goes for the resolution, too, where the hint that Carden’s hilariously awful Bad Janet is actually the freed actual Janet in disguise turns out to be a red herring. Pressed into service scanning the thousand miles of fake Good Place for humans, Bad Janet confirms that they’re not there, having, it seems, hopped a train to the Medium Place with the real Janet’s help. Except they are there, hidden under the train taking Michael’s hungover Bad Place confederates back to the home office. Asking for specifics on such a fanciful world’s rules is some pedantry Chidi would be proud of, but I have to ask what about the gang’s position under the train hides them from Bad Janet’s laser eyes? Even if there were a throwaway line hand-waving the contrivance, it would still come off like lesser The Good Place. Sort of a Medium Place effort.
Still, despite the fact that Michael’s stern-faced reaction to seeing Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, and the still-looped Janet cowering on the train tracks once everyone leaves (Harper’s “That was so scary, so many different times!” is hilarious) fools nobody, Danson makes Michael’s blubbering relief deeply, sweetly funny. That might be a good way to describe “Leap Into Faith,” too, as the apparent triumph of these six people (including Michaels, and Janets) leaves them echoing Michael’s stunned, episode-opening pronouncement, “This is everything we ever wanted.” It’s not that. For one thing, the neighborhood-destroying rager Michael threw as cover for his plan has left the place a graffiti-covered disaster area. For another, their leap into this suddenly empty new world leaves them all adrift, with them—like us—choosing to having faith that there’s more to this new place than just clever showmanship.
- You may be asking who was driving that decoy train to the Medium Place. It’s Derek! Who, in the person of the returning Jason Mantzoukas, takes home the other guest MVP award tonight. Janet’s enthusiastically clueless ex-lover (he and her other ex, Jason, would really make terrific friends) is a walking belly-laugh, the conceit of the beaming Derek using his own name in different intonations for every response is a joke that, in Mantzoukas’ delivery, simply never gets old.
- Eleanor, defining The Good Place’s ongoing leap into faith that a foolhardy belief in human (or whatever) goodness is still possible, and worthwhile: “I vote we ignore everything Michael just said and blindly assume he’s still on our side. Who’s with me!”
- “If it weren’t crazy, they wouldn’t call it a leap of faith. They’d call it a... sit... of doubting!” Let’s calls that one Eleanor’s second best.
- Tahani, infuriated by the blank looks greeting her British-ism “a ten-stone griddle-chip”: “C’mon people, you can get these from context!”
- Trying to manipulate Shawn’s arrival for her own benefit, Vicky’s threat to Michael, “Mama want promotion, ya heard?,” sounds a lot like the old Eleanor.
- Jason, outraged at Michael’s revelation that only Jacksonville Jaguars games are shown in the Bad Place, protests, “All we need is a defense and an offense and some rule changes!”
- At the roast (a Bad Place invention, naturally), Michael taunts Chidi and Eleanor about their shared knowledge that, somewhere in one of the hundreds of iterations of the neighborhood, they’d apparently been truly in love. Chidi, sheepishly: “I consider you one of my closest friends.” Eleanor: “Not now, dude.”
- Shawn: “Normally I would love to hear a man tell a woman she’s crazy.”
- As a thank you for all her medium hospitality over their many do-overs, Mindy St. Clair receives two duffel bags of her beloved cocaine and the very willing “sex robot,” Derek. Sure, he’s got wind chimes for genitals, but Mindy can make it work.
- DJ-ing the goodbye party, Bad Janet alternates solely between “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and Puddle Of Mudd’s “She Hates Me.” Enjoy!