‚ÄúIs that bad?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know, but it‚Äôs weird, man!‚ÄĚ
The Good Place has been so consistently great at subverting our expectations that even calling ‚ÄúThe Brainy Bunch‚ÄĚ my least favorite episode of the series so far isn‚Äôt the warning flare it might be otherwise. Things are getting sweaty and desperate in this third episode (‚ÄúEvery part of my body is either too dry or too wet,‚ÄĚ complains Michael to Janet), both for the Good Place and Bad Place teams. The thing is, it also feels a little uncharacteristically sweaty and desperate for The Good Place, too.
Restating the danger represented by Bad Place douchebag Trevor (Adam Scott, you were missed) as ‚Äúa diabolical, sadistic agent of evil‚ÄĚ sees Michael once more sneaking down to Earth. Thwarted by Trevor‚Äôs ability to disruptively blend with Chidi‚Äôs study group of the damned (since Michael is known to the group as Zack Pizzazz, Gordon Indigo, and the world‚Äôs most reassuring bartender and librarian, respectively), Michael enlists Janet to keep an eye on Trevor‚Äôs attempts to drive the group apart with bad advice, bottomless shots, incessant ‚Äúdank memes,‚ÄĚ and general try-hard Ned Flanders-esque chipper obnoxiousness. (Jason thinks Trevor is cool, which is a red flag.) But, since both Janet and Michael share Trevor‚Äôs earthbound powerlessness, they‚Äôre stuck trying to counter Trevor‚Äôs deviousness from the shadows. Or, in Janet‚Äôs case, from the beer-fetching cowgirl waitress persona she adopts at the garish Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet Trevor insists they go to. (‚ÄúI will go physically pick those up I guess, and then walk them back there with my feet,‚ÄĚ says the powerless Janet through clenched teeth after failing to make the group‚Äôs first round magically appear.)
There, Trevor plants seeds of ethical misgivings in Chidi for hanging out with the subjects of his study, drives Eleanor back to her motel room with personalized team sweatshirts and reprehensible Jamaican accents (Adam Scott channeling Michael Scott at his worst), and tries to hook up a drunk Tahani and Jason, thinking that the morning-after shame will send Tahani home on the first private jet. Meanwhile, the rattled Janet is stuck being unable to just manifest things, ranting to Michael about how so much of humans‚Äô lives is spent ‚Äújust waiting for things to be over.‚ÄĚ (Draft beer takes forever.) While Michael proclaims his faith that Chidi, like he‚Äôs done every single time over 800 do-overs, will choose to help Eleanor, he‚ÄĒdecked out in a trenchcoat and fedora, as is his Dick Tracy conception of cool and surreptitious‚ÄĒcan‚Äôt help but betray his shaken confidence. So much so that he tries to reprise his avuncular librarian character on the fly to Chidi, introducing his much-less-natural advice by introducing himself as ‚Äúthe librarian, from the library.‚ÄĚ
But Michael, soulless creature from the pits of DMV hell that he‚Äôs been for all eternity, does have faith. ‚ÄúThese four humans are all I care about in the universe,‚ÄĚ Michael snaps at the smug Trevor, and, as ever, this immortal weirdo‚Äôs transformation remains terribly affecting, even as ‚ÄúThe Brainy Bunch‚ÄĚ admits some doubts as to the season‚Äôs direction. To start, the earthly shenanigans this time out aren‚Äôt as fresh as they have been. The Aussie all-American restaurant gags feel forced, from Trevor admiring the ‚Äúswamp stench‚ÄĚ of the Florida table, to the Mount Rushmore of Hulk Hogan, Judge Judy, Paris Hilton, and David Hasselhoff, to the restaurant‚Äôs ‚Äúmanifest destiny special‚ÄĚ where you can pay extra to kick anyone off of any table you want, it‚Äôs all clever enough, I suppose. But it comes off just the wrong side of wacky, like a‚ÄĒand I don‚Äôt say this lightly‚ÄĒa latter-season Simpsons conceit. (The same goes for Eleanor‚Äôs choice of Australian gossip mag, Aus Weekly.)
And yet . . .
When Michael and Janet (and the gloating Trevor) are summoned by Mike O‚ÄôMalley‚Äôs Doorman (we find out his name‚Äôs Jeff) back to the Judge‚Äôs realm, Judge Gen explains how all these repeated incursions have, as Michael hinted last week, caused ‚Äúripple effects‚ÄĚ on Earth‚Äôs reality. There‚Äôs a lot to unpack in Gen‚Äôs assertions that some of the inexplicable changes (the Jacksonville Jaguars being sort-of good, The World‚Äôs Greatest Showman being a hit, Brexit) are things that have actually happened on our Earth. But it‚Äôs also tantalizing how the Cowboy Skyscraper Cafe and its attendant food gags (including the drink special, The Fourth Of July, consisting of half a blended apple pie, Southern Comfort, and Coke, served in a Chevy hubcap) smack of Michael‚Äôs effortful fake Good Place. (Think last week‚Äôs muffin cart, ‚ÄúWe Crumb From A Land Down Under,‚ÄĚ too.) It‚Äôs like the old reality of Michael‚Äôs neighborhood is infecting our Earth. If it is, indeed, our Earth. Conspiracy theories in the comments, please.
And then there‚Äôs the Judge, played to loopy yet authoritative perfection by Maya Rudolph. Upon discovering that Michael and Janet have disobeyed the terms of their experiment, she‚ÄĒafter a series of exaggerated vocal tics and hand gestures that suggest just how long Gen has been bored out of her mind in her NCIS-bingeing solitude‚ÄĒplans to summarily whisk them both back to the Bad Place. (She simply hurls suck-up Trevor into the void.) On one hand, that‚Äôs only fair. There was a deal, one that stretched the very rules of existence, and they violated it. Gen‚Äôs still willing to let their experiment play out sans interference (saying the humans ‚Äúneed to hit the regular point threshold‚ÄĚ on their own), but is indifferent to the fact that her decision means Michael will be ‚Äúretired‚ÄĚ (a lot more painful than it sounds, as you recall), and Janet will be turned into an inert marble for all eternity. Again, fair enough, if fairness is indeed what the show‚Äôs universe, as presented, is truly built upon.
Gen is by far the fairest nigh-omniscient figure we‚Äôve met, seemingly free from Shawn‚Äôs vindictive glee in tormenting others (goo-cocoons aren‚Äôt just for his enemies), or Michael‚Äôs muddled aspiration. When the four humans told her their plight, she listened, she empathized, and she sentenced them to hell, essentially, because rules are rules. There‚Äôs a gnawing unease about that aspect of The Good Place‚Äôs universe that‚Äôs a lot more existentially frightening than all the penis-flatteners and food that turns to spiders in your mouth that supposedly await the damned in the Bad Place. Rudolph makes Gen a figure of genial, even sentimental amorality in the service of supposed impartiality. Remember when the Judge teared up at the Facebook video she made of her brief time together with the four people she was about to send to hell? That chilling mix of personal mushiness with institutional coldness runs through the episode here, just as it‚Äôs lurked through every episode of The Good Place. If the so-called arbiters of good and evil can recognize, and even embody, human faults without sympathy for those struggling against them, then we have to ask again, what the fuck sort of moral system is this?
And so we cheer on Michael and Janet‚Äôs decision to use Janet‚Äôs backlog of manifested items as distraction to make a break back to Earth. And we‚Äôre roused by the dour Doorman‚Äôs decision to betray his boss, tossing his sacred key to Michael with the tersely hilarious, ‚ÄúGood luck, frog man. I‚Äôm pulling for you.‚ÄĚ Gen, hurling Janet‚Äôs heap of human wishes after Trevor into the void, is cast as the villain, not because anything she‚Äôs done is wrong, but because the system she‚Äôs enforcing appears rigged against anyone who steps out of line. (Remember, we have never received reliable information about a single person who‚Äôs racked up enough points to make it to the Good Place.) And so The Good Place blows itself up again, and, as it‚Äôs done repeatedly throughout, it does so by leaping through a door before we expect it.
If the squabbles and subterfuge taking place on Earth in this third episode paled in comparison to what we‚Äôre used to from The Good Place, the fact that The Good Place (episode written by Dan Schofield) rushes ahead of our expectations suggests that Michael Schur and company, as ever, have a grand design that will only come together in retrospect.