Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Good Place "Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis"

In my past reviews, I’ve spent a lot of words talking about plot and mythology. I have questioned whether The Good Place is truly paradise after all, wondered whether Eleanor is really a mistaken entry and questioned Michael’s true purpose. Mostly, though, I worried about how they would walk the thin line of making Eleanor a good person without taking away her edges. 

The beginning of this episode confirmed a few of my fears. In the teaser, Eleanor performs an unprompted selfless act for the first time. Of course, she forgets Chidi’s yogurt (“Fully Charged Battery” would have hit the spot, I’m sure), but we are seeing Eleanor progress and no amount of Bell’s hilarious wide-eyed scramble home could assuage my belief that the show was already eroding its most predictable source of both plot and comedy: Eleanor’s awfulness. 

Well, the rest of this episode tackled my fears in an interesting way. And what it did, essentially, was focus on different characters and highlight emotion instead of mythology. Instead of grappling with Eleanor’s moral progression, it expanded its outlook and focused on two neglected characters: Chidi and Tahani. 

The sinkhole that Eleanor created in the middle of The Good Place, giving the episode its name, is the impetus to tell both stories. For Tahani, she follows Michael after he is visibly upset upon hearing that the sinkhole is growing (Michael: “Tahani dear, could you show us to a private room where no one could see or hear us even if I were to yell very loudly out of fear?”). After Michael leaves his angelic technological doodad open, Tahani discovers that she is next to last in a ranking of The Good Place residents. 

Of course, as viewers, we are going to take these rankings with a grain of salt, after seeing both Eleanor and Jason near the top of the list (my theory is that the rankings are of people most detrimental to The Good Place), but for Tahani, the rankings dredge up some of her worst fears. In a series of flashbacks to her family life, we learn that Tahani has always tried her best and has always been out-shined by her elder sister. 

These flashbacks have plenty of laughs such as Tahani’s parents accidentally spell her name “Tahini” (“like the sauce”) in the will, but they’re also deeply and unapologetically sad. Being a perfect cartoon giraffe isn’t an example of Tahani’s arrogance. Rather, it’s her prison. A brilliant piece of writing, really.  

The A-story with Chidi is a little more lightweight but still affecting. As shown by the yogurt trip, Eleanor has been getting better (“I didn’t even try a dozen samples I didn’t want just to spite some jerk who was holding up the line!”), but Chidi is strangely upset over her progress. The sinkhole forces them into close quarters and causes tensions to boil over. 

Eleanor isn’t emotionally sophisticated enough to figure out what is wrong with Chidi, she later notes, “I say we [swing]. It’ll get them to stop asking questions.” Once the marriage counselor and identity theft detective see them arguing, we get to the bottom of things. Chidi is upset about helping Eleanor because if she gets to stay in The Good Place, he’ll never meet his real soul mate. There’s some real emotion in there, especially because the show isn’t committed to making them a couple. After their rift is mended, the sinkhole closes up and allows the town to return to semi-normalcy. 

The focus on other characters besides Eleanor may seem obvious in retrospect, but it took me by surprise and I can’t wait for the inevitable Michael episode. Danson was in fine form this week, with his “normal walk” out of Tahani’s room and his small-talk attempts, but the real award this week probably goes to William Jackson Harper who makes Chidi lovable even as his concerns are undeniably selfish. Overall, this was a very funny episode that departed from the others in intriguing ways.

Grade: B+  

  • I mentioned both Eleanor’s dash home as well as Michael’s stiff panicked walk, but some love needs to go to Jason’s skip out the door when class was dismissed. Monty Python has got nothing on these funny walks. 
  • Speaking of Jason, his one story this episode starts with a “black market alligator dealer with a pierced jawbone” and only gets better from there. The writing is great and the delivery is better. Manny Jacinto is a treasure and I’m upset I have never heard of him before.
  • Want to give a shoutout to my old Biomedical Ethics professor. I don’t remember his name, but when Utilitarianism came up, I turned to my dog and said “John Stuart Mills!” He was unimpressed.
  • Tahini describing her sister: “The youngest person to ever graduate from Oxford University, she’s a world class painter, a social activist, iconoclast, Olympic gold medalist for archery, BAFTA award winner for a documentary on her Grammy award album, and person most likely to be Banksy.”
  • Love Harper’s forced repetition of the word “Cool” after hearing the marriage counselor describe her book.
  • It’s consistently great how quickly Eleanor defaults to sex to solve problems. There’s always this undercurrent of sexual opportunism to many of her interactions and it always gets a laugh from me. Reminds me very strongly of Jerri Blank from Strangers With Candy
  • “My brain is horny.” 

Photo Credit: NBC

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