This The Good Place review contains spoilers
The Good Place Season 2 Episode 3
The amount of confidence on display in TV comedies right now is staggering. When people talk about the golden era of TV or Peak TV, oftentimes our minds conjure up dark, eminently streamable masterpieces like Breaking Bad or The Wire.
Let’s not forget, however, the sheer ballsiness on display week to week from perhaps the most reliable TV entity of all time: the sitcom.
In recent years we’ve seen half-hour comedies so confident and assured of themselves that they’re willing to blow through whole seasons of storylines in a matter of minutes just because “eh, we’ll come up with something later.” And they always do. On Silicon Valley, two seasons in a row now, Richard Hendrix and company have hatched elaborate schemes that appear to be the new direction for an entire season before they’re immediately thwarted. Meanwhile, Rick and Morty sets up episodes whose sole purpose is to just burn through an obscene amount of potential story ideas within 22 minutes. Reviews of Rick and Morty are part praise for the show’s ingenuity and part support groups for reviewers and readers who are terrified the show can’t possibly keep this up.
Comedy TV writers have gotten so good and so bold that they’ve done the TV storytelling version of splitting the atom: they’re bending the space-time continuum to their will as a joke. Plot and time aren’t just plot and time anymore: they’re part of the shows’ respective humor itself.
Ok, that was egg-headish and excessive I know. I just wanted to properly set the scene before I declared that of all of recent TV comedy episodes that burn through plot and ideas with reckless abandon, The Good Place’s “Dance Dance Resolution” might be the best.
“Dance Dance Resolution” may even be the best episode of The Good Place yet because…well, howe could it not be. It condenses over 800 potential seasons of show into one, brilliant, exceptional package while never coming across as excessive or clinical.
Michael Schur and his writers (this ep being penned by comedy writing veteran/genius Megan Anram) have developed a knack for surprising us with the show’s various twists and turns but then almost immediately afterwords making it seem like the only possible path they ever could have taken.
Case in point: “Dance Dance Resolution” begins with Michael speaking into his tape recorder that they’re about to begin attempt number 3 at making Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani’s life a literal hell. He then adds that he thinks…no knows that this will be the final version. After last week’s second attempt ending after just one day, it was hard to tell where the show was going to go from here. But the moment Michael asserts so confidently that this will be the final version, it’s clear exactly what route we’re about to take. It’s Groundhog Day time.
The Good Place isn’t exactly telegraphing where it’s going here but it makes it clear enough that it’s foreshadowing something that the audience is prepared to accept that #3 probably won’t be the last attempt we’ll be seeing this episode. Sure enough, it’s not.
Here is an abbreviated list of the hell that Michael goes through in attempting to create the perfect utopian version of actual hell. Attempt #3 actually seems to last longer than 1! After Eleanor calls Tahani a “mean giraffe” at the opening party, mean giraffes attack the neighborhood the following day. Michael’s portrait will be in the hell hall of fame in no time – right next to the guy who invented bees with teeth.
Of course Eleanor figures it all out eventually on Day 128. So Michael tries again and again and again and again. We see attempt #11, then 32, then 57, then 99, then 108. Each time Eleanor is able to suss it out. Michael even makes it way too easy on her one time, having Eleanor’s soulmate Sebastian perform a spoken-word jazz opera for her. “No version of heaven for anyone would include three hours of this. We’re in the Bad Place, aren’t we?”
Ok, Eleanor, that was a gimme. So more attempts follow…and more and more and more and more. By attempt #484, Michael is no longer even bothering to shave. This is truly one of the most deliriously fun and demented montages in network sitcom history. The Good Place is excellent about crafting a believable (or in some cases deliberately unbelievable) world and likable characters but it’s also hard not to just imagine the writers involved having the time of their lives figuring out which food item should curse the inhabitants of the Bad Place this time. Knish from a Rose and Sushi and the Banshees sound appropriately hellish but my own version of heaven certainly includes Hokey Gnocchi.
Really so much of the appeal of The Good Place to this point is how…I guess “writerly” a show it is. To watch it and participate in its weird delights is in some way to actually feel like you’re in the writers’ room witnessing its creation. It’s so creative that if not pulled off correctly by the actors and producers, it could almost feel too creative and cold.
Thankfully, the actors are completely up to the task and the show, even when in the midst of this Groundhog Day-esque absurdity doesn’t look past the human element. Michael, after all is trying his best to understand the strange beasts that are human beings so the show is equally as invested.
So when things finally “settle down” sometime after attempt #808, we begin to gain some insight into what all these restarts and endless cycle of suffering means. For starters, it turns out this has been pretty hard on the demonic actors involved. Vicki and the other actors go on strike. She also blackmails Michael, saying she won’t tell Sean how far beyond attempt #3 they are if he re-sets one more time and puts her in charge.
Meanwhile, Eleanor and Chidi stumble across evidence that they’re in the Bad Place for the 800-somethingth time when they see some “actors” smoking cigars behind the scenes. Eleanor immediately summons Janet and asks her if there’s a place she and Chidi can run to. As it turns out there is and they board the train back to Mindy’s house in the “Medium Place.”
It’s at the Medium Place where “Dance Dance Resolution” makes this whole thing emotionally worthwhile. It’s one thing to have a hilarious montage of countless resets. It’s another thing entirely to make it emotionally resonate. The Good Place is able to pull it off, however, through the sheer force of Mindy’s pervy-ness. Mindy is used to Eleanor and Chidi’s interruptions at this point. This represents at least the 15th time they’ve come to her seeking help. She knows that they don’t want to stay with her and will inevitable return to the Bad Place to try to defeat Michael. She even has the details of all their previous attempts written down for them to peruse.
More importantly, however, she has video evidence that Chidi and Eleanor are in love. Sometime around Mindy visit #6, she cut a hole in her wall and videotaped Eleanor and Chidi in bed. Eleanor tells Chidi she loves him. To which current Eleanor responds “I’ve only told ‘I love you’ to two men in my entire life. Stone Cold Steve Austin and a stranger in a club who I mistook for Stone Cold Steve Austin.”
Now Chidi is on the list. And as viewers we didn’t even see it in realtime. There is that supreme storytelling confidence again. We understand that Eleanor and Chidi are likely to be an item at some point throughout the show’s run but to see it so early on and indirectly in what could charitably be called a “flashback” is striking. At first it calls into question whether love is really as important and strong as all the poems say it is. Eleanor can’t even remember saying it. But at the same time – hasn’t she been feeling it this whole time? 800+ times in a row? She’s been in love for centuries without ever fully realizing it except for a two-minute span, hundreds of realities ago. Oh, and she found this out on a taped-over Cannonball Run DVD. This show.
The Good Place could have dedicated the rest of this season to Michael attempt #900 through 19,000 and it would have been perfect watchable – maybe even great. But the last minutes of “Dance Dance Resolution” suggest that things have come to a head – thanks in part to a stupid and useless story from Jason about his Jacksonville dance troupe Dance Dance Resolution.
Michael and Eleanor come to the same conclusion independently of each other: they need to work together. Eleanor and company don’t want to restart and Michael doesn’t want to spend eternity being tortured.
At episode’s beginning it’s a conclusion that would have seemed wildly unlikely but by the end it’s the only thing that makes sense.