This The Good Place review contains spoilers
The Good Place Season 2 Episode 8
One of the best aspects of The Good Place is how easy it is to commit to.
Every year it seems like we get busier and busier (or maybe it just feels that way for me but I doubt it) and in response the seemingly infinite media landscape just spits out more must-watch shows after must-watch shows.
Time is at an all-time premium. Thankfully, The Good Place doesn’t ask much of it from us: just 22-minute episodes, 13 times a season. That doesn’t make The Good Place unique on television. Many networks and streaming services are shortening their episode runs per seasons of TV and half-hour comedies have always been, well a half-hour.
What does make The Good Place different, however, is how much pure life (and after-life) it’s capable of cramming into those half hours.
Sometimes it doesn’t always work. I still find last week’s “Janet and Michael” to be overstuffed and anticlimactic. More often than not, however, it does.
This week’s episode (and the final one until 2018 thanks to Roger Goodell), “Derek,” is one of those vintage Good Place episodes that covers a lot of ground and generates a lot of fascinating, complicated emotions within a scant 22 minutes.
On a pure plot level. There is a lot going on here. Janet must deal with her newly created human, Derek (as portrayed with typical wild-eyed enthusiasm by Jason Mantzoukas), and Eleanor, Chidi, and Michael must in turn deal with her. In scheme plot to get to the good place, they can’t have a literal man child running around the neighborhood, climbing trees and drawing the attention of Vicki.
They also, much to Michael’s chagrin, cannot just kill the guy. And of course, thanks to Professor Chidi, they can’t enact their second plan of breaking up Tahani and Jason just so Janet will feel better and get rid of Derek. That’s not ethically sound, as it turns out.
“Has anyone ever told you what a drag you are?” – Michael asks.
“Everyone. Constantly.” – Chidi says.
Add to that Tahani and Jason’s charming vacation turned surprise wedding ceremony down at a campsite on the edge of a neighborhood and you have a preposterous amount of exposition for 22 minutes of running time.
It’s impressive that “Derek” is able to make all of these self-contained life-or-death stakes coherent in the short amount of time it has. Even more impressive though is how it’s able to draw out real human pathos in the process.
Obviously it’s funny that Jason Mendoza has fallen for two out of the three available women in his Bad Place stay (one of which isn’t even technically a woman or human being) and both times he has almost immediately proposed marriage.
Michael Schur once said that “the dumb guy” is always an archetype that works in comedy. You can find them in almost every half-hour comedy on television and certainly in anything Schur has had a hand in (Andy Dwyer on Parks and Rec, Hitchcock and Scully on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, etc.).
Jason undoubtedly fits that same archetype and does indeed bring a welcomely goofy comedic energy to the show because of it. Still, his boundless enthusiasm for other people brings a lot more to the table than just an easy laugh line for writers. He’s a legitimately appealing person and it’s charming to watch him experience (after)life without stopping to even process it. When he convinces Tahani to marry him just by saying “we like each other and I’ll always be nice to you,” it’s not hard to understand why she says yes.
Sadly, Tahani and Jason’s marriage that suddenly, improbably seems like a valid idea gets interrupted anyway. Michael, Chidi, and Eleanor rush to the “ceremony” where Janet has been called to officiate the wedding. Jason is in his Blake Bortles jersey of course. Chidi has given Michael his blessing to tell Tahani and Jason about Jason’s past lives because they’ve run out of options. Michael can’t bring himself to do it.
“Professor Buzzkill got in my head,” he says.
So the unpleasant task falls to Eleanor, as it so often does. She hates to be the bearer of bad news (“I think you mean “bad news bears,” says Jason) but tells Jason and Tahani the truth.
Despite my initial (and continual) mistrust of “Janet and Michael” it works perfectly as the beginning part of a tandem with “Derek.” “Janet and Michael” was a complete, logically told story but it didn’t have the emotional payoff that “Derek” brings. Eleanor definitely erred in telling the highly literal Janet just to “move on” last week and this week she rectifies that by realizing a truth, herself: there is no such thing as moving on.
Eleanor tells Janet that the only thing that will make her heartbreak over Jason better is time. It’s a hard concept to explain to a being that doesn’t experience time (other than to condition her skin) but she’s going to have to try to do so anyway.
“To get through real heartbreak you just have to sit with your feelings, mull it over and power through,” Eleanor says.
The introduction of a brand new human life last week in the form of Derek seemed like a rare misstep for such a carefully plotted, emotionally astute show. Instead the episode “Derek” reveals that Derek himself is little more than a painful lesson. What’s so charming and appealing about The Good Place is how much it cares about learning. These characters all accept – right or wrong, that the only way to make it into heaven is through learning new moral concepts and enacting self-improvement.
That has been a major theme throughout the season and to witness the supposedly emotionless and amoral Janet get to learn along with them is weirdly touching. Also she made Derek’s dick and balls wind chimes and that’s funny. After Janet has reabsorbed bits of her persona from Derek through a passionate kiss*, and locked him away neatly in a box and sent him back to the void, Eleanor must follow through on her own bit of advice.
Just as pain and heartbreak never fully goes away, neither does love. Or at least we think that from the perspective of having finite lives on fixed timelines. Eleanor, however, has technically lived hundreds of times and in one of those timelines she just happened to tell her close friend she loved him. Not only that but she has the video evidence to prove it – taped over a copy of Canonball Run II.
The contextual world that The Good Place has built for itself is so fascinating and well-researched that it can present a moment as emotionally charged as the end of “Derek” – a moment where Eleanor finally decides to show Chidi the tape she took home from Mindy St. Clair’s.
Chidi is astonished
“I’ve not ever been that sure of anything,” he says. “I once tried to rent socks. How did I say that so easily?”
“I get how you said it,” Eleanor responds. I’m a total smoke show. But how did I say it so easily?”
Chidi tactfully says that while he finds that tape fascinating, he doesn’t carry those same feelings for Eleanor right now. Eleanor says the same thing. But we know that’s not true. She’s watched this tape over and over again with the same reverence that Mindy St. Clair holds for the actual Cannonball Run II. She feels something and she has no idea why.
Lots of us can feel that way sometimes. Lots of us also don’t have videographic evidence from a different life that we’ve always felt that way though. “Derek” is a fitting end to the first half of The Good Place season 2 not just because of its Shawn cliffhanger but because it nails perfectly the hornet’s nest of moral and emotional confusion that is being a human being. Even the demons and robots are getting in on the action. All in 22-minutes’ time.