By the end of the second hour of The Good Place season three, it seems like we’re finally about to dive into the meat of the story Mike Schur and Co. want to tell us, one that will hopefully take us away from Earth for a while. However, to get to the interdimensional portal the humans accidentally discover at the end of “The Snowplow,” the writers fast-track some important character beats that leave me wondering why we spent so long watching the gang inside of Chidi’s classroom at all.
Picking up moments after last week’s episode, Michael and Janet return to the Cowboy Skyscraper Buffet bathroom thinking they’ve made a clean break, but when the Doorman’s key begins to ring (I’m left to wonder if resident pun-picker Megan Amram came up with that one), they are reminded that they’ve committed a serious crime against the Judge, the most powerful being we’ve encountered on the show so far. Despite her indignation, Michael maintains his resolve to save the four humans. He and Janet set up shop in an abandoned journalism department office at the university where Chidi is working and begin their surveillance once more, this time through security camera footage rather than ticker-tape machines. As several unanticipated roadblocks get in the way of the group’s moral progress—Jason and Tahani nearly sleep together, and an unemployed Eleanor realizes she can’t afford to live in Australia much longer—Michael and Janet intervene to keep things on a steady course. Tahani reconnects with former fling Larry Hemsworth (no, he’s not really the lost fourth Hemsworth brother, but he is played by Ben Lawson, another Australian actor with a sharp jawline), and Eleanor “accidentally” comes upon a winning lottery ticket that solves her money troubles.
However, the meddling soon results in unexpected consequences, like Tahani’s plan to return to England after getting engaged to Larry. Chidi and Simone plan to pause the study to look for additional funding to begin with a new test group, and Jason…well, Jason finds a home with the Australian chapter of Jacksonville Jaguar fans. All of these changes leave Eleanor worried that she’ll be losing the one friend group that she’s been able to maintain for any considerable length of time, and at Tahani’s engagement party, she makes a last-ditch plea for her friends to stick around. When she doesn’t get her way, she breaks down in typical Eleanor fashion, scooping up a fistful of cake that had her picture printed on it and fleeing outside to sulk.
Simone comes to the rescue, expounding on moral philosophy in such an intimate way that reveals herself to be perhaps a better teacher than even Chidi. Eleanor is still left with a major question, though: why does she continue to self-destruct even after a year of trying to better herself? It seems like after two seasons of depicting Eleanor as the champion of changeability, her time on Earth has proven that true change can be immensely difficult to come by. She’s nothing close to the leader she was in previous resets, and her desire to keep the group together now (compared to, say, her refusal to leave Tahani and Jason behind in the Bad Place during the Judge’s test in last season’s “The Burrito”) appears to come from her insecurity as an individual rather than the purer love she has shown for her friends before.
“Me versus Us”
In last week’s recap I mentioned that the pacing has felt off as the writers have struggled to bring our characters up to speed and rebuild their interpersonal chemistry on Earth. This week that issue was magnified through a series of time jumps that take us approximately one year into the future. A time jump or two is absolutely necessary given the progress of this season—three episodes in (four, if you count the double-length season premiere as separate chapters) and Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason all still feel like the strangers they were in the series’ first few episodes. Unfortunately, for a show that is built around last-minute twists that need to be resolved by the opening minutes of the next installment, the only real opportunity to execute a time jump is in the middle of an episode. As a result, the bulk of the character development and relationship building in “The Snowplow” takes place offscreen. The clips we do see are displayed four at a time in a grid that prevents us from ascertaining much other than the obvious “the gang learns about moral philosophy.”
None of this would be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the second half of the episode demands a version of the Good Place group that is intimately close in order for Eleanor’s emotional outburst at Tahani’s engagement party to work properly. Kristen Bell does an excellent job of communicating the pain and fear that Eleanor is anticipating with the break-up of the Brainy Bunch through her face and the childlike way she shuts down Chidi’s attempts to console her. But these characters still feel like they’ve all just met at summer camp, acquaintances who don’t necessarily merit such an outpouring of emotion in the first place. Perhaps the greatest miscalculation on the writing team’s part was keeping the group holed up in Chidi’s classroom for so long. The first two season’s worth of classroom scenes were never portrayed as bonding moments for the humans. It was moments like Eleanor and Chidi picking up garbage around the Good Place neighborhood, Michael physically illustrating the trolley problem, and the countless escapes to Mindy St. Claire’s Medium Place that bonded the group together. Since we haven’t seen any of those connections being formed (aside from Chidi’s visit to Eleanor’s apartment at the end of last week’s episode), Eleanor’s tantrum feels a bit unearned.
On the other hand, Simone has been so well-written and acted that her advice to Eleanor outside the party comes off not only as genuine, but also more effective than any of Michael’s interventions since he filled in as her bartender last season. Her explanation of “me versus us” and “us versus them” is not only a succinct method of summarizing human interaction, it also speaks directly to Eleanor’s personality, which is definitely stuck on “me versus us.” I’m worried, however, that the show might not have long-term plans for her if/when the group leaves Earth. The way she left the party immediately after consoling Eleanor feels like a convenient way not to have to deal with the portal reveal, which would, after all, be just as shocking to her as it would be the others. But would Simone have to die to enter the afterlife? If not, would Michael even consider bringing her along if Chidi asks?
The show is also raising a number of scary questions regarding the long-term security of Janet and Michael, both of whom have been taking on more human qualities since they’ve been spending so much time on Earth. The seed of humanity in Janet’s crush on Jason has become full-blown envy, and her face while watching Michael rationalize his plan to return to the Judge at the end of the episode reveals a pity and compassion that we haven’t quite seen in her before. Likewise, Michael’s willingness to move mountains for his friends now shows its more human side in the growing desperation over his inability to save them. It’s a look we haven’t seen from him since his faux-insecurity as a supposed up-and-coming Good Place architect in season one, but here Ted Danson uses every muscle in his face and quiver in his voice to portray that anxiety and sense of doom.
With these two acting independently of their original purposes, what are we to make of their actions both in the meddling in the lives of humans (and, as the Judge says, causing “ripples” in the progression of history) and in directly disobeying the orders handed to them from higher powers? Deontologically, Michael may be able to justify his actions by placing the value of four people’s lives above the value of following orders, but from a utilitarian perspective, he is saving only four people and risking the lives of countless others who may be caught in the rippling effects. Not to mention the potential peril he is placing figures like the Judge in by defying her. Michael has mentioned that his punishment for failure is to be “burned on the surface of a billion suns,” so if there is a higher power than the Judge, I can only imagine what consequences she will face for allowing Michael and Janet to meddle with Earth’s outcomes. Plus, we aren’t sure if they will be judged as the interdimensional beings they are or as people, since they have been living autonomously on Earth for so long. Are the Accountants keeping track of their points? Though their actions are generally well-meaning (and, as we learn with Tahani, intentions are a big consideration when determining the point value of any decision), they are also becoming increasingly less justifiable in the big picture. I’m excited, if not nervous, to find out how they will have to answer for their actions.
A Return to Form
On a less dramatic note, while the pacing was feeling rushed for the second episode in a row, this week the jokes seemed to really stand on their own. Throwing Michael’s decision to purchase upgraded computer gear for the study behind the red herring of Janet’s desire to see Jason in cutoff jeans makes Chidi’s declaration of “Superboard, activate!” even funnier. Janet’s encyclopedic knowledge bank leads to some of the best lines of the night (“Go to her!”), and Larry Hemsworth is exactly the ironic figure of self-loathing we needed to match Tahani’s ego. If we can’t keep Simone around for the next chapter of the story, I would gladly take Larry along, if only to hear him pronounce TMZ as “Tee-Em-Zed” on a regular basis.
For the most part, the switch to Earth for these early episodes has given cinematographer David J. Miller plenty of room to craft a distinct visual palate from previous seasons, which largely took place inside the bright, green-colored Good Place simulation Michael handcrafted. The grassy campus of the university in “Everything is Bonzer!” and the courtyard of the mansion Tahani finds on “HeirBnB” this week are shot beautifully, taking advantage of the natural environment’s lighting and color. However, where flashback sequences exploring Eleanor and Co.’s lives (and season 2’s almost entirely earthbound “Somewhere Else” for that matter) explored a drab, lifeless depiction of the planet in ironic contrast to the afterlife’s vivid imagery, this season’s Earth feels at times like a simulation of itself. The bathroom set, especially when we saw it for an extended period of time last week, feels computer generated at times. Scenes set in the classroom are often shot flatly in shot-reverse-shot through some sort of wide-angle lens that makes the room feel unnatural, almost as if it were a backdrop added in post-production. Unfortunately, this has made some scenes feel like they were produced for a cheaply made multi-cam sitcom, the constraints of which this show has bucked for two seasons. It’s a small complaint for a show that spends so much on visual effects, but one that has made one of the prettiest-looking network shows appear a bit more ordinary.
Still, as we head into episode four (or five, as the production coding would have it), the show feels like it’s finally on the upswing. With a last-minute twist that serves up countless opportunities in the gang’s discovery of the interdimensional portal that Michael and Janet have opened, the show feels like it’s returning to form. The jokes are landing better, and, even if I don’t entirely buy the group dynamic the way I did after last season’s series of reboots, moments like Simone’s speech to Eleanor remind me that for every misstep in the season’s first three installments, the show still survives on heart. And boy does this show have a hell of a lot of that.