Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

“He just smoked a big bowl of ennui.”

If you’ll allow it: A show as good as The Good Place makes me doubt myself. Wait, that’s not quite it. A show as good in its unique way as is The Good Place makes grading an episode like “Existential Crisis” an exercise in second-guessing, even more than usual for a practiced self-doubter such as myself. That’s more like it. Looking back to the series’ first season, what I felt was the show’s first worryingly predictable and (lightly) disappointing episode turned out, once the overall plan of creator Michael Schur became clear, to be a seemingly deliberate feint toward the ordinary in order to throw viewers (and reviewers) off his scent. (And when I say ordinary there I’m speaking in relative terms about a show whose premise and execution asks its viewers to accommodate both heady questions of morality and philosophy right alongside vibrator jokes and flying shrimp.)

But all that aside and judged on its own terms, “Existential Crisis” is predictable, or at least as predictable as an episode of television about an immortal sort-of demon (the term is “a little racist” according to Michael), forced to contemplate mortality for the first time can be. Like “Tahani Al-Jamil,” “Existential Crisis” functions as both an exploration of character and an exposition- and hijinx-heavy place-setter for what’s to come. If I enjoyed “Existential Crisis” a bit less, it’s likely because of how high the show has set my expectations at this point. I’m spoiled, basically.

Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

To continue the comparison, both episodes relied on the unfolding of the Good Place’s rules to make us laugh. There, Michael’s attempts to ease the ever-waffling Chidi into a new hobby (after confiding that even he couldn’t make it through the tome representing Chidi’s life’s work in one go) suggested that The Good Place would settle for tickling us with the delightful, as we saw more of what Michael, Janet, and the Good Place were capable of springing on us. Here, in a re-jiggered Good Place where Michael is forced to team up with his erstwhile victims to avoid being found out (and destroyed), the jokes come at us with similarly silly and imaginative speed. With the ambitious but unimaginative Vicky in charge, there’s a wacky party intended to torture status-obsessed Tahani, complete with baby monkeys, puppy pits, giraffes, and real unicorns you can ride. (And unseen, presumably giant kangaroos in whose pouches you can ride.) There’s also the not-inconsiderable spectacle of Michael—thrown into the titular funk by Chidi’s lesson about death—flinging himself into every stereotype of male midlife mania as only an immortal can. Ted Danson, his hair teased into a rakish front-flop, makes Michael’s desperate embrace of every d-bag divorced dad cliché (red convertible, earring, samba lessons, Red Bull, Drakkar Noir, pushups, the Sharper Image, egregious use of the words “babe,” and “namaste”) come off as a suitably fast-forwarded natural consequence of his existential horror. (Janet is pressed into obedient service as Michael’s blonde arm candy, Jeanette, although she remains Janet, non-judgementally rebuffing Michael’s condescending order to eat something by stating, “I don’t eat anything.”)

Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

But it’s that instant gratification gag that’s the problem (again, this is me looking a gift horse in the mouth, and I get that), as “Existential Crisis” clips along through premise, conflict, and resolution so fast that it feels ultimately unsatisfying. The idea that Chidi’s efforts to get Michael to take part in the group’s ethics classes won’t work because Michael has no concept of mortality is the episode’s most promising theme. That Chidi and Eleanor’s partnership is less profound now than it was is appropriate—even though they’ve been through Michael’s charade over 800 times (and have declared their love for each other at least once), this particular Eleanor and Chidi are largely strangers. Still, as we found out, they always team up, always, and they make a formidable duo here, thinking on the fly after Chidi’s insight sends Michael fleeing into a dangerously showy denial. (The gag where he disappears on them at Vicky’s party and immediately reappears in full midlife crisis cool dad mode is hilariously timed.) And Eleanor’s final appeal that brings Michael back from the brink of despair (or of having Janet/Jeanette whip up Dubai for a debauched gambling weekend) shows Kristen Bell at her best, as Eleanor, reflecting on her own history of denying her feelings on the subject, tells him about how death informs life. (Stupid mortal human life, anyway.) “So we’re a little bit sad all the time,” she reaches out to him, “That’s just part of the deal. If you try to ignore your sadness it just ends up leaking out of you.”

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

One problem is that the flashbacks we get of Eleanor’s life on Earth aren’t as affecting as they’ve been. (That shot of the young emancipated Eleanor eating her self-bought birthday cake in her mostly empty apartment is still powerful in the mind.) Part of that is too much Donna Shellstrop. Leslie Grossman is doing what she’s supposed to as Eleanor’s vapid mom, but we’ve already established that Eleanor’s crappy parents contributed to her life as a protectively selfish deliberate asshole, and Donna’s wine-soaked antics here (including hitting on Eleanor’s understanding but doomed boyfriend at her father’s funeral) aren’t interesting enough for the amount of time and importance they’re given. The same goes for Eleanor’s memory of the one time, as Chidi puts it, when she allowed the bigger picture to sneak past her carefully constructed defenses. Bell is great as Eleanor breaks down at the sight of a four-compartment toothbrush holder (grabbing the nearest store item—a toilet plunger—to smother her shameful tears is a funny touch) but, again, the moment is both too broad and too “sitcom” a revelation for The Good Place as it’s established itself.

The parallel journey of discovery in the episode is similarly funny, charming—and a little bit on the nose. While Vicky’s pedestrian plan to throw a lavish gala for fellow undercover demon and biting enthusiast Gunnar in order to torture Tahani works as it’s supposed to, Tahani’s grief at being outshone tells us what we already know. When Tahani admits to the cluelessly supportive Jason that she’s a shallow person, the moment is sweet, especially in Jason’s convoluted attempt to cheer her up with details about his 60-person dance crew and the ridiculously over-complicated ratings system he used to use. (Tahani’s an 8, which is the best on a scale of 1 to 13. Just go with it.) And their coupling, which acts as perhaps the first underwhelming final twist in The Good Place’s run, is sweet, too. They both enjoyed it, Jason’s excited that he gets to “make cereal” for Tahani, and Tahani’s bewildered gratitude at Jason’s guileless admiration and affection is undeniably lovely, even as it sets up some compelling questions going forward. (This season continues to mess with our investment in the relationships of characters who don’t really exist any more, as the shadow of Jason’s loopy but endearing marriage to Janet hangs over his happiness here.)

Jameela Jamil (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

It all brings me back to my confidence (or lack thereof) in evaluating “Existential Crisis.” Judged on its own, this is my least favorite episode of the series. (Still, I’m giving it a B. This is a very good show.) But there are hints in this episode that suggest a lot of possibilities that could force me to reframe, well, everything I’ve just written. For one, there’s the fact that the four unwilling tenants of the Good Place continue to develop into something like the ideal versions of the people they were first presented as. Tahani’s ambition to shine makes her unexpectedly adept at throwing everything into whatever plan the group comes up with as they attempt to save themselves, and to improve themselves. Jason, cast as the serenely pure and wise monk figure, finds the purity of his genial dumbness thawing the others. Holy fool instead of holy monk. Chidi’s lessons not only help everyone (including a demon) achieve greater enlightenment about right and wrong, but the precariousness of his plight lends his teaching a focus it never had when he was alive. And Eleanor, with her lifetime of practice in spotting any sign of being played, is invaluable in the same role on this unthinkably weighty scale, even as she discovers again and again how much more powerful her self-preservation instincts are when she extends them to cover others she allows herself to care about. There’s a game being played here, and while “Existential Crisis” isn’t the most satisfying piece on its own, its shape is too compelling to put away without a second examination.

Stray observations

  • Another of Michael’s midlife trappings: A forearm tattoo that he claims “is Chinese for ‘Japan.’”
  • Michael, on the Sharper Image catalog: “What can’t those guys ionize?”
  • Vicky and her minions aren’t the most exciting antagonists as yet, a fact Michael chalks up to their position as “millennials.” Which, in the Bad Place, means they’ve only been at the torturing humans game for a thousand years.
  • Michael’s not wrong. It is really stupid that humans have their eating and breathing tubes in the same place.
  • Ted Danson, who made the emergence of Michael’s evil face chilling enough for the Twin Peaks return, here turns Michael’s sudden realization of yawning nothingness a thing of glorious comic horror. Which would also be right at home on Twin Peaks.
  • Eleanor is excited to be the class “velociraptor.” Or valedictorian. Whatever.
  • Eleanor, trying to cheer up Michael, imagines what demon comfort food is like, eventually settling on babies. “What flavor baby?,” she asks desperately, before tempting him with cool ranch.
  • Chidi’s reading list for next week: Death by Todd May. You’ve got one week, people.

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