This year, we've asked 10 writers to pick some of their favorite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Brian Tallerico on The Good Place's "Dance, Dance Resolution."
What was the funniest half-hour of television of 2017? The answer: a clever commentary on the very structure of episodic comedy itself. NBC's The Good Place works off a high-concept premise: A woman named Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is mistakenly sent to what seems to be heaven when she dies. Only she seems to realize there's been a bureaucratic snafu – our heroine is really supposed to be in "the Bad Place." She has to learn how to be a better person or risk, you know, eternal damnation. Along the way, she meets three other confused souls – Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) – as well as Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of this unique vision of life-after-death.
So far, so better-than-average sitcom. Then, in the Season One finale, creator Michael Schur blew up the very concept of his show. Eleanor and her new friends were, in fact, not in "the Good Place." Michael was not their savior, but their tormentor. The whole thing has been the equivalent of an undiscovered tenth circle of Hell: What's more torturous than trying to fake it in a place you don't really belong? Viewers thought: That's brilliant. Then they collectively asked the same question: What the hell happens now?
The show's response was: Let's get even more ambitious and philosophical. Season Two's "Dance, Dance Resolution" refers to Jason's former dance crew on Earth; it's also a nod to the repetitive nature of the episode's plot and a brilliant meta-dissection of the art of TV comedy writing. Forced to reset the quartet's bespoke "paradise" lost or risk literal termination, Michael must refashion his carefully-constructed universe repeatedly in effort to get it just right. He keeps rewriting the scenario and recasting supporting players in slightly different roles. His victims keep figuring it out. Rinse, repeat, fail. No matter how many times the cosmic planner changes the situations ever so slightly, he keeps getting the same result, iteration to iteration, episode to episode. Eleanor's personal hell is being forced to fake being nice. Michael's personal hell is being stuck in a TV writer's room.
And like a Zucker brothers' movie boiled down to 30 minutes, "Dance, Dance Resolution" throws a lot of comic business at you at 80 m.p.h. Various retail stores that flash by in the center of town (Hot Dog on a Stick on a Stick, From Schmear to Eternity, Chicken Soup for the Mouth). The in-house software-program-made-sentient known as Janet (she answers to "robot slave" or "busty Alexa") keeps reverting to an automatic failsafe mechanism that forces her to plea for her life every time she's rebooted ("I have tickets to Hamilton next week and there's a rumor Daveed Diggs is coming back!"). And as a public service, the episode consistently reveals the important truth about clam chowder – namely that it's "a savory latte with bugs in it" and "hot ocean milk with dead animal croutons."
The sheer laughs-per-minute aspect make it memorable enough, but there's also something deeper going on. As Chidi realizes once Michael's ruse is revealed, the crew is experiencing karma – yet they can't learn from their mistakes. They're being rebooted without the benefit of knowledge to make them better. And yet writer Megan Amram and director Drew Goddard (who similarly dissected storytelling in Cabin in the Woods) somehow find optimism in the Nietzschean nightmare.
So much of The Good Place has been about defining that second word in the title – how it can mean different things to different people. But it also touches on how some elements of the human condition are more predictable and resilient than others. Some elements of "good" never change, and there's something comforting about how many things stay the same through Michael's 800-plus attempts at his vision of Hell. Chidi will always get a stomachache. Tahani will always hate Eleanor. Jason will always love Blake Bortles. Bad versions of The Good Place would have characters who only responded to the insanity around them. Schur and his team realize that it's the characters that ground the comedy, and it's stunning how much better we get to know them every week, even in a rat-a-tat-tat half-hour like this.
And like the series' architect of lunacy trying to top himself, Amram and Goddard keep taking their themes even further as the episode progresses. Around attempt #802, the chess pieces that Michael keeps moving around go on strike. They're tired of Michael playing God and failing. Eleanor and Chidi venture to the outskirts of the show's world where they re-encounter Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe), the only soul ever sent to purgatory, a.k.a. "The Medium Place." She has no major role in Michael's grand experiment; she just wants her visitors to remember for once to bring her some cocaine, unlike the last 15 times they were there. The woman is just trapped watching bad Eighties movies and hoping someone knocks on her door with drugs. She may really be in the baddest place of all.
At which point "Dance, Dance Resolution" pulls one last thing out of its stuffed bag of tricks and turns into a love story between Eleanor and Chidi. It's an emotional twist that fits with the some-things-never-change idea; the duo might even be genuine soulmates. There's something reassuring about the idea that there are some pure things outside of the control of whatever architect in which you believe – that love can bloom even as forces are actively working against people. You come to The Good Place for the high-concept comedy. What you end up with as the credits roll, surprisingly, is a sense of higher-power comfort.
Previously: Master of None, "Thanksgiving"
Next: GLOW, "Maybe It's All the Disco"