A review of this week’s The Good Place, “Chillaxing,” coming up just as soon as I get Timothée Chalamet to go out into the sun…
One of the challenges of writing a show where the story explicitly keeps repeating itself is to find new ways to tell it each time. But there’s a fun side effect in a situation where many of the characters not only know that the story is repeating itself, but know how it went previously. They assume things will go the same as before, but they never quite do.
So as “Chillaxing” — a phrase Michael will later claim to have invented, as a portmanteau of “Chidi” and “relaxing” — begins, Eleanor and Michael are feeling pretty smug about the state of their new experiment. Chidi is teaching his moral philosophy class, and soon, they figure, the three new humans will have enough points to convince the Judge to change the rules for the afterlife. To quote Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. Right?
Instead, they’re startled to discover a laid-back, fun-loving Chidi who just wants to picnic and play Frisbee golf. He’s not crippled by indecisiveness, nor does he particularly want to spend an eternity teaching a dope like Brent how to be a better person. After a brief panic, Eleanor and Michael realize that they left a key ingredient out of this reboot: Chidi isn’t being tortured, even a little, so he feels no urgency to do anything but chillax.
And it’s here that we come to the other advantage of doing so many resets: There’s a narrative shorthand the show can use because the audience understands how it all works by now. So Eleanor decides to mix and match elements from past reboots, forcing Chidi to preserve the secret that Jason isn’t really a monk named Jianyu, and putting our favorite philosopher in a state of constant panic. It’s a delight watching William Jackson Harper shift from easygoing bliss to utter misery once Jason tells him about his secret identity, and to see Chidi in the midst of escalating panic for the rest of the episode. And after both halves of “A Girl From Arizona” leaned hard on the sadness of Eleanor losing Chidi again, this one mostly plays it for smart laughs, as Eleanor starts to take too much pleasure in torturing her ex, until Chidi’s barely able to function. All works out in the end — with a little help from an exploding motorcycle that has Pamela Anderson’s cleavage painted on the side — in the funniest installment of this young season.
The Tahani/John subplot also plays with the idea of history repeating itself a bit differently. Tahani figures out how to befriend her former gossip-blogging nemesis, but he understandably has no interest in auditing a moral philosophy class for all eternity. Eventually, she realizes how to make a deeper connection, by bonding with him over their shared obsession with celebrity status above all else, and also that he’ll have to learn to become a better person without studying under Chidi.
The problem with John, though, is that he doesn’t seem to serve a comic or dramatic purpose on the show so far. Brent is a self-satisfied putz whose every word and deed annoys the others. Simone is a warm presence who’s causing complications in Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship, and her atheism brings humorous problems, too. John is, at least at this point, a bit too normal. He loves celebrities and hot goss, but he’ll never be as ridiculous about it as Tahani, for instance. And where Simone interacted well with everyone in the Australia episodes, and Brent is designed to annoy anyone he meets, John has thus far really only paired off with Tahani. It’s not obvious what kind of sparks would fly if you put him in a room with Jason or Chidi for a while. He does make a good foil for Tahani, at least, because his presence pushes her own name-dropping to absurd heights. But he just seems extraneous.
“Chillaxing” concludes with our first real cliffhanger of the season, as a hooded, robed figure pumps a hand car down the train tracks, on the way to the Medium Place and this new neighborhood. Is the hood there to conceal the identity of an old friend like Trevor or Dax Shepard’s Chet? Or is there a new player who’s going to upend this latest reboot right when Eleanor and company seem to have figured it out again?
Some other thoughts:
* Between episode budgets and the limited screen time of a broadcast network half-hour, it’s not a surprise that this one didn’t bother to feature Brent and Simone when they wouldn’t have much to do. Still, it felt odd that Brent was discussed and Simone — the alleged soul mate of this episode’s title character — didn’t really come up at all. (Though maybe she was part of the group he went picnicking with in the opening scene?)
* Given how much time this writing staff spends sweating comic minutiae, I was curious whether they had actually decided which eight characters from Game of Thrones were inspired by Tahani. Mike Schur says they never got down to that level of detail, “though at least two to three would be obvious. I assume the others are more minor characters: Margaery Tyrell, one of the Sand Snakes, etc.” So time to start your speculating! Sansa? Cersei? Brienne? The Red Woman?
* Finally, that a week passes in the middle of the episode — with Chidi looking exhausted when we catch up with him — reminded me of something I’ve wondered about for a long time: Why do people need to sleep in the afterlife? And do they dream? Schur says this is in the show bible: “The first, say, 1,000 years in the afterlife, the architects maintain the basic schedule of life on earth, ostensibly to ease you into your new existence. Like, it would be too jarring if you suddenly never had to eat or sleep or pee. So there are bathrooms, bedrooms, restaurants, etc. We had a line in an early episode where Michael said something like: ‘You don’t have to, of course — you don’t have to do anything. But we find that most people prefer to slowly ease out of their earth routines…’ But we cut it, I think.” And as for dreams — and whether it’s possible to have a nightmare in the Good Place — Schur says, “Don’t think the actual Good Place would allow for nightmares. Nor Michael’s fake Neighborhood, probably, unless it would’ve made sense to let Eleanor and Jason (people who knew they didn’t belong) have them. I’d say the real GP gives you happy dreams, if you want them, which you could then convert to actual happy experiences if you wanted to, when awake.”