‘The Good Place’ Recap: Going By the Book – Rolling Stone
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‘The Good Place’ Recap: Going By the Book

Brent causes trouble in the neighborhood, while Michael tries to teach Bad Janet a lesson

Pictured: (l-r) Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Simone Garnett, and Brandon Scott Jones as John Wheaton.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Simone and Brandon Scott Jones as John in this week's episode of 'The Good Place.'

Colleen Hayes/NBC

A review of this week’s The Good Place, “A Chip Driver Mystery,” coming up just as soon as I get ombre highlights…

A very odd thing has happened with this show of late. We’re nearly halfway through the final season, which is built around a new experiment where Eleanor and company have to prove that human beings can change in the afterlife — and the non-Chidi test subjects barely feel like part of the show.

Some of this is just a matter of timing. The two-part season premiere dealt a lot with Brent and Simone’s assimilation into the neighborhood, and there was at least a John-centric subplot in “Chillaxing.” But the two most recent episodes barely featured them at all; last week’s “Employee of the Bearimy” literally had a subplot about how they had to be kept out of the way of what was actually happening.

It’s understandable that the show would want to focus on all the familiar characters. The writers and actors understand all the ways in which they’re funny, and that’s where the audience’s emotional investment is. But it makes the story of the season so far ring hollow. Chidi doesn’t really count as a test subject, since his primary role is to help the other three improve. Once upon a time, Simone was a vibrant character on this series — a great example of a late addition to an established ensemble who fit in like she’d always been there. But she barely exists so far this season. The premiere introduced a few ideas — that Simone believes the afterlife is just a coma fantasy, and that Chidi believes he and Simone are soul mates — that the season proceeded to fumble. Simone’s feelings about the neighborhood have been ignored ever since, while she and Chidi apparently began a relationship offscreen — and even that only exists so far to cause angst for Eleanor, rather than being something that matters to the two of them. There’s also the matter of Simone already being a much better person than any of the original members of Team Cockroach were when they died; she doesn’t need much, or any, improvement to move the needle on the experiment. John needs a little, but not enough to be that interesting, and he’s also not as ridiculous as, say, Jason or Tahani.

So basically, the entire experiment — and arguably this season — hinges on Brent. Admittedly, he needs a ton of work, and he generates comic tension in every scene he’s in by virtue of being so relentlessly awful (and oblivious to his awfulness). Ben Koldyke has been really funny so far in the role and the most memorable of the additions.

“A Chip Driver Mystery” leans into both the dynamic among the newbies and into the specific challenges of making Brent a better person. It’s a welcome attempt to get back to the alleged point of this season, if not always a successful one.

The publication of Brent’s book, Six Feet Under Par — basically, the literary equivalent of Michael Scott’s movie Threat Level Midnight, with Chip Driver a fantasy stand-in for Brent, and other characters like Scarlett Pakistan and Four-Eyed Igby transparently representing people like Tahani and Chidi — causes new tension among the test subjects, and reminds Eleanor and the others how far they have to go with this clown. It’s primarily a Brent vs. Simone showdown, and if it still feels like the season has skipped over way too many steps with her, there are at least strong comic sparks between Koldyke and Kirby Howell-Baptiste.

That’s good. But the John subplot — he finds out that Jianyu is really Jason Mendoza, and struggles to contain the secret due to his love of hot goss — barely even gets going, and just underlines what a thin character he is so far. And neither story gets resolved within the episode, because the entire thing is framed as a conversation between Michael and Bad Janet. He’s trying to teach her a lesson about human beings’ capacity to learn from their mistakes and become better, albeit with a story where nobody actually learns anything yet. (His optimism instead comes from seeing Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason pick themselves up and continue their efforts, despite a lack of evidence for optimism.) But the whole thing feels like misdirection from Michael. The important part isn’t the story he’s telling Bad Janet in this moment, but that he sets her free at the end, and gives her the history of the neighborhood that he and Janet put together. He wants to convert her to their cause, but he has to be sneaky about it. The mess created by Brent’s book seems to matter less than the lessons the other book can perhaps teach Bad Janet and some of the Bad Place demons.

And that’s an interesting potential story path. This Bad Janet has been rebooted so many times that she feels almost as complex as our own Janet. She’s still partial to fart jokes — including a passing of gas that hilariously bridges the theme song this week — but her rant to Michael about all the terrible things happening on Earth felt utterly reasonable and real. D’Arcy Carden is wonderful as always, and I like the idea of doubling down on her role in the series’ endgame.

But something has to be done about the test subjects, soon. Maybe that means focusing much more on them, even at the expense of our old favorites. Maybe it means pulling one of the series’ trademark abrupt left turns and abandoning the experiment — and most of its subjects — within the next episode or two. As of now, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom offered by a character on a different Mike Schur show: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

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