A review of tonight’s The Good Place, “The Book of Dougs,” coming up just as soon as I’m four Oreos from Heaven…
Despite the Jeremy Bearimy of it all and the Forties fashions, the show has always had a very contemporary notion of the afterlife. Trevor, Shawn and the rest of the Bad Place demons behave in a smug d-bag fashion that’s recognizably of the moment we’re all living in. The Judge is obsessed with TV shows from the last few years. And almost every pop culture reference by a non-human character is to something recent.
So it stands to reason that the Good Place — the genuine article, not the fake version that Michael created to torture our favorite dum-dums — would also feel modern. And what little we see of it in “The Book of Dougs” — a modest but tastefully-decorated correspondence center — feels like perhaps the show’s most direct link yet to modern America. Jason objects to the idea that they could be punished for coming here, saying, “We’re refugees. What kind of messed up place would turn away refugees?” And when Paul Scheer’s Chuck and his friends on the Good Place committee show up, they all come across as caricatures of well-meaning but ineffectual liberals in fleece vests who are too busy worrying about following rules and proper procedure while their opponents ruthlessly do whatever they want to get whatever they want. It’s Heaven as run by Chuck Schumer, in other words, and this was about as on-the-nose as The Good Place has ever gotten.
Fortunately, the story takes a sharp turn near the end as Michael realizes that maybe Shawn hasn’t, in fact, hacked the points system, but rather that the growing moral complexity of life on Earth has made amassing points too difficult for even the most saintly human to achieve. We can question whether that’s possible — surely, there have been enough relatively isolated communities over the last few centuries that someone must have been able to do enough good things without doing harm to the world around them — but it’s a more interesting conflict for the show to tackle than just proving that the Bad Place is cheating.
Mainly, though, “The Book of Dougs” was memorable for two things: Chidi for once getting to be the calm and reassuring one with Eleanor, rather than the other way around; and Nicole Byer’s utterly delightful performance as Good Place postal worker Gwendolyn. Where Chuck and the others were a comment on a particular moment in our history down here on terra firma, Gwendolyn’s particular flavor of Good Place-ness felt much more timeless. She’s always happy, always trusting, always ready to help out and believe what you tell her. And even when she realizes that Michael has taken advantage of those traits to call the committee, she can’t even make a fist to shake it at him, just continuing to give him rubber armed waves, because that’s when she does whether happy or (in this rare instance) mad. I hope Byer (a comedian who, among other things, hosts Netflix’s Nailed It!) joins the show’s larger recurring ensemble, because she was a joy to watch here.
Tahani trying and failing to help Jason and Janet through their emotional crisis was fun, too — Jameela Jamil is always great when Tahani is at her most frantic and ineffectual — but the Chidi/Eleanor subplot was notable for being a role reversal of their usual dynamic. Early on, Chidi was more of a steady presence in Eleanor’s life, but once the writers realized how well William Jackson Harper plays panic, she’s largely become his straight woman. Now that they’re a couple, there needs to be a bit more emotional balance, if only to justify Eleanor staying with him when his chronic indecision and neuroses drove away everyone else in his life. He was super charming as he tried to help her deal with being four Oreos from Heaven. (And while we didn’t get more shirtless Chidi, his stolen postal uniform was surely pleasing to some portion of the show’s audience.)
We have two episodes to go this season, and with Michael turning himself into the Judge (including a return visit by Mike O’Malley’s Doorman), we’re hitting a structurally similar point to Season Two, which also brought in Maya Rudolph around now. There have been times when I’ve worried The Good Place was about to run out of story. But Michael realizing that the afterlife is fundamentally broken and incompatible with the way life on Earth has developed should give Mike Schur and company a lot of material for however long they want to keep this crazy balancing act going.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Dammit, Janet(s)