Thursday, January 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Eleanor Comes to a Huge Realization in 'Mindy St. Clair' & 'Michael's Gambit'

NBC's The Good Place - Episodes 1.12 "Mindy St. Clair" and 1.13 "Michael's Gambit"

With the help of Chidi and Tahani, Michael faces his biggest challenge yet. Eleanor, Jianyu and Janet are faced with a monumental decision. Eleanor and her friends contemplate their fates in the Good Place.

One of the best things about the first season of The Good Place has been its confidence in its storytelling. Series creator Mike Schur has created a whole new world with new rules. He created a narrative filled with many wonderful twists and turns. In the beginning, it was unclear how this premise could remain interesting and engaging to watch over multiple episodes. And yet, it was clear throughout the season that the creative team knew what they building towards. They had a clear plan for what was going to happen this season. Plus, they knew how to have a ton of fun on an episodic basis as well. And then, a fantastic cast that only got stronger as the season went along helped add to the dimensions and nuances of the storytelling. So overall, this season did so many smart and surprising things. One of the best things was its ability to surprise the audience with shocking twists. It wasn't afraid to really push the creative. Other shows would keep Eleanor's secret identity hidden for as long as possible. But The Good Place exposed the truth at the end of Episode 7. It was playing on a whole other level. One where the audience didn't understand the full nuances of until the end of the season. Well now, we know the full truth and it is a true mind bender. This finale succeeds because it comes up with yet another brilliant twist that completely changes everything we previously thought was true. Plus, it ends on yet another signature cliffhanger which will only leave us wanting more as soon as possible. That's just great storytelling and such a profound and strong way to end the season.

So, it's revealed that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place. It's all just an experiment Michael is working on to find a new way to torture humans. All of this is just an elaborate plot to make Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani miserable. In hindsight, this makes so much sense. There has always been something off about this world. In the beginning, Eleanor was the mistake in this world. She was the problem. But as the show widen its focused and revealed more information about this universe, it became clear that something more was going on. Things certainly got more complicated once the audience knew that Jason was also a fake and Eleanor confessed to Michael about not belonging here. But there was still that nagging suspicion that this paradise may not be as great as it seems. Of course, those concerns didn't swallow the show whole either. Knowing that the season was building to some big twist didn't lesson the impact of the twists and moments from throughout the season. This year had a number of standout moments and episodes. It was fun watching these characters interact even though they were frequently making each other miserable. Of course, Shawn rightly notes that this is a whole lot of work just to torture four people. It would be so much easier to just go the typical torture route. That's what has worked for thousands of years. But again, Michael wanted to try something new and handpicking Eleanor, Jason, Chidi and Tahani for this experiment is enough to make the audience buy into this experience.

Of course, the big reveal still leaves this world open to a number of questions. All of the stuff that happens in the first episode in the Medium Place with Mindy plays a little differently knowing that Michael is fooling the main characters. The reveal of the existence of a medium place was quite a twist at the end of the last episode. It's a place Eleanor has been trying to go to all season long. She has always seen herself as a medium person. She was selfish and did a number of terrible things. This finale once again uses the flashbacks to make that clear to the audience - this time she brings herself a birthday cake so she doesn't fell indebted to her co-workers and also breaks up a quinceañera to have a party for herself. It's an enjoyable time spent in the Medium Place too. It's fun to watch all the good things Mindy has that are ruined just enough to make this a miserable place but without the constant torture of the Bad Place. But is this an actual place in this universe? Or is she in on the big twist as well? It's made clear that Janet isn't aware of the big ruse Michael is pulling on these four humans. So, her emerging sentience would allow Eleanor and Jason to break out of the neighborhood and the con Michael is pulling. But if not, it again feels like a whole lot of work just to trick and torture four people.

However, it's still a powerful moment when Eleanor decides to come back in order to save Chidi and Tahani from the Bad Place. It's a moment that works because the strong bonds between the characters have been established. Eleanor cares for Chidi and Tahani. She can't allow them to be tortured for eternity despite being good people. She wanted to be better for them. She became better because of them. Sure, her presence made Chidi miserable most of the time. He was the one who truly got it the worst from this experiment. But it all meant something. That's also what makes it so fun and agonizing to watch when Shawn says that the group has to decide which two will ultimately go to the Bad Place. Eleanor and Jason are the easy answers because they obviously don't belong in the Good Place. But then, Real Eleanor shows up to take one of the spots because Chidi doesn't love her. So, it just makes the whole situation even more complicated. But it also leads to the moment of clarity for Eleanor. It really is such a rousing moment when the truth is finally revealed. Eleanor figures out that they are all already in the Bad Place. It's an explanation that makes sense too because Tahani's motivations for all her good actions on Earth were corrupt while Chidi's constant indecisiveness was always torture for the people around him. All of this, in turn, shows that Michael has a devious and twisted side. He doesn't love humans as much as he seemed to throughout the season. That's a character shift filled with so much wonderful potential.

Moreover, the show sets itself up for the potential second season in a really interesting way. Michael decides to start this whole experiment over. He plans on wiping Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason's minds clean and starting from the beginning. Retirement is still a potential punishment waiting for him. So, his job is still on the line with this bold experiment. Restarting all of this from the beginning could be annoying for the audience because we are one step ahead of the characters. But it could also be a ton of fun seeing these familiar characters in completely new situations. Michael already makes some changes in the brief glimpse of their new lives. He gives Eleanor a new soulmate, a mailman with a toned physique. More changes are likely as well because he'll want to keep the four of them separated in the early going. He believes that was the initial flaw of this experiment. And yet, the new season will be more than a retread of everything that happened this year because Eleanor is able to sneak in a message through Janet. Sure, it's just a note telling her to find Chidi. She could have also written that this was all a lie. But it does buy into the idea that Eleanor and Chidi really do love each other and can grow together. Their love should be enough for them to figure out the flaws of this world and conquer the Bad Place as a team. It will probably be just as complicated as it was this year. That's really exciting. It should be a ton of fun watching these underdogs try to rise up and take down the Bad Place crew who revel in torturing them for all of eternity.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Mindy St. Clair" was written by Megan Amram & Jen Statsky and directed by Dean Holland.
  • "Michael's Gambit" was written by Michael Schur and directed by Michael Schur.
  • Of course, a ton of this world that Michael created was really great. So if it's not the Good Place, how good must the real Good Place be? And will the characters and audience ever get to see it?
  • Another crucial element of Eleanor's backstory is also revealed in that first episode. She emancipated herself at the age of 14 because her parents were even more selfish than she was. That explains a lot of her behavior. But it also can't be the sole thing that defines her either. She accepts that too - and that's why she returns to save Tahani and Chidi.
  • The reveal that there was a real Eleanor was a nice little wrinkle thrown into the mix late in the season. Tiya Sircar was excellent as this truly amazing woman who just doesn't have the ability to have a bad or mean thought. But the reveal that she was in on all of this - and is actualy named Vicki - was also great. Plus, the show could find a way to keep her around next season too.
  • It's somewhat surprising that the show doesn't stunt-cast the role of Mindy St. Clair. Schur reached out to his friends from his other shows for the previous roles that change up the narrative. Adam Scott and Marc Evan Jackson were terrific as Trevor and Shawn. And yet, Maribeth Monroe brought just the right amount of energy to Mindy to show the one kind of person who gets to spend eternity in the Medium Place and why Eleanor doesn't truly belong there either.
  • It's just great that Jason was actually right when he said they were all on a prank show way back in the fourth episode of the season. Jason wasn't always the brightest character - though he was frequently hilarious. So, this seems like a major victory for him - even though the reboot breaks him and Janet apart.
  • It was also clear that something was up when the finale opened with the depiction of Fake Eleanor's death and Real Eleanor was nowhere to be seen. That sequence is amusing because Tahani is on the cover of a magazine Eleanor is reading. But it's the first indication that Michael is not being truthful with her.
  • Now, the show hasn't been officially renewed for a second season yet. It's kinda surprising that NBC hasn't renewed it yet. The ratings have been good enough and the critical acclaim has been amazing. The network clearly loves working with Schur. So, it seems like a sure thing. I'm expecting it to happen. I just hope NBC doesn't leave the audience waiting for too long though.