Wednesday, September 20, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Eleanor and Her Friends Settle Into Their New Lives in 'Everything Is Great'

NBC's The Good Place - Episode 2.01 "Everything Is Great"

Having had their memories erased by ambitious master architect Michael, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason again settle into the Good Place, unaware of what has previously transpired... except that Eleanor discovers the one clue she had left for herself and attempts to piece things together.

Across its first season, The Good Place produced a number of great and inventive twists. It pushed the story forward in some unexpected but phenomenal ways. It proved itself as one of the best new comedies of last year. The twist at the end of the season then re-conceptualized the entire season that came before. It's a show that does reward repeat viewing. With every additional watch, something new is discovered that proves just how smart and creative the writers were all along. That earned the show a lot of good will. That's important to have as the show went into its second season by completely wiping the memories of four of the lead characters. As such, the audience was already smarter and more aware than Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason. More importantly, all of the progress they made would seemingly be lost. Eleanor would return to being the selfish person she was at the start of the series. It's a logistical problem that I was worried about heading into this season. Could the show still be fun when it's just recreating the plots that worked so well the first time around? And now, "Everything is Great" reveals that the show still has a number of unexpected tricks up its sleeve. It's fascinating to see things that are familiar but slightly different. The show didn't lose all the progress it made despite its leads having no memory of last season. The structure and storytelling are more confident than they have ever been before. As such, that leads to a terrific hourlong premiere.

Mostly, it's great to see Ted Danson revel in the villainy of his character. It was already a terrific performance last season. The running joke about him experiencing a ton of things for the first time in a human body was terrific. And now, that's still a part of the character but it's actually about how much he hates humans - including their weird, little months and their stupid elbows. That's a fun twist. He's basically just living within that evil laugh he delivered in the season finale once Eleanor figured out that the Good Place was actually the Bad Place. Now, the audience is seeing his work behind-the-scenes. That alone is enough to distinguish this episode from the first season. The audience has the awareness that everyone in this community is conspiring against Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason to make their lives miserable without even realizing it. It's a plot that failed the first time around. And now, Michael is given a second attempt to prove this experiment can work. It still seems like a ton of work just to torture four people. And now, those concerns are a main point of the plot. The other demons from the Bad Place have questions and concerns about what's going on. Some of them are great at improvisation while others are not. Some are happy with their roles in this new narrative and some are not. Seeing those conversations is really delightful.

Of course, the show is also being a bit more obvious with its design this season. The first season was as effective as it was because the audience was right alongside Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason in believing this was the Good Place. And now, it's just so obvious that the demons are trying to make their lives miserable at all times. The big change Michael has made for this season is in trying to keep the four of them separate. They are eventually going to torture each other. But now, it's going to be a slow burn. Making them soulmates is what he believes failed the first run. And so, it's fun to see how Michael pairs each of them up to ensure that they are unhappy even when they are in paradise. Eleanor seemingly gets what she's always wanted in an emotionally detached but sexy mailman. Chidi is once again flung into a love triangle by being matched with two women only for Michael to say the one he doesn't like is his true soulmate. Tahani gets paired with a short minimalist who loves her sister. And Jason is given another Buddhist monk who follows him around everywhere he goes. Some of these are really important to the plot and very funny to watch.

Eleanor's soulmate is not up for the task because he keeps going to the gym over and over again when things get personal. His absence is what allows Eleanor to focus on her mission to find Chidi. Meanwhile, Chidi's is putting him in a familiar position. But it's a story that really worked last year. So, it makes sense that Michael would do it again from the start. Chidi forms a connection with Angelique only to be told she's not his true soulmate. Of course, he doesn't actually make a decision. He's still incapable of doing that. But his feelings are definitely more towards her. Meanwhile, it's just hilarious to see Tahani's reactions to the life she has in the Good Place. It's not what she was expecting at all. She complains about it and knows it's silly to do so. But it's such a huge adjustment for her. It's a change she doesn't want to make even though she fears she already is. She's wearing cargo pants to an evening event and starts enjoying the numerous pockets before the evening is through. And finally, it really is Jason's worst nightmare to have someone attached at the hip who is everything he isn't. He's been capable of hiding out in the identity of Jianyu. He can fool others into believing he's a Buddhist monk. But it's not surprising that he gets bored with this life very quickly because it's just so lame. He wants to be around a true best friend who actually gets him.

But the truly inspired twist comes from how the show handles the note Eleanor left for herself. It was quick thinking on her part to give the note to Janet before her mind was wiped again by Michael. It doesn't take long for her to find Chidi either. The two of them are able to figure things out as well. Eleanor recognizes her handwriting on the note while Chidi recognizes the page it was quickly written on. Sure, it doesn't make any sense to them that they've known each other somehow previously. They are just starting to connect the pieces. They are given the freedom to do so because things aren't going according to plan for Michael. He wanted the welcome party to go exactly like it did last time. He needed Eleanor to get drunk and do crazy things so that they could create chaos the next morning. That part of the plan is still the same. But it's actually Tahani who gets drunk at the party. That's completely unexpected. Eleanor isn't acting like herself because she has to give a big speech and is trying to figure out the mystery of the note. She's not drinking because of all the new meddling. Meanwhile, Tahani is drinking because she's absolutely miserable and clearly craves the life that Eleanor seemingly has. It's still a disastrous party. But it hardly keeps things going according to plan. In fact, the chaos allows all four of the humans to escape and figure things out. It shows that the demons don't have a strong plan for this reality as much as it first seemed.

Of course, it's still crazy that Eleanor is able to figure out that this is actually the Bad Place at the end of the premiere. That's another shocking development. It would have been crazy if she didn't figure things out though. Things are just going so horribly this time around. It never could have lasted as long as the first attempt. If it did, then that would have felt like a really forced plot point. So now, the show has already used the note. Eleanor figured out the nature of her reality and was able to foil Michael once more. It fell apart so quickly for him. And yet, he has an explanation for why things went south so fast. He's able to reset things again and prove that there's no note for anyone to discover and ruin all of the fun. He'll be able to switch up the personal dynamics once more as well after everything was failing to go according to plan. It leaves the premise for the season exactly the same. Will next week's episode also be set at the welcome party as the demons try to get it right in their third attempt? I don't know. That seems a little too repetitive and expected. This show knows when it needs to shake up its formula. This is a phenomenal premiere. And now, there is even more pressure on Michael. He's lying to Shawn about the progress of the second attempt. He's still reporting that it's all continuing to work. So, that lie is bound to be very important to the plot in the immediate future as it puts Michael's job at risk should he ever be discovered as a failure.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Everything Is Great, Part 1" was written by Jen Statsky and directed by Trent O'Donnell.
  • "Everything Is Great, Part 2" was written by Joe Mande and directed by Trent O'Donnell.
  • Tiya Sircar was such a phenomenal addition to the first season as Real Eleanor. She played that role so well and was easily able to make the switch to the villainous Vicky who was trying to torture Chidi and Eleanor the entire time. It's nice to see her continue to have a presence on this show even though she's a series regular on a midseason ABC comedy.
  • It's also just a ton of fun to see Vicky continue to complain about the size of her part. She is used to a significant role in this narrative. She relished being able to break Chidi's heart over and over again. And now, she's just Denise, the owner of the local pizza place. She's not important at all which is a creative decision she just doesn't understand.
  • Which of the new soulmates was the perfect kind of torture for the person they were paired with? Jason's is particularly manipulative and full of agony for him. But it also speaks to Michael's poor planning. Pairing Jason with that type of personality only led to him revealing him true self even faster.
  • Janet continues to be a unique complication in this world as well. Michael can't control her. He didn't know about the note. He proves that she's not carrying another one during the third attempt. And yet, she's able to bring Jason to Eleanor and Chidi because he's looking for a place to go where he won't feel too alone. Plus, the spark is still obvious there between Janet and Jason despite neither remembering getting married.
  • Eleanor: "People are like nature's apps."
  • Michael: "It's incredibly rare, like a double rainbow or someone on the internet saying 'you know what, you've convinced me I was wrong.'"
  • Michael: "Well as humans like to say, third times the charm."