Thursday, October 12, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Michael Spirals After Being Confronted With His Own Mortality in 'Existential Crisis'

NBC's The Good Place - Episode 2.05 "Existential Crisis"

Tahani throws a dinner party to impress. Eleanor and Jason both have to lend a hand when things don't go as planned. 

The Good Place has been operating on such a high level quality-wise this season. The show has taken the twist from the end of the first season and managed to find a new creative and fun spin on its main narrative. It's been so amazing to watch because the show continues to defy expectations. It hasn't settled into a groove so far. Things that would seemingly play out for awhile are quickly addressed and disposed of. The story has moved very quickly this season. Of course, the show was also just establishing what this season was actually going to be about. It took four episodes to get there. They were four incredibly funny and terrific episodes. But now, it's established that Michael is working alongside the humans so that they can all get into the actual Good Place. They are pretending to still be getting tortured by Vicky and the rest of the demons (which is a somewhat racist term as Michael points out here). But in secret, they are working together to learn ethics and survive in this crazy world designed to make them all miserable. It's a very delightful spin on the formula. And now, the show needs to establish how the status quo right now is similar to what was happening in the first season while also ensuring it's different enough not to feel like a repeat of what has already occurred. It's a very tricky balance. "Existential Crisis" ultimately feels a bit too predictable with its main plot. It's the show trying to put some definition into how things are going to work moving forward. But most of the enjoyment of this episode comes from what the actors are doing - especially Ted Danson.

Ted Danson is just such a terrific actor. He's a legend in this business. He's already had a long and successful career. He's proven himself to be an incredibly versatile actor. He can perfectly adept to both comedy and drama. It's such a well-respected career as well. And yet, it's still terrific to see him continue to give a tremendous performance in this show. It shows that he is still operating at the top of his game. That's quite remarkable. This episode is a stunning achievement for him. Michael goes on quite a journey throughout this episode. Sure, it's an incredibly broad journey just to get him to take Chidi's ethics classes seriously. Up to this point, he views humans as incredibly trivial. Danson still does such a strong job in showing his disdain for humanity and how weird their bodies actually are. He's not wrong to complain about our feeding tube and breathing tube being right next to each other. But he's forced to take these classes as a way to be in with the four humans he designed this entire neighborhood for in the first place. He needs to prove that he's willing to change and be loyal to them. Right now, he's just an immortal demon who doesn't care about being good or doing the right thing. Chidi contributes that to him having a lifetime of no consequences for his actions. Everything is pointless if one is immortal. There's no fear of death like there is with humanity. So, all Chidi needs to do is tap into that fear of the punishment of retirement for Michael to spiral into his own form of an existential crisis.

It's an incredible story to watch because of the way Danson portrays Michael's despair followed by a cliche mid-life crisis. It's a somewhat expected twist in the span of this episode. Michael is feeling down about himself and the pointlessness of existence. It's an amusing moment when Chidi is happy that Michael has had this breakthrough even though Michael's actions could ultimately blow their cover in this new reality. Eleanor and Chidi see him as someone who needs to be watched. They need to ensure that none of the other demons notice that he is acting strangely and are able to figure out what exactly is going on in this new reality. In the instant that they lose him, he suddenly transforms from existential crisis to mid-life crisis. It's such a fascinating transition because it's the show commenting on all of the cliches of a typical straight, white man losing it after questioning his own mortality. Again, it is amusing to watch because of how committed Danson is to all of it. Michael has the new clothes, the new car and a new (younger) girlfriend - who happens to be a blonde version of Janet, who isn't really going along with this facade at all. This version of Michael is even more dangerous because he's actually active. He's engaging with this party that Vicky has put together for Gunnar's "birthday." Everyone can see that he is acting strangely. There's the suggestion that Vicky buys it when he comes up with an excuse for his behavior. But there's still the expectation that any false move could ultimately tip everyone off to what's going on.

The story ultimately concludes with Eleanor being able to talk some sense into Michael. She is able to articulate that being human means being sad all of the time. It's just the cost of doing business. It's a tragic reality for them. They must always live with the constant fear of death. It's sadness that could cripple them at any moment in time. But it's sadness that needs to be addressed otherwise it comes creeping out at the most inopportune times. That's what happens in this story. Eleanor is able to have this sit down with Michael because she is forced to remember the one time where she faced her own mortality and upbringing. As I've noted before, the flashbacks have become increasingly pointless as the show has gone along. This season seems to be aware that they only need to be deployed on specific occasions. They don't need to be a regular feature of the show. And yet, the show has already delved completely into Eleanor's family issues. Her parents' lackluster skills are what led to the person Eleanor was as an adult. Their absence formed her into the selfish woman she is. And now, the show just depicts that to the audience. It highlights how Eleanor never properly dealt with death because it always included her mother being incredibly selfish and controlling. She's an addict who is always looking to be the center of attention. That was destructive to Eleanor's upbringing. But it's still material the show has already dealt with before. Of course, it's very funny when Eleanor is in the store getting emotional about toothbrush holders and has to cry into a toilet plunger. But it's still all building to the inevitable conclusion of Michael returning to his normal self with a newfound willingness to take Chidi's classes a bit more seriously.

It's also fascinating to see how knowledge of what Vicky is planning on doing to torture the four humans affects their reaction to the torture. Michael is still in the loop for what Vicky is planning. He still sees her as an inferior demon who doesn't have the skills to properly torture humans for millions of years. Of course, Vicky and her friends are riding high because they see it as a success so far. They have this plan to torture Tahani by forcing her to throw a party and then throw a competing party that is completely superior. Tahani knows what's going to happen. She knows what to expect. And yet, it's still the demons taking a skill she's incredibly proud of and using it to torture her. She still believes she can throw the best party in the neighborhood. She still gets her hopes up only to be completely crushed upon seeing that Vicky's party has animals, fireworks and flying. It's an incredible display of what's possible in "the Good Place." So in the end, Tahani is still miserable. And that's where Jason comes in to help cheer her up. These two were presented as soulmates in the early going. They have never been able to click in that way. Jason is too much of a fool to be worried about all of that. He was perfectly happy marrying Janet. They had a special connection that was a delight to see last season. Jason and Tahani having sex now is completely unexpected. One can sense that the show is building to that conclusion. And that it happens. He's just excited to make cereal the morning after while she seems a little uncertain about what this actually means. It has never happened before. So, it's the show continuing to prove that it's willing to explore new dynamics and situations moving forward. That's nice to see while making me curious as to what will happen next.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Existential Crisis" was written by Andrew Law and directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller.
  • It's still taking a beat to adjust to these versions of the four humans. Most of the emotional progress they made by the end of last season is gone. They still barely know each other but must trust each other in this situation. And yet, it's also great how easily Chidi and Eleanor are able to work together to handle Michael as he spirals.
  • Jason's 60-person dance troupe is just such a fun, recurring joke. It's easy to understand why the show keeps returning to it for Jason's wise words about any given situation. Here, he uses it to cheer Tahani up. In doing so, he notes that she would rank an 8 in all the areas they judge on a scale of 1 to 13 where 8 is the highest. It's all needlessly complicated but very fun.
  • Of course, it's noteworthy that Eleanor and Michael are the only ones actually in Chidi's class right now. Tahani and Jason are too busy planning the party or having sex to do any of the homework. And yet, it will be so much fun seeing the different pairings amongst the humans in this environment. That would be a way to stand out from what already occurred in the first season.
  • Vicky's party is absolutely crazy. The animals involved are just insane. It's enough to quickly amuse Jason. He gets excited about actually getting to spend time in a kangaroo's pouch. Of course, are these kangaroo gigantic or do the humans shrink somehow? The show leaves that up for interpretation while also just randomly including a unicorn in all of this as well.
  • So, do you think Tahani and Jason will tell the group about their hookup? Do you think it will happen again? The humans keeping secrets from each other could be very detrimental to their fight to break free of this torture. And yet, it may be something that Tahani does because she's afraid to admit that she actually enjoyed it.