Thursday, February 1, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Michael Presents a New Test for the Humans to the Judge in 'Somewhere Else'

NBC's The Good Place - Episode 2.13 "Somewhere Else"

Michael tries to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

The Good Place set a potentially dangerous precedent for itself with its first season finale. That episode featured the mind-blowing twist of the Good Place neighborhood the characters and audience had been experiencing for the entire season was actually the Bad Place. Michael was really a demon trying to get four humans to torture each other for all of eternity. It built to the tragic ending that all of the progress the four humans made would be lost forever because of a reboot. That twist was so effective and shocking. It sets up the expectation that "Somewhere Else" will feature an equally surprising and transformative twist. That's dangerous because it means the show would be constantly playing the game of trying to one up whatever it last did. But that twist from the first season allowed the show to be much more open and experimental this time around. It had the confidence to pull out several shocking twists that pushed the narrative long past plot setups that the average show would have spent an entire season in. This season covered so much ground and pushed the characters to unexpected and new places. As such, the season had already rewarded the audience expecting a grand twist. This is a twist-filled show that has the trust to make anything crazy happen while still making sense in the grand scheme of things. The show has earned that faith from the audience. And so, "Somewhere Else" was always probably going to offer up another significant change to the status quo. But it also comes after a season in which the show was constantly reinventing itself and having fun watching the characters deal with that change.

All of this also sets up the expectation of the audience trying to figure out the twists before they happen. That has become so common on mystery-based shows over the last few years. Because of the connectivity afforded to the audience by the internet, it has allowed us to crowdsource information and figure things out long before the creative teams expect us to. Shows that treat themselves as big mysteries become more disappointing because the shocking reveal isn't as surprising as it was planned as. All of this basically means that I was trying to guess the final twist for the season for awhile now. There was always the trust that the creative team would stick the landing no matter what. Even when it seemed like it was covering too much ground too quickly with its story, I had trust that it was being done for a reason. This creative team knows just how long it can drag out any specific premise. It can still have a lot of fun and produce some solid episodes in the process as well. But I was still looking at the clues and trying to figure out what the end game would be. It was when Michael, Janet and the humans were all alone in the neighborhood without the demons that I started thinking about everyone going back to Earth in order to enter the Good Place. Michael was very specific in his phrasing. He tried a billion different ways to get in. But the only definitive way was by one's actions on Earth. That's the basis for this entire system. And now, the narrative brought everyone in front of the judge and I started expecting a different outcome. The narrative was instead questioning the validity of the system itself and whether or not it was truly fair. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason made remarkable improvements because they were given the opportunity to become better. Does that not count for something? As such, I was setting up my expectation that the humans would just go off to create their own version of the Medium Place with Michael and Janet in order to help others improve and possibly enter the Good Place.

That second option could still be coming in the future. But right now, my first instinct turned out to be true. That's not disappointing either. No, this finale isn't as creative or funny as the episodes that preceded it. But it doesn't have to be either. It's a character-based finale where the emotions involved are rewarding and meaningful because of the amount of time the audience has spent with these characters. Sure, it could be frustrating to see the four humans get rebooted yet again. But it's a reboot with a purpose. Michael's arrival in the Judge's chambers was bound to complicate the ruling she issued last week. Of course, that makes that adventure as well as Michael's previous sacrifice seem a little empty. But it was good, fun hijinks as well that proved just how deep and personal these relationships have gotten. It proved that Eleanor was the only one who had improved enough to actually make it into the Good Place. And yet, she chose to return to the Bad Place with her friends. That proves just how much she has grown and addressed her selfishness. But Judge Jen can make the argument that the humans have only become better people because of the hopeful reward at the end of the journey. They only improved to get into the Good Place. They had a stark reality of what their futures would be for all eternity in the Bad Place. They knew what the stakes where which would inherently disrupt the system that has existed since the beginning of time. As such, it's not surprising to see this final twist occur. It's something that Michael suggests just in order to buy more time for himself. But it's also to prove that these humans are capable of becoming better if given the opportunity to on Earth.

So once again, the show is seemingly starting over from scratch in its pursuit of enlightenment. Once more, it is trying to prove that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are capable of being better people. But now, they are no longer in the afterlife. They are instead in simulations where they never died on Earth. It's all told through the guise of Eleanor's journey. She has always been the focal point of this story. She's the character who has always felt the need to improve. She's the one who consistently foiled Michael's plans. He counted on her selfishness to be the most destructive thing in his neighborhood. And yet, he didn't count on her actually listening to Chidi and falling in love with him. That's another huge development from this finale. Chidi finally gets the courage to just walk up to Eleanor and kiss her. This season didn't address this romantic pairing a whole lot. It simply had them worry about what these feelings could possibly mean since they popped up in a previous reboot of their lives. But here, it's still very rewarding. It's meaningful because Chidi doesn't fret about what the possible moral consequences would be. Instead, he is motivated by Janet to say what he needs to say not knowing what will happen next. He has that confidence because he's aware that they are all probably going back to the Bad Place and will be separated. The bond between Eleanor and Chidi has always been strong. It's the most important relationship on the show. Without it, there is no premise. There is no hope for Eleanor being a better person. All 800 reboots failed because Eleanor could always find Chidi and get him to teach her ethics. And now, that same exact formula is being used in order to pass this new simulation. As such, it's possibly a genius move on Michael's part.

Of course, it comes with a little bit of manipulation from Michael as well. Eleanor is self-motivated to be a better person in the immediate aftermath of her near-death experience. It has the potential to completely change her world. As such, she reinvents her life. She quits her job selling fake pills to old people. She tells the truth to her roommate about ripping her dress and selling embarrassing t-shirts of her. She works to help the environment. She is a better person. But she doesn't feel like there is a reward to any of this. That means she slips back into old and selfish patterns just six months after the fact. She feels like there is no reason for her to be better. She doesn't know the importance of this experiment. She doesn't know that Jen is judging her to determine if there is any merit to furthering this legal case. But Michael and Janet are the ones overseeing this experiment. That allows Michael the chance to enter that reality and nudge Eleanor in the right direction. She has no idea who he is or what he is trying to do. But it's so absolutely rewarding to the audience because of our understanding of the characters. It serves as proof that certain relationships and interactions will have significance no matter what. Chidi will help Eleanor become better and Michael knows exactly why. He uses that to his advantage. And thus, it sets up a new narrative of the humans finding one another on Earth. It's a mission that already reunites Eleanor with Chidi. It's presented in the way that Chidi wished they had met and fallen in love. He hoped that she would just knock on his door asking questions about philosophy. Instead, they met under the most absurd circumstances. But now, they have the opportunity to meet and love without that pressure about determining their eternal existences. Of course, it's unlikely that the show stays in this reality for very long in the third season based on past evidence. It's still significant though. Plus, it presents a number of exciting possibilities about what's been going on in Chidi, Jason and Tahani's lives as well and if they put in as much effort to being better when they didn't die as Eleanor did. That's a fantastic premise heading into the next season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Somewhere Else" was written by Michael Schur and directed by Michael Schur.
  • The homage to Cheers was one of the best moments in this entire finale. Seeing Ted Danson behind a bar serving drinks was just an incredible sight. It's a reference for those people in the audience who are aware of its importance while also not being distracting to the story that this show is also telling. That's what makes it so effective. Danson is a bartender once more. But now, he's Michael trying to help Eleanor connect with Chidi.
  • Early in the first season, it was established that everyone in the afterlife is speaking and hearing in the language they are most comfortable in. It's how Eleanor and Chidi can understand each other despite the obvious language question. And yet, the two of them are back on Earth here and both speaking English the same way they always have on the show. So, is this something the next season will address? Or should the audience just not bother with the question?
  • The supporting characters in Eleanor's story on Earth all appeared previously through flashbacks in Season 1. This season no longer had any need to tell stories about her past. The audience already distinctly knew who the humans were as people. And yet, these characters popping up again here as obstacles on Eleanor's path is effective because the audience is aware of the potential traps she is stepping into.
  • It's completely not important who the mysterious stranger was who rescued Eleanor before she was stuck by the carts and then a truck. He just disappears into the parking lot without Eleanor being able to see his face. That's not important. It's more important that she's alive and has the potential to change and prove that she deserves a spot in the Good Place. Hopefully, the same explanations are made for how Chidi, Jason and Tahani survive their deaths as well.
  • Michael is able to break away into Eleanor's world simply by walking into another room in the judge's chambers. He is able to disappear without her noticing. That's stealthy while potentially being very dangerous. He's possibly tainting this whole experimenting. And yet, it also creates the possibility of Michael continuing to interact with the humans on Earth. Plus, there's even the likelihood of seeing Janet on Earth as well which I can't wait to see.
  • Is time running linearly for Michael, Janet and Jen? Are they in the judge's chambers seeing the results as they happen live? So has six months passed for them too? Or is time moving much quicker for them? If it's running linearly, then it could be decades before Jen issues her ruling on this case and the doors to the chambers open again. So, a lot could change in the Bad Place by the time everyone returns. Or maybe time is compressed and this is a nonissue.
  • That's it for Season 2. This was such a fantastic season. It was so inventive and funny in so many new and surprising ways. The world opened up because of the Season 1 twist. And then, it kept getting crazier and crazier. And now, the wait for Season 3 begins. It won't return until the fall. But there's also the hope that the third season will air straight through instead of going on hiatus halfway through due to football considering that NBC just lost the Thursday Night Football rights to FOX.