“This is my kind of scrappy fun!”
One of the most impressive things about The Good Place is how well it sustains tension. Not the tension about whether our six heroes will wind up tortured for all eternity, have their essences scooped out and ladled over ugly hot diamonds, or turned into a marble, necessarily. After all, Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, Michael, and Janet have gotten out of tougher existential scrapes than this week’s—although their imminent arrival for a meeting with Judge Gen at the Interdimensional Hole Of Pancakes sounds like a tough one. But the dramatic and comedic tension between our enjoyment at each episode’s revelations about the workings of the show’s moral universe, and the ever-present suspicion that these revelations don’t really matter at all.
“The Book Of Dougs” picks up right where “Janet(s)” left off before the hiatus, with the Soul Squad standing, impossibly, in the Good Place. Well, the sort of functional adjunct to the Good Place, akin to all we’ve seen of the Bad Place and the eternal limbo of Judge Gen’s realm. It’s a mailroom (or the “correspondence center,” according to Nicole Byers’ Gwendolyn, the preternaturally chipper and trusting Good Place postal worker they meet there), which Michael assures them is actually part of the unimaginable paradise they’ve been seeking. For proof, he has them inhale, since everywhere in the Good Place automatically smells like “whatever makes you happiest.” (Quick rundown: Eleanor—her favorite childhood water park; Chidi—warm pretzels/moral truth; Jason—Blake Bortles winning the Super Bowl, plus weed; Tahani—the curtain being closed between first class and the rest of the plane.)
But, as with their foray into the antechambers of the Bad Place, the fact that they are in no way supposed to be there means paradise comes with some serious deception and quick thinking. Luckily, Byers’ hilariously credulous Gwendolyn isn’t tough to fool, since she has no frame of reference for such things. “Well jeez Louise, I’m sure glad you’re okay!,” is her response to Michael’s sweaty lie about the humans having won a contest, and Jason’s embellishment about fleeing to her domain from bazooka-toting Draculas. She’s not even phased by Janet’s unconvincing impersonation of a Neutral Place Janet. (“It’s nice to be here. And it’s not nice to not be there.”)
Michael, clutching the titular Book of Dougs (containing the point breakdowns of not just Doug Forcett but every Doug throughout the history of Dougs), assures Gwendolyn that he has an important matter to discuss with the Committee, as mentioned last episode. He doesn’t have an appointment, and, as he tells everyone, the Good Place is all about the rules, but, again luckily, Gwendolyn is so trusting that she immediately shows him exactly how to contact the Committee, knowing full well that he would never act on her very specific and undetectable directions. And here’s where the tension comes in.
When Michael meets the Committee (led by other all-star comedy guest star, Paul Scheer, as Chuck), they, too, are unquestioningly trusting, a guileless cluelessness toward deceit and nefariousness that renders them, according to a frustrated Michael later, “ineffectual dorks in fleece vests.” Upon arriving, Chidi asked Michael why they simply don’t explain their extraordinary situation and request asylum. “These are the good guys,” he says, while Jason (in a bit of real-world messaging) agrees, “What kind of Good Place would turn away refugees?” But, as we’ve seen time and again, the universe of The Good Place is run like a bureaucracy, and a decidedly human one at that. Figures like Chuck all have infinitely greater knowledge and experience than we puny humans, but they’re all clinging to a system whose hidebound regimentation appears to shave off anything resembling wisdom or compromise until, as we saw last week, literally no human has been deemed “good” in the last 521 years.
We get another glimpse of how that could happen, as Chuck and his team snap into action at Michael’s insistence that the Bad Place has hacked the universe’s points system—and form a blue ribbon committee. Well, they draft a plan to form a committee that will take 400 years—to choose the members of the committee. And then another 1000 years to make sure there are no conflicts of interest among those chosen for the committee. Then right down to work. It’s a parody of institutional liberalism (poor member Kellen has to resign because he expresses unauthorized enthusiasm for their plan before filing the proper paperwork), and the sort of easy joke that would be disappointing if it weren’t for the fact that The Good Place has conditioned us to question whether a universe built on such broad distinctions could possibly be the real one. To Michael’s passionate plea for them to understand that, for every century spent waffling over protocol, untold millions of humans will be unthinkably tortured, the committee assures them that they have drafted a memo explicitly expressing how concerned they are. Chuck’s blithe, “We’re the good guys, we can’t just do stuff” is the sort of hacky line the show has made us suspicious of—both because the actions of our heroes belie it, and because The Good Place almost never trafficks in banalities.
As evidence, we need only look to how the humans and Janet spend their time distracting Gwendolyn while Michael makes his play. Tahani’s mission becomes evident when she sees how Jason’s guilt at learning Janet’s secret love for him and Janet’s bubbling instability over same calls out for her help. This Tahani—having learned the earthbound lesson that goodness for its own sake is a futile but worthwhile endeavor—sets out to make her friends happy. She fails, naturally—there’s no easy solution for a situation where an immortal, evolving inhuman consciousness is hot for the sweet ding-dong you’re married to—but she gives it a shot because, as she puts it when apologizing to Janet later, they’re her friends, and she loves them. (Janet, having worried that her unaccustomed emotions would emerge from her butt, is only slightly less mortified that they emerge as tears, but they—and Jason, who doesn’t want to be left out—embrace in affectingly wet-eyed kinship.)
Meanwhile, the newly confirmed couple of Eleanor and Chidi go on a date. After Eleanor, having anxiety-perspired through her sweatshirt, tires of trying to bust through the unopenable door to the Good Place that Gwendolyn innocently shows them (the actual entrance is some 500 trillion miles away), Chidi tries to calm her down. First discarding the glass of possible water he’d brought her from a mysterious standing, glowing bowl of liquid (“That may have been a toilet”), Chidi plans a nice, romantic mailroom assignation, complete with available fruit, some rummaged champagne, and a mailman uniform that sends Eleanor into an unexpected crying fit. (“Is this horny crying?,” Chidi speculates, desperately.) Eleanor, as we recall, has a major thing for mailmen, and she dreamily claims that her “Mailmen From Heaven” calendar never “got past March.” (“Don’t,” Michael cuts her off before Eleanor can explain what that means.)
For the Eleanor-Chidi shippers out there, the idea of them choosing, finally, to be together in this reality could be a danger point, too, in the way of all will-they-won’t-they sitcom dynamics. But Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper don’t really bear out those fears. Eleanor and Chidi are still Eleanor and Chidi—just changed by their shared experience. So Eleanor naturally takes the first unobserved moment to ineffectually whip a lamp at the Good Place door, while Chidi tries to calm her down by affectionately calling her, “Smashy.” Eleanor explains that breaking enough stuff until they throw you out is how she beats escape rooms all the time, and, referring to the supposed width of the door, pleads that they are merely “four Oreos from heaven.” (Anyone who can resist Chidi’s “Right now we’re together in heaven, basically, and we’re in love” is very different from me.) Picking up on Eleanor’s actual pain and desperation inside her hair-trigger Eleanor-ness, Chidi proposes they have their first real date, “four Oreos from heaven,” the formerly paralyzed ethical scarecrow turning the absurdity of their predicament into an irresistibly sweet and twinkly shrug. Complete with citations, naturally. He quotes Tolstoy’s adage, “There is only one time that is important—now. It is the only time when we have any power.” Sure, Eleanor only knows that one because of a meme on an unauthorized Tyra Banks Instagram feed, but the point stands, and works. This Chidi and this Eleanor might or might not be the soulmates that Michael once duplicitously claimed they were. But they’re a wonderful match, complete with some long-awaited furtive Good Place closet sex.
The storytelling tension reasserts itself when Tahani comes to the dejected Michael for advice. Rejecting Michael’s idea that all it takes to make Jason happy is a lollipop shaped like a Transformer, Tahani blurts out, in one of those tellingly highlighted statements designed to make our conspiracy antennae twitch, “There are so many unintended consequences to well-intentioned actions, it feels like a game you can’t win.” The alacrity with which Michael picks up those vibrations—and the Book Of Dougs—should make our antennae twitch even more. After all, Michael is holding onto the conviction that the real proof of the Bad Place hacking scandal is that Doug Forcett won’t get into the Good Place. Even though, as we’ve seen, poor Doug’s life of asceticism and pee-drinking is both only a desperate attempt to avoid personal damnation, and a moral exemplar only to those who wish to turn their existences into a panic-laden, groveling joke. Here again, Michael’s epiphany is deeply suspect.
Scanning the book, Michael compares two identical actions—selflessly cheering someone up by giving them roses—from two different time periods. Seeing that 1543’s Doug got 143 points, while 2004 Doug was docked four, Michael concludes that it’s not the Bad Place hijacking the points at all, but the fact that, as the world has become more complicated, industrialized, and interconnected, every action, no matter how well-intentioned, comes dragging a damning set of moral anchors. 2004 Doug bought his granny flowers, sure, but the cell phone he used was made in a sweatshop, the flowers were grown with harmful pesticides, and the flower CEO is a dick pic-sending sex creep. Eureka.
With Gwendolyn finally, begrudgingly beginning to suspect that her visitors might not be on the up-and-up (“What’s up, fart-faces? Chidi and I just had sex in a closet!,” Eleanor bursts in, unhelpfully), Michael makes his own dramatic entrance, assuring Gwendolyn that he’s already contacted Gen with a plan to, as he puts it, “save humanity.” Calling a portal to Gen’s dimension (and the dreaded Interdimensional Hole Of Pancakes) thanks to the obliging Doorman (who’s delighted that the Good Place smells like frogs), Michael leads the gang to what he’s determined is their true and final salvation. Again. Unlike with those Good Place dorks, we’re predisposed to cheer on such decisive action, and we should—even if it’s becoming clearer and clearer as this third season heads for a close that the moral maze these particular people are trapped in isn’t the shape they think it is.
- According to Janet, absolute moral truth smells just like warm pretzels. Checks out.
- Also, in the Good Place, tears taste like, in Eleanor’s case, the nachos from her favorite movie theater. (“It’s a really weird incentive to keep crying.”)
- Hearing Eleanor’s destructive attempt to bum-rush the Good Place, Gwendolyn accepts Eleanor’s assurance that nothing’s going on with a singsong, “Okay then, no follow-up questions!”
- Apparently, you can say “fart-faces” in the Good Place?
- William Jackson Harper’s deadpan incredulousness remains a thing of wonder. To the calming Eleanor’s revelation that the Good Place smell of the vomit from her favorite water park’s wave pool is helping, Chidi’s “How? [pause] Why?” is what comedy is.
- Chuck, meeting Michael, calls it “One of the great honors of my eternal life,” following seamlessly with a pleasant “Now, who are you and why are we here?”
- Chuck initially brushes off Michael’s concern that its been 521 years without a Good Place admission by recalling 200,000 years ago, when humans invented stabbing. “They were all just, like, stabbing each other.”
- Before his resignation, Kellen (Phil Augusta Jackson) is tasked with helping Michael pass the time by showering him with sincere compliments like, “You’re a nice height.” Michael: “I thought I was gonna be annoyed by this, but it’s wonderful.”
- Janet, in response to Tahani’s proffered not-married certificate: “I feel both pitied and put on the spot, so that’s fun.”
- Jameela Jamil has a hell of an episode. It’s a tie for most adorable moment between her unconvincingly curt “No” to Janet asking whether she, too, saw her video diary, and the way she simply flees the room after tearing up the not-married certificate she thought would satisfy both Janet and Jason.
- The fact that NBC not only scooped up Brooklyn Nine-Nine but also paired it with The Good Place for an hour-long bloc of Michael Schur comedy goodness might not mean we’re in the Good Place. But it doesn’t not-not mean that, at least for an hour every Thursday.
- Don’t forget to check out this week’s annotated guide to everything you (or, okay, we) missed in “The Book Of Dougs.”