clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Good Place's best episode yet is a swirling tribute to modern American chaos

With this series, creator Michael Schur reexamines the political optimism of Parks and Recreation.

The Good Place
It was the pig that got me. It’s always the pig.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 24 through 30 is “Dance Dance Resolution,” the second episode of the second season of NBC’s The Good Place. (Note that it’s technically the third episode of the season overall, but NBC aired the two-part premiere as a single episode.)

I’ve recently been rewatching some of the later season episodes of Parks and Recreation, in an attempt to figure out why I soured a bit on the show in the middle of its run. (I came back around on it by the end.)

The rewatch was prompted by how much I love The Good Place, which was created by Parks and Rec co-creator Michael Schur, as well as by how many people I know who just loved the show throughout its run, while I found large swaths of it, especially in its fifth and sixth seasons, pretty clunky. (I wrote more on this topic here.)

What I’ve found is that Parks and Rec increasingly feels trapped in the time and place in which it was made. This is true of all TV shows, of course; the medium is typically produced so quickly that the world outside the frame inevitably starts to influence what’s on the screen.

But the series, especially in its later years, takes place in a world where the main characters largely live in material comfort, and where their fellow citizens in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana — many of whom have gripes with the social order — are presented largely as buffoons or harmless goofballs.

The final season of Parks and Rec takes place in a bizarre alternate 2017, one in which there are drones everywhere (they’re mostly harmless, not ominous), a tech company has turned Pawnee into a utopia, and inequality largely goes unmentioned. Though in its best years, the show functioned as an examination of the tension between political optimism and pragmatic reality, it eventually succumbed to wish fulfillment; in the generally exemplary final season, all of its characters got what they wanted, mostly. By and large, Parks and Rec could have been retitled What People Talk About When They Say “Neoliberalism” on Twitter.

But as time goes by, I find it hard to judge the show too harshly. It now gives me a weird nostalgia for the world of two years ago — both because it was generally well-made and because The Good Place now plays as a funhouse mirror rejection of most of what it stood for.

Stop reading now if you’re not caught up with The Good Place.

The Good Place is set in a world where gentrified suburbia is an unending nightmare

“Rejection,” perhaps, is too strong a word. Parks and Rec was a romanticized version of what Obama-era America could have been. At its best, the show really did believe there was nothing Americans couldn’t accomplish by coming together and finding common ground. The reason watching Parks and Rec’s version of 2017 in actual 2017 causes so much dissonance is that we’ve realized how little common ground there truly is — not just between political sides but within political sides. Every day seems to expose new fault lines in previously stable coalitions.

The Good Place isn’t about that, really, but that’s also the only thing it’s about. It transforms the world of Parks and Rec — a pleasant suburban small town where everyone’s every whim is satisfied — into an unending nightmare. The show is set in the afterlife, in a place that’s ostensibly heaven but turns out to be hell, and its central question is whether trying to be a good and ethical person even matters if all of the forces of the universe are aligned against you.

The Good Place
Ted Danson, devil.

The show’s first season spent plenty of time pondering the nature of heaven and hell before the season one finale revealed that heaven had been hell all along. To that end, I spent a lot of the season wondering if I was watching an elaborate adaptation of the writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a sort of modern parable of heaven, purgatory, and hell, in which the three are not separate places but are interrelated, and moving from one to the other often requires simply shifting one’s state of mind. The Good Place’s titular Good Place, then, would only be truly “good” if one could approach it from a place of humility and grace, something almost all of us will fall short of again and again.

Of course, we’ve since learned that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, an experiment cooked up by Michael (Ted Danson) to better torment four unlucky humans in a fashion they’ll suspect less and hate more. Yet as season two proceeds, it seems more and more likely that the Great Divorce reading applies. The human characters might be in the Bad Place, but they continue to find good things about it, even as Michael keeps erasing their memories.

At the same time, it’s starting to seem like the Bad Place for Michael, who’s trapped in an unending cycle of his own creation, unable to stop an out-of-control experiment, even if he should want to.

“Dance Dance Resolution” doesn’t shy away from the horrific implications of its setup. That makes it even funnier.

What makes “Dance Dance Resolution” the best episode of The Good Place to date is the way it refuses to back down from its most horrific implications, which only makes its jokes all the funnier. The episode takes place across hundreds of different iterations of Michael’s experiment, which he has to reset every time one of the humans (usually Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell) gets wise to what’s happening. And all the while, Michael is lying to his superior, insisting that things are going just fine and dandy and he’s still on only the second iteration of the rapidly spiraling endeavor.

From a formal point of view, “Dance Dance Resolution” is a big departure for Schur, who doesn’t typically trade in this sort of quick-cut, montage-driven comedy. It’s reminiscent of the fake clip show episodes of Community, where much of the laughter came not from the dialogue or even the visuals but from the editing. As directed by Drew Goddard, “Dance Dance Resolution” adapts this idea with aplomb.

Ridiculous idea piles atop ridiculous idea, until the whole thing is funny simply because the show keeps topping itself. Eleanor realizes that, no, this is the Bad Place when a pig goes rogue, or when she’s forced to watch clowns roll by on an assembly line, or when she listens to a drunken Michael ramble on about his plans without realizing she’s in the room.

There are even more ridiculous montages, including one featuring lots and lots and lots of great puns (with even more posted on Twitter by the episode’s writer, Megan Amram) and another only increasing the discomfort Michael feels as he’s forced to keep rebooting Janet, the neighborhood’s all-knowing personal digital assistant in human form. (Janet begs for her life each time as part of her programming, then conks over dead. Even though Michael knows it’s an act, it gets harder to stomach every time.)

The Good Place
Eleanor and Chidi realize what’s up.

But it’s the second half of “Dance Dance Resolution” — in which Eleanor and ethicist Chidi (William Jackson Harper) discern the true nature of their predicament before Michael can realize they’re onto him — that shows just how profound and tricky The Good Place can be. Eleanor and Chidi try to run as far away from their little neighborhood as they can, seemingly escaping to the middle of nowhere, which is occupied by Mindy St. Clair, a character we first met late in season one. When Mindy died, she was neither good enough for the actual Good Place nor bad enough for the Bad Place, so she became the only human in existence to wind up in a kind of Middle Place. (She mostly seems really, really bored.)

But “Dance Dance Resolution” is way ahead of Eleanor and Chidi — and, consequently, way ahead of us. Turns out there have been many instances in which Eleanor and Chidi have found their way to Mindy’s house, but their memories have been wiped with each and every reset. Mindy, however, remembers their visits. She also remembers that during several of them, Eleanor and Chidi have been in love and have even absconded to the bedroom for some deeply romantic sex, driven by their fear of whatever will happen once Michael finds them out. (Eleanor, true to form, is disgusted by this revelation.)

One of the hallmarks of Schur’s series is that he loves romance, often so much that he’ll alter his stories to get two characters together. (The fourth season of Parks and Rec, for instance, posits a scenario in which Leslie Knope must choose between her political dreams and the man she loves — a scenario that is quickly hand-waved away to allow her to have both.) So to find love and then lose it — indeed, not even know about it — is perhaps the ultimate nightmare he could foist on his characters. And Eleanor and Chidi have had this happen countless times.

But that only underlines the overall message of the episode, as expressed by Chidi. In a world that keeps resetting itself to a sunny but secretly sinister status quo, there’s no way to ever learn or grow. You can’t gain karma points if you keep getting turned back to zero, and you can’t become a better person if you don’t have the knowledge of who you were in the first place.

In this scenario, it’s only Michael, the architect of this dark reality, who can change anything. And “Dance Dance Resolution” ends in just such a fashion, as he tries to enlist the only actual humans in the so-called “Good Place” (everybody else, no matter how human they seem, is a play-acting demon) to his side. The world only becomes a moral one if the fabric it’s sewn from is made moral by those in power. And the only thing that spurs Michael to this nascent change — which could end up being a double-cross — is the pressure he feels from his fellow demons, who are tired of the endless resets.

All of this is just a taste of the ideas worth exploring in The Good Place, one of those shows that gets a little deeper every time you think about it. You can watch it as a commentary on TV sitcoms, or on ethical theory, or on religion. But I think it’s most rewarding as an attempt to understand the world, as it stands, right now. It’s not a full-scale repudiation of Parks and Rec, but it understands why someone might have been skeptical of that show’s optimism. Hell is empty; all the devils are buying froyo.

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30 pm on NBC. Catch up — please catch up — with season one streaming on Netflix and season two on Hulu.