The Good Place offers one of its best episodes ever with “Janet(s)”

This is how the series pulled off one of its most technically ambitious, wildest episodes yet.

At the Emmys, supporting performers who compete in the TV movie/limited series acting categories have to prove they were onscreen for more than a criminally low amount of time — to verify, essentially, that they actually appeared in the production. (The rule stems from a 2006 Emmy nomination for Ellen Burstyn for a 14-second performance in the HBO movie Mrs. Harris, and the amount of time an actor must spend onscreen varies from production to production, but it must exceed 5 percent of the total running time.)

So when The Good Place creator Mike Schur was assembling “Janet(s)” with his editor, he asked for a quick tally of how much time D’Arcy Carden, who plays Janet, spent onscreen in the 21-minute episode, mostly for fun.

The answer he received in response was: well north of 40 minutes.

spoiler, ahs apocalypse

“Janet(s)” is the best episode yet of this frustrating third season of The Good Place and one of the best TV episodes of the year. It could have collapsed into a gimmick. Having Carden play five of the show’s six main characters (only Michael — played by Ted Danson — escapes being reconstituted in the form of Janet when he moves into her void) could have been little more than an excuse to overload on Carden’s pitch-perfect impressions of the show’s other actors.

Instead, the episode becomes something moving, a surprisingly romantic and sweet story about two people finding each other while in the process finding themselves. And if Carden is somehow nominated for an Emmy, well … how would she not win for this episode?

D’Arcy Carden continues to give one of TV’s best performances. Write it across the sky in brilliant red letters.

Somewhere in the first few minutes of “Janet(s),” it becomes clear that The Good Place isn’t just going to have Carden play Eleanor (usually Kristen Bell), Chidi (usually William Jackson Harper), Tahani (usually Jameela Jamil), and Jason (usually Manny Jacinto) as a fun little trick. No, it’s going to commit to this idea. Sure, The Good Place is showing off — both how good Carden is and how good the show’s effects team is. But it’s also creating an opportunity to talk about what, precisely, the “self” is.

Carden is the primary reason the “multiple Janets” gambit works. She continues to be one of TV’s most versatile performers, and she even manages to nail an Eleanor impression — something that should be incredibly difficult, given that Eleanor is the most grounded of The Good Place’s four human characters.

Schur, at the screening of “Janet(s)” I attended, attributed Carden’s pitch-perfect performance both to the way she captures Bell’s tiny physical gestures, like putting her hands in her back pockets, and to the way Carden pronounces “git” with the very slight Michigander accent that Bell still carries from her childhood there. But that she can perfectly reproduce the cadence of every single one of The Good Place’s main characters while also introducing a new variation on Janet (Neutral Janet!) marks this episode as yet another example of how gifted she is. (Also, a small flood of puppies in Janet’s void, conjured by JanEleanor who’s trying to calm down JanChidi.)

The production of the sequences in Janet’s void — essentially just a white room — sounds like it was a nightmare. The show’s other actors all performed themselves, so Carden could get a sense of how they would approach the lines. And then she painstakingly took the place of each of them, while also filming all the scenes where Janet and Michael run off to the accounting department to find out if the Bad Place is screwing over everyone on Earth.

(My favorite story that Carden told about the whole ordeal involved the scene where she had to play JanChidi kissing an endlessly shifting set of Eleanors, for the moment when Chidi-as-Janet kisses Eleanor-as-everybody to try to bring Eleanor back to her true self. It apparently entailed a giant pole with wax lips on it, and the process was about as romantic as that sounds. The magic of television!)

But nothing about this episode would have worked if The Good Place wasn’t also telling a story about how, after so many permutations of themselves, its characters couldn’t help but feel a little lost and uncertain of who they really were. When you’ve lived so many lifetimes, across so many centuries — and especially if you, like Eleanor, have direct confirmation of one of those lifetimes — it’s easy to feel lost and weird and alone.

Still, it’s important to try to cling to what you know of yourself, to make sure you don’t get lost in the barrage of other selves you could have been. And there’s some discussion in “Janet(s)” of theories of the self, in a Chidi lecture led by Janet-Chidi. But what really spoke to me was the episode’s endless cycling of other humans Eleanor could have been — but for the accident of her birth as Eleanor Shellstrop.

If you believe in something like a soul, who you are is a little arbitrary, if you stop to think about it. After all, you could have been born into any physical form if you have a form that predates yourself on some spiritual level. Why are you you? Why are you not somebody else? You just are. So don’t stop to think about it. Just kiss the person you love — as Chidi does with Eleanor — and hope for the best.

And, of course, “Janet(s)” sets things up nicely for what’s to come in season three’s final handful of episodes (all of which will arrive in 2019).

“Holy motherforking shirtballs. We’re in the Good Place!”

The Good Place has been hinting for a few episodes now that at some point, Eleanor and company would get to visit the actual Good Place. And if it wasn’t obvious before “Janet(s),” well, the sight of a giant pneumatic tube leading to “the real” Good Place should have been a big clue that everybody would be headed there soon enough. You don’t introduce a pneumatic tube without sending somebody through it!

The episode’s cliffhanger — involving Eleanor revisiting perhaps the series’ most famous line, only this time, it’s to confirm she’s in the Good Place — is a good one, especially because the Good Place appears a little dusty and rundown. It’s rather like the city hall in an old American small town, as if the characters have landed in one of those Twilight Zone episodes where some protagonist travels back to the 1890s and slowly realizes how much they prefer their present.

Now, it makes sense that the Good Place is in a bit of disrepair, because the head accountant (a delightfully droll Stephen Merchant, clinging to an “Existence’s Best Boss” mug as a winking nod to both the American Office and the British Office, both of which Merchant co-created) reveals that nobody’s been admitted to the Good Place in more than 500 years. And Michael, having realized the bureaucracy isn’t going to save his friends, has decided to take matters into his own hands by traveling there himself.

But it’s still an eerie sight, this slightly rundown heaven. It reminded me ever so slightly of the heaven from Angels in America, filled with random, decaying vistas and other junk. (It was reimagined as a back alley full of sputtering TV screens in the most recent Broadway production.) And you can come up with an explanation for why the Good Place is so empty, similar to the one Tony Kushner offered on Broadway. Perhaps modern life makes it very hard to be a truly good person, because we’re always, in so many ways, contributing to others’ misery — both in the present and with regard to how our actions will affect future generations — simply by existing.

But I’d like to think that Michael, Eleanor, and everybody else (including all of those Janets) are going to find a way to change that balance, to open up the Good Place again, to understand that “being good” sometimes requires an understanding that we all start in the hole simply because we were born.

The Good Place season three has tried my patience at times, and I’m not sure the side trip to Earth ended up being worth it, really. It mostly amounted to a bunch of episodes that endlessly moved pieces around the board, instead of an earnest examination of how ethics can affect our lives in the real world, as the show initially teased. It almost feels unfair to say that I’m happy it’s back in the afterlife.

But boy, am I happy it’s back in the afterlife. And if the rest of the episodes in season three are as good as “Janet(s),” we’ll be very lucky viewers.

Author: Todd VanDerWerff

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