The show reaches a long-anticipated destination, but it doesn’t make it very far.
This week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, film critic Alissa Wilkinson, and culture editor Jen Trolio got together to discuss “The Book of Dougs,” the 11th episode of the third season of NBC’s loopy comedy The Good Place. (Because the first two episodes of season three aired as one installment, the episode number is one ahead of the number of weeks the show has aired.) Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!
Todd: I was right!!
I mean, I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to see that the reason nobody has gotten into the Good Place in over 500 years is that the more complicated the world gets, the more complicated it is to be a good person. But still! I said something to that very effect in my review of The Good Place’s most recent episode, “Janet(s),” and in “The Book of Dougs,” here are Michael and Tahani echoing those very words back to me.
More specifically, while examining the big book of all Dougs who have ever lived, Michael pulls up an example of two different Dougs who bought roses for their grandmothers, which would seem to be an unambiguously “good” act. The Doug of the distant past had to pick the flowers himself, and he ended up with a positive points distribution.
But the Doug of just a few years ago ordered the flowers on a phone built in a sweatshop, and the universe’s points system deducted a few points for every single link in the chain of modern society where people and/or the planet were abused or exploited for economic gain. Turns out there are a lot of those links!
I remember way, way, way back when The Good Place debuted — before we even knew the Good Place was the Bad Place — I asked creator Michael Schur at a press conference if the show was meant to function as a kind of income inequality metaphor, with a handful of people having a bunch of arbitrarily defined “points” that let them live in luxury while others are forced to rot in torment. He got kind of a confused look in his eye, and I briefly worried the show wasn’t meant to have broader philosophical meaning at all! (How young I was! I had only seen the pilot!)
And, sure, The Good Place still kind of functions as an income inequality metaphor, but it’s always hoped to fry the biggest fish of them all: the very underpinnings of our moral order. In “The Book of Dougs,” the characters enter the actual Good Place but are confined to a very small corner of it (because humans can only enter the Good Place through its official access point, so our gang can’t leave the building they’re in). While they’re there, they discover it’s run by an inefficient bureaucracy that means any investigations into the points system will take millennia. And, tbh, we might not be here to get points by then.
I’m liking this season so much more now that it’s no longer earthbound, but I’m starting to realize how much the brief sojourn to our plane of reality helped The Good Place underline its own dramatic stakes. This is perhaps the first sitcom I can think of where the literal fate of the entire cosmos is at stake in some fashion, and I’m into it! What did you two think?
We have some very pedantic questions about the central premise of this episode
Alissa: I greatly enjoyed this episode, not least for the dawning sense that all of this season’s wanderings (which I’ve enjoyed!) are starting to come to a head. I squealed, as a Nailed It! stan, for Nicole Byer. I loved seeing Chidi and Eleanor finally have a real date. I wondered what the air in my Good Place would smell like. And as a professor who has attended, and sometimes chaired, many faculty meetings for the past decade, I delighted, with schadenfreude, in the inefficacy of the Committee.
But most of all, I also found that the idea of upending the points system breathed new life into the show. It’s a little gutsy, a little Lucifer in Paradise Lost-esque, to challenge the moral order of the universe. I especially love the idea that the disintegration of the old points-based moral order — at least insofar as it allowed anyone to have a chance at getting into the Good Place — is pegged to roughly five centuries ago, when contemporary capitalism began its rise.
That said, I have a weird little thing that keeps bothering me in the back of my head; it started with the episode where we met Doug Forcett. And the thing is this: if the Good and Bad Places are supposed to be for all mankind, what about all those people over the past 500 years who have lived in places where they lived hand-to-mouth, where they weren’t participating in any “complicated” system the way the show has set it up, where each of your choices has far-reaching repercussions because of the economic systems in which we live. How could none of them made it into the Good Place in all that time?
Whew, I feel pedantic even bringing that up, though it’s just a variation of the kinds of questions kids ask in Sunday School (“if Jesus is the only one who can save us, what about people who never had the opportunity to hear of Jesus?” and so on). I don’t think the writers haven’t thought about this, so maybe the truth is that I’m anxious to see how they resolve it, too. And maybe that’s a twist we’re still waiting for.
Jen: Wow, that question didn’t come up for me at all, but I think it’s valid. And I get why you might be feeling a bit self-conscious about bringing it up — but I think you’re right that The Good Place’s writers have surely at least thought about it. So I’m mostly left wondering, at this late point in the season, what kind of pacing we’re in for as the show wraps things up.
With two episodes to go and with the tension created from the Committee wanting to take its time and follow procedure while Michael and his crew feel a much greater sense of urgency, where do we go from here?
The episode ended with our trusty band of heroes on their way to meet the Judge once again, this time in the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes. So I’m kind of expecting the next episode to be something of a bottled installment, confined to whatever The Good Place’s interpretation of the phrase “Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes” turns out to be as Maya Rudolph interrogates the group’s every move since the last time they were all together in her quarters.
But then what of the finale? What kind of reset — or lack of one — might the series next have in store? Do you think we’ll be staying in the Good Place, albeit confined to its less schnazzy spaces like the mail depot we saw this week? Headed to some new hallway beyond space and time we just haven’t seen yet?
I’m both intrigued and a little stumped by how The Good Place might embark on its apparent intention to confront the complications of modern life on Earth while still linking the action to a physical space, however otherworldly that space may be.
And what does your Good Place smell like?
Todd: It’s an interesting question to ponder. In the past 500-some years, there really hasn’t been some member of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe who hasn’t been good enough to get into the Good Place? It’s a tough place to get into by definition, but c’mon!
But maybe this plays into the show’s larger point: The more interconnected we are, the more that something bad I do can contribute to something bad that you do, sometimes without you even knowing. If the goal is true altruism, then the more a society becomes intertwined, the harder it is to ever extricate yourself from it, even if you’re effectively living off the grid like Doug Forcett. After all, just by being alive and working on my laptop and having this lamp turned on, I am creating very small carbon emissions that are contributing to the death of the planet! Hard to back away from that one.
But I’m willing to grant The Good Place this premise, because I think it zeroes in on where the whole story is headed, which has to be some sort of upending of the whole Good Place/Bad Place system in favor of something more equitable. It is, then, a series not just about being a better person, but about finding a way to be a better society, which is so pie-in-the-sky as a gigantic concept that I can’t quite wrap my head around how to tell a story about it.
Indeed, it felt a little to me like season three was just the show marking time, then rapidly approaching what I hoped would be a fourth and final season that would wrap everything up. But the way “The Book of Dougs” moves the goalposts makes me think that season three wasn’t really a story lining up the characters to finish their story overall, but lining up the whole show to transition into some new phase.
I know that Lost is buried deep in The Good Place’s DNA somewhere, and that show, too, had a third season that transitioned it from being one thing to being another entirely. It’s exciting to watch that sort of thing happen again.
Meanwhile, Eleanor and Chidi: Do you buy this as the great romantic arc of the show? Because I’m in favor of them as a couple, particularly the way they give each other leeway to be weird, but I feel that insistent little tug that something in their coupling doesn’t quite work the way the show wants it to, and I can’t figure it out.
(My smell, by the way, would just be Christmas trees. Boring!)
Alissa: I agree. I think The Good Place has shown a willingness to totally change the landscape, and to be honest, I’m expecting something big in the final episode to do the same. For one thing, I think it eventually has to start stumbling into some kind of religious territory — something it’s largely managed to evade for three seasons, and skillfully so, by focusing on moral philosophy to the exclusion of things like, say, origins and the end of the world. But it feels like Michael and the gang are inadvertently pushing the whole afterlife/supernatural world toward an apocalyptic moment of reckoning, and I have no idea what will happen next.
I’m going to come back to Paradise Lost here, because I’m getting kind of obsessed with the idea of a demon, an evil being, turning into the show’s hero. Granted, in Milton’s retelling, Lucifer is not played by Ted Danson. But many people think of Lucifer as an antihero, maybe the first one — a fallen being, formerly an angel of light, who nonetheless is sort of the one we want to root for — and he’s ready to challenge an almighty, distant God when he feels wronged by the universe.
That’s not exactly who Michael is. But there are enough parallels here that my spidey sense has been pricking, especially in “The Book of Dougs” when Michael gets visibly irritated with the Committee, who are, indeed, aloof and ineffective.
What would a more equitable society look like? And can The Good Place put one together without really specifying the source of morality overall? I have no idea! That’s what excites me. I love this show for boldly diving into things that shows like this rarely get into, and doing it with hilarious jokes and sweet storylines (and, yes, I do like Eleanor and Chidi together, though I’m interested to see where that story goes).
My biggest hope, though, is that we go back to the Bad Place at some point. The way The Good Place throws shade on annoying people everywhere for bad behaviors (of the not-wearing-your-shoes-on-the-airplane variety) delights me, as a person who lives in a crowded city and takes a lot of public transportation.
My Good Place, by the way, probably smells like a bowl of ramen on a cold day.
Jen: First things first, I think my Good Place might smell like a glass of red wine and the outside air right after a crackling summer thunderstorm, but the mind truly boggles. So many options!!
And I’m gonna side more with Alissa on the Eleanor/Chidi question: I think they’re extremely fun to watch together, and I’m interested to see where their story goes.
But I do feel that same sense of reservation, Todd; there’s something a little … something … about them, and it’s hard to discern. I have a feeling that it might have to do with their relative role reversal in “The Book of Dougs” — suddenly, Chidi was reassuring a constantly-freaking-out Eleanor, instead of the other way around. But I must confess I loved seeing him take on a more assertive role and exude some confidence for once. (Also, William Jackson Harper strutting around in that Good Place mail carrier uniform as if he was about to head out on some kind of postal safari was amazing.)
I’m eager to see how the duo jumps into the future of the show as a partnership. Their coupledom gives The Good Place yet another opportunity to morph and evolve, as Eleanor and Chidi grow both as individuals and as a romantic couple. Who would have thought that we’d ever hear Chidi say, “What if we don’t worry about whatever comes next?” Chidi! Of all people.
There’s change afoot both on a universal level and a human level, and I like the way that The Good Place could be making one a microcosm of the other.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff