The Good Place is finally back on track

The show has to frantically pull some strings to keep things moving along, but it has fun in the process.

Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Karen Han get together to discuss the latest episode of NBC’s loopy comedy The Good Place. This week, they’re discussing the fifth episode of the third season, “Jeremy Bearimy.” (Because the first two episodes aired as one installment, the number of episodes is one ahead of the number of weeks the show has aired.) Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!

Karen Han: I can see clearly now, the rain is gone! And by “rain,” I mean Chidi’s shirt. Okay, so “Jeremy Bearimy” still kind of feels like a transitional episode of The Good Place — out of the ethical frying pan and into the fire — but it also feels like more of a return to form for the show, and more importantly, everything that happened in the first few episodes of season three now makes sense. Getting to this point might have been a little circuitous, but I think it was worth it!

As it turns out, The Good Place cast’s recent adventures on Earth have been a way for the show to kick off a brand new experiment with a brand new set of stakes. After being caught scheming in front of an interdimensional portal, Michael and Janet are forced to come clean to Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason about what’s going on, and the result is somewhat devastating.

Now that our core four know the truth about the Good Place, none of the good things they do from here on out count toward them getting into it. Indeed, the mere fact that they know, with certainty, that it exists means they can never get in. Nothing means anything anymore.

The resulting revelations and existential crises that define “Jeremy Bearimy” are perfectly tailored to each of The Good Place’s human characters; Chidi, for example, literally loses his shirt as his typical hand-wringing over the moral implications of any given situation is suddenly rendered irrelevant. (Remember in season one’s “Chidi’s Choice” when Eleanor said Chidi is “surprisingly jacked?” She was not joking; the dude is swole!) Meanwhile, Tahani literally starts throwing money around.

The Good Place’s explicit explanation of the gang’s different philosophical viewpoints is kind of beautiful, even if it is a little heavy-handed. It’s also necessary grounding for the way the show seems to be about to buck its central mechanic, now that Good Place/Bad Place points are kaput. While the show isn’t doing something radically new, it does seem to be evolving in accordance with its exploration of philosophy. The points were never the point, no pun intended, and we — and the characters — understand that now.

That said, I’m not sure how Larry Hemsworth figures into the equation (Larry, I’m sorry for the things I said about you last week), or how The Good Place is going to move forward with regard to its plot. Will there be more additions to the gang? How will their new mission to help others be good affect their own moral journeys?

These questions have as much potential to flip the script as to stymie the show’s progress. I think I understand where it’s going morally and ethically, but I won’t pretend I can see much further. Not that I’m complaining — unpredictability is a big part of The Good Place’s charm.

All in all, I think “Jeremy Bearimy” is solid, and an overall improvement on the preceding episodes if also inextricably built upon them. Todd, did it do anything to boost your confidence as to the direction of season three?

Finally, season 3 feels like it has the direction it’s been lacking

The Good PlaceNBC
Jason and Tahani try just giving some money away.

Todd VanDerWerff: This episode didn’t just have to reboot the entire season. To some degree, it had to reboot the entire show. And you know what? I thought it did a darn good job.

After the third season’s first few installments spent a lot of time getting everybody into the same room at the same place and time, it was almost a relief to have the ensemble cast bouncing off of each other all at once, like it was vintage The Good Place season two again or something.

“Jeremy Bearimy” is named for, uh, the way that time passes in the afterlife, a weird squiggle of a timeline that resembles the name in the title (just go with it). But where the episode really succeeds is in finding a way to get back to The Good Place’s most basic question of all: How do you be a good person? And, really, why try to be good at all?

Shifting the action of the show to Earth was always meant to give these questions more concrete stakes, I suspect. While I never wanted to see Eleanor and Chidi and Tahani and Jason end up in “The Bad Place,” the threat didn’t quite have real teeth. In theory, however, there’s more to lose on this earthly plane, provided the show can find a way to finagle it. What’s smart about “Jeremy” is the way it contorts itself, leaning as far into those stakes as possible. Now the characters can’t get into the Good Place. So what’s the point of ever trying to do good?

Well, goodness can be its own reward, the episode argues, and while I’m sure this latest development will somehow be undone in a few weeks, I don’t mind the idea of following these characters around while they try to do good things and eat some of Jason’s delicious bag of tacos.

The underlying theme of The Good Place, I think, is that any sort of rigid system designed to provide absolute morality barometers is inevitably going to fail, because humans aren’t great at rigidity. Season three has perhaps bitten off more than it can chew a few times in that regard, but it’s at least wrestling with the idea that these questions are no longer just theoretical. They have real-world applications beyond the question of where you go after you die.

Also, there is no way the Jeremy Bearimy timeline doesn’t come back into play before this season is up, perhaps as a loophole for whatever corner the characters are currently backed into. (Remember: The dot on the I is Tuesdays. Also July. Also never.)

The Good Place knows moral change is incremental and doesn’t happen overnight

The Good PlaceNBC
Maybe Chidi hasn’t figured that out yet, actually.

Karen: Jeremy Bearimy is definitely coming back, and I think the characters’ core traits are, as well. Eleanor and company have definitely changed since they first died. But as we see in this episode, they’re not so far along in their moral development, or rather, they’re still mostly the same people that they were when we first met them.

It’s a nice reminder that this kind of moral change is incremental; it doesn’t suddenly happen overnight. That said, everyone has evolved a little bit. Eleanor is quick to return to her previous self-identified status as a trash bag (she really takes that bartender to task), but she’s emotionally vulnerable to the significance of a child’s drawing to a father, even after having to go out of her way to get it to him. And Tahani, though still tethered to her enormous fortune, has a better handle on what to do with it (and true altruism in general) thanks to Jason.

This episode also serves as a welcome reminder of just how not-human Michael is. His line about humans being goo and juice is hysterical, as is his insistence that their best course of action might be for him to kill them all. Granted, he’s trying to use his demonic powers for good, now, but he still has a little ways to go when it comes to understanding how people work.

And, not to take this discussion in a Jeremy Bearimy direction, but the revelation of Jeremy Bearimy is also kind of a reminder of just how wonderfully nutty this show can be — the episode comes close to being the platonic ideal of a Good Place episode, in that it’s chock full of philosophy with a side of supernatural strangeness.

Again, the fact that all the action is now taking place on Earth is a bit of a restriction, but Michael and Janet’s explanation of Jeremy Bearimy alone is enough of a reminder of the fact that we’ve literally been through heaven and hell to get to this point. (I think it comes back to what you were saying above about rigidity, in that the rigidity of any given setting on the show has eventually been broken in order for the story to progress.)

It’s encouraging that being on Earth hasn’t put much of a damper on the proceedings, because it feels a lot like what comes next will also be Earth-bound — and, speaking to one of our biggest concerns from last week’s episode — it seems as though all of the characters will be sticking together for the foreseeable future.

Todd: If there’s something I most appreciated about this episode, it was the ending, which outlined the major schools of moral philosophy, in brief, before Chidi concluded that only nihilism mattered, which he illustrated by making marshmallow and candy chili. (You do you, Chidi.) I’m always impressed with how The Good Place can boil down these major ideas into a few simple sentences, which we understand better because the show itself has found a way to dramatize them.

But the paradox of “Jeremy Bearimy” is the way that it depicts what true altruism might look like. Eleanor and the gang have no reason to do good. There’s no reward for them, beyond the nice feeling they might get when they help somebody out, or just give someone $5,000 (AUD).

They’re just doing what they know is right, because it might provide them with a short-term boost of good feeling and general warmth toward their fellow human beings. But, as anybody could tell you, that feeling wears off, and the world is full of ways to convince you to think more about yourself than those around you.

This is what still makes me ride or die for The Good Place, no matter what weird tangents it takes that I don’t always enjoy. The show has found a way to be didactic — to have old fashioned morals — without really feeling like it’s preaching. I didn’t quite realize how the show was outlining ideas about deontology and consequentialism and so on until it hammered the point home in Chidi’s lecture. I was being made to think about my larger place in the universe, while also laughing at some very silly jokes. And that’s enormously hard to pull off!

I’m still a little worried about all the time the characters are going to be spending on Earth, since Michael and Janet seem more or less trapped here, too, but I think there’s something quietly radical about the way The Good Place has twisted itself into pretzels to get to a place where the Good Place, the Bad Place, and even the Medium Place just don’t matter. Rules, regulations, larger ethical codes: They’re all useless if you don’t find a way to put other people first.

“Jeremy Bearimy” has its issues here and there — I don’t quite buy that all of the human characters would be so blasé about learning that they died and were resurrected — but it made me feel, for the first time, like season three is on a firm path toward something I’m going to find rewarding on the whole. It took some pretzel logic to get there, but I’m happy to have followed it around its swirling loops and twists in order to re-situate myself in this weird, wonderful world.

(Also: My friend Ben played the bartender Eleanor talks to, something I somehow did not know until I watched the screener. Shoutout to Ben. Good work, pal.)