A review of tonight’s The Good Place coming up just as soon as I get you a cool ranch baby…
Let us take a moment to consider the resume of Mr. Ted Danson. He has, among other things:
* Starred in what some people (myself included) would argue is the greatest live-action comedy in TV history, Cheers;
* Been a consistently funny presence whenever he’s invited back to another all-time great comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm;
* Reinvented himself for a new generation as a ridiculous white-haired stoner in designer suits in Bored to Death;
* Somehow done perhaps the funniest work of his entire career right here and now on The Good Place.
This is almost certainly recency bias talking. Sam Malone is one of the greatest, and most deceptively difficult, comedy lead performances in TV history, and Danson made it look easy, and consistently hilarious, for 11 seasons. But my word is he doing some next-level stuff as Michael, never more potently than throughout the events of “Existential Crisis.”
After “Team Cockroach” set up this new status quo, “Existential Crisis” was our first chance to spend some time in it, and to explore the ways in which this iteration is similar to and different from the show we watched last year. Mike Schur noted last week that Michael’s presence in Chidi’s ethics class will automatically make the same situations feel very different this time out, and “Existential Crisis” very much proved that point, as Chidi attempts to tackle the challenge of making an immortal being(*) understand the importance of ethics.
(*) Don’t call him a demon, though, since “we consider that a little racist.”
This requires a brief rehash of what “retirement” involves for one such as Michael, and then… well, then Ted Danson gets to do a series of remarkable and insanely funny things for the rest of the episode, from the Munch-like scream he lets out upon fully comprehending the idea of his mortality (made even funnier because of how pleased Chidi is to have done this to him) to his shellshocked numbness in the next few scenes, to the sight of an immortal being going through a very human midlife crisis, complete with white suit, earring, sports car, and trophy girlfriend. (In this case, Janet with a tight dress and blonde hair.) Danson throws himself into every ridiculous bit of it, and his nervous energy takes this already funny conceit and makes it even more gut-busting. The Good Place has done more clever episodes, like “Dance Dance Resolution,” but I’m not sure they’ve done one that’s made me laugh as frequently, nor as hard, as this, and it’s mainly because of all that gets piled onto Danson, and all that he’s able to shoulder so deftly.
The non-Michael parts of the episode are pretty terrific, too. We get yet another significant change to how things work when Tahani and Jason fall into bed together when he comforts her in a moment where Vicky’s psychological torture is actually working. I’ll be sad if this delays, or even prevents, another Jason/Janet romantic arc, but I bought that Tahani would go for him in this moment of weakness, since he’s capable of being very sweet at times, and it’s good to have all these signposts of how version 802 will be different from version 1.
I was ambivalent at best about the season one flashbacks, feeling like they outlived their usefulness very quickly, so I appreciate that they no longer seem mandatory in every episode. And glimpses of a younger Eleanor being damaged by her garbage parents tend to be more successful, on both a character and comedy level, than when we’re watching the garbage adult they turned her into.
My only concern — and it’s a very minor one, given how much the trust the last half-dozen or so episodes have engendered — is that Michael seems really on board with Chidi’s lessons by the end of the episode. It’s only a brief scene, and mainly there to set up the fact that Tahani and Jason are off having sex, so I hope he’s just being a bit more compliant after the emotional roller coaster Chidi and Eleanor put him through over the previous 20 minutes. Because it feels like it’s too soon to have him be a more sincere part of Team Cockroach — too much opportunity missed to see Danson play Michael at his most petulant and whiny. Then again, nearly everything the show has done this season has involved shifting into new story modes much sooner than we expect. So if Michael’s already on the road to reform, I’ll trust that Schur and company have a very good reason, and they know exactly how much mileage they could get out of the concept of him doing this whole thing under protest.
Still, consider that Ted Danson was perhaps the funniest man in sitcoms when he was 35 and may be again when he’s pushing 70. Respect. Michael may not be a demon, but Danson is a comedy god.