On ‘The Good Place,’ Chidi Suffers Through ‘The Trolley Problem’

Senior Television Writer
10.19.17 16 Comments

NBC

A review of tonight’s The Good Place coming up just as soon as I write a rap musical about Kierkegaard…

My only concern about the hilarious “Existential Crisis” was that it seemed to have gotten Michael too sincerely on board with Team Cockroach, and too quickly. “The Trolley Problem” dispenses with that concern almost immediately, as Michael spends the bulk of the episode fantasizing about killing humans and torturing Chidi with the eponymous philosophical exercise(*). This is smart from both a character standpoint — an immortal being isn’t going to reform overnight — and a comedic one, since Ted Danson plays the heel so well, and Michael is such a problem student that he pushes Chidi’s incredible patience to its limit.

(*) Peak Philosophical TV: the most recent season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also did an episode about the Trolley Problem, with a less elaborate — or bloody — practical demonstration for Kimmy.

The episode does its best to disguise this as long as possible to give Ted Danson a chance to do another evil laugh when Eleanor busts him. As a result, much of the comic load is ably carried by William Jackson Harper, who plays every mortifying, hysterical bit of Chidi’s exasperation and shock and grief over the many simulated people he’s forced to kill (including five William Shakespeares and his boot-wearing pal Henry) before Eleanor calls out Michael and convinces him to give the cockroaches “opposite tortures,” or as we know them, gifts. (Of course Jason most wanted a Pikachu balloon, and of course it burst right away.) Chidi’s plot function on the show often pushes Harper into the straight man role, but man is he good when it’s Chidi suffering at the hands of these idiots, and/or when Chidi has terrible ideas of his own, like the aforementioned, Hamilton-esque(*) Kierkegaard rap. (With Chidi being ridiculous, it was Kristen Bell’s turn to primarily be straight man, yet Eleanor’s not-hot face and voice were among the episode’s funniest moments.)

(*) It has occurred to me: since hundreds of years have now passed since these four died, if they ever cross paths with humans who are newer to their afterlife, will all their pop culture references become really confusing? Or will this be a situation where time passes much more slowly in the Bad Place, so if the show wants to add a newbie for season six, they won’t be from our distant future?

Tahani and Jason dealing with what has turned into an ongoing affair, meanwhile, was a treat both as an excuse for more of Tahani’s very specific name dropping (“James Franco’s garage of adult tricycles”) and as an excuse for Janet to go beyond the parameters of her programming and learn to play therapist, no matter the physical consequences to her (detached thumb, coughed-up frogs) or the neighborhood (the massive earthquake in the epilogue). D’Arcy Carden can do whatever this role seems to ask of her, which is a valuable skill given how much Janet knows and how many jobs she can seemingly do in pursuit of her primary function of making the humans happier.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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