Crossing the Stream: Part 60 - "The Good Place," Season 2

If you're hanging in there with me, you've probably seen days and weeks of extreme optimism and then some that border on cries for help. This has been a decidedly so-so kind of week. On the positive side, I'm down another few pounds, bringing the grand total to 47 pounds gone since March. That feels pretty damn good, and that 50 mark is going to be a good day for me when it comes.

More good stuff: I'm really happy with the renewed flood of output here at the ol' Sandwich. The first new episode of the podcast in almost a year felt very sharp to me. It covered a lot of current news across all the different pop culture beats that we profess to layer together, and I thought Chris and I were pretty "on" for that. Meanwhile, the new show Dads Review A Thing is off to a good trot. It's kind of liberating for us to have the one show to cover geek news and "whatcha playin'?" stuff on a wide perspective, but also have this other place for us to focus on one thing with a critical eye without worrying how long we're ranting about it. I hope folks dig it.

So, the less encouraging stuff: I'm already straying pretty far from my discipline level in terms of food. Take today, for example. It's kind of kismet that I chose Thursday to be the weekly check-in day for Crossing the Stream, as that also seems to be the day every week where my office is flooded with sugary treats. A coworker announced she is expecting a baby, hooray. She did a classy thing and announced it with a surprise buffet of cookies, doughnuts, and pre-Halloween candy. Oh, and even a variety box of Doritos. Just to make sure and hit as many things on my sin-list as possible. The only thing that's missing is a big gallon jug of cola. The phrase that keeps popping up in my head with every Sour Patch Kid and chocolate nugget is "stress eating." I'm stressed. Okay. Fine. Why must I deal with it by eating? Well, I haven't the taste for drugs, I stopped drinking almost altogether (I still snake a beer here or there, but usually no more than two, and that around once a month), and I have yet to find, you know, a healthy way to deal with my emotions. This little public diary is about the closest thing I have, and...well, let's not open the can of worms on that. So, food is still a vice, but now I think of it more as fuel. I've just been filling up with regular unleaded instead of premium lately, that's the problem. I actually feel full and recognize that as the time to stop. Progress.

Yeah, I've been eating very rich, starchy dinners as the weather changes. A favorite comfort meal in my house is my wife's mole chicken, and she always makes enough to feed an army. In between diving on that every chance I get, I'm also raiding candy dishes at work again, and a trip to my dad's house resulted in several missing gourmet pepperoni sticks from his fridge. My dad buys these things at one of those boutique meat places, where they sell you elk meat, bear meat, rabbit meat, and all sorts of great cuts of grass-fed beef. It's a magical place for a carnivore, and that pepperoni was lovely. It had almost no fat in it, very little grease. I justified it with all the walking I did over that weekend.

That's probably why I'm not five pounds heavier than last week, honestly. I've been walking my big butt off. From my usual bus line to my childhood home, I actually walk the same path I walked every day in high school, and it's bizarre how much further it feels now. Driving really did spoil me at 16. But as the weather gets steadily closer to usual Oregon downpours, I'm having a problem alternating between freezing to death and sweating all the way through my trademark layers. Maybe I need to learn how to dress like a normie instead of trying like hell to hide under my XXL wardrobe.

Oh, one last thing before we jump to the TV review: I used to silently judge people who felt it necessary to carry around a bottle of water like they were crossing the Mojave. I felt they were easily sold on the idea (given to them by the master marketers at Coke, Pepsi, et al) that water is life, and life is water, and they shouldn't be without their life-sustaining nectar for more than thirty minutes. I still kind of feel this way, that beverage companies have taken the public's desire to be healthier and their industry's infinite sales resources to make an entirely new fortune in the last 20 years or so just on selling us bottles. That was my old joke: congrats, you bought a plastic bottle and got some water for free. Maybe it's because my generation was the very last one to grow up thinking that water from the kitchen sink or the garden hose was always there for us when we needed it. But anyway, I've been walking out the door every day with the standard little 500-mL bottle in my bag, and it's been a great help. It fills me up in the morning so I'm not on the constant hunt to break my fast. It helps to wake me out of an afternoon slump. Highly recommend, would chug again.

"The Good Place" Season 2, Episodes 1-12

Eagle-eyed readers might notice that this is the first time I've continued writing about a show past Season 1 since starting this thing. That's because this show is addictive in its upbeat goofiness, and I had to zip through Season 2 quickly to be up to date for the fall premiere coming next week. Yeah, a show so good I might actually watch it in real-time like it's 1999 and whatnot.

Spoilers from here. Obviously. But I have to say it, because this show is like twelve big finale episodes one right after another.

The first few episodes of Season 2 manage to skirt around the chief problem with Season 1's cliffhanger ending. Once the audience is in on the twist, and the main protagonists aren't, there's an anticipation and tension for what happens when they are brought up to speed, and that anticipation can get laborious within a half-hour sitcom. "The Good Place" cleverly gets this out of the way quickly so it can be built upon, both in plot and absurdity. Michael's eight hundred variations on his master plan go by quickly and are largely for laughs, so once the thread of the season lands somewhere around Episode 3, a lot of plot development has been taken care of. That's valuable, especially with only twelve-episode seasons, which I can't stress enough is exactly what all sitcoms should have. Over twenty episodes and a four month hiatus every year is a relic, and it causes series bloat.

As the season chugs past the initial few episodes, we see that this is going to be an odyssey story, with Eleanor and her friends having to brave the bowls of hell and journey into unknown emotional and literal realms with uncertain consequences. Michael Shur and his writers seem quite determined that this sitcom never reached equilibrium, but instead is, like Michael the character, constantly rebooting the situation in order to mold the characters and the comedy. Some things are not all that surprising, such as Eleanor's romantic feelings for Chidi, or Michael's ultimate decision to sacrifice himself during the final clandestine exit from the Bad Place. But those are very earned developments, they feel natural (or as natural as anything can feel in this bonkers reality depicted). And there is still room for surprises.

It was quite shrewd to spend only a brief amount of time with openly evil Michael before he starts his long road toward becoming a well-rounded person. Ted Danson has crafted Michael with the writers in a way that he's quite likable even when he's revealed to be a torturous demon, but just like his four human captives it's much more entertaining to see him grow. Season 1 used this by showcasing super-nice Michael's fascination with the novelty of human experiences, and now Season 2 has re-positioned him as the ultimate example of someone bad actively trying to be good, the ongoing goal of Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason. His confusion and annoyance at the concept of morality proves a great companion for his constant bemusement at simple things like car keys, and it helps temper the earnestness of William Jackson Harper's trajectory with Chidi.

Michael even starts displaying genuine feelings once Janet starts glitching due to her own genuine feelings. It's quite elegant that each of the main cast of characters tries to solve their predicament in their own way that's true to their behavior: Chidi turns to his studies, Tahani searches for validation, Jason distracts himself, Eleanor tries to minimize and abdicate, Michael tries to deceptively take control and fix things in private, and Janet, of course, just uses her boundless powers to instantly fix things in the most literal and absurd way possible.

Let's talk about Derek. I happen to love Jason Mantzoukas, whose penchant for sleazebag characters is adorably subverted when he appears as Janet's DIY rebound boyfriend, Derek. He's a great energetic foil to D'arcy Carden's  infectious commitment to Janet's always-on, enthusiastic flight attendant persona. I'm also just really happy the writers saw fit to include a mechanism for Janet to evolve. Imagine this character after seven seasons if she always stayed the same...she might as well say "bazinga" once per episode, amiright????

Sorry, that was terrible. I promise to do better.

Anyway, Zouks does great things here, particularly when he only gets to say "Derek!" and puts so much behind it every time. But Maya Rudolph easily jumps past everyone else to become the guest star MVP of the season as the Judge. Dax Shepard gets a gold star for showing up and doing what he does best: portraying a sentient Axe bodyspray bottle while being kind of cute with wife Kristen Bell.

But before we get to the Bad Place detour, I need to get off my chest how remarkable it is that these six characters seem so powerfully connected to each other and so endeared to me in only the span of about twenty episodes. It's a testament to how natural each actor is in their character, and how carefully crafted each episode is, that I buy wholesale the Breakfast Club-esque final episode in the Neighborhood. It has a reminiscence of the fateful "all hands" moment of Toy Story 3 for me; these people are all each other has now, and come what may they have all realized how much better it will be together. I tend to get a little wistful at stuff like that, so I sighed with satisfaction when Michael is presented with his honorary human starter set, or when all six of them decide to drink and dance their last night away.

But once the crew has to sneak their way through the Bad Place, we get some visual treats in the form of the museum of torture, more Bad Janet, and what I think is the most clever technical joke of the series: while the Good Place presumably is as candy-coated in color saturation and sunshine as Michael portrayed it to be, the Bad Place is de-saturated almost to "Man in the High Castle" levels, and everyone is dressed like a subterranean "Mad Men" convention is happening. It's almost too much fun to leave behind so quickly to meet Rudolph's sly Judge in her celestial chambers.

I'm never a fan of "everything is a test" writing in movies and TV. It's really hokey even when done correctly at times. But here, Shur and Co. seem less concerned with creating morality puzzles for their characters as they are with providing fun reactions from the characters at the increasingly tricky rules of the afterlife game. Eleanor gets a big win moment in passing her test, not just because she makes the right choice but because she sees through the test by doing what she never did in life: listening and caring for the other person in the scenario. Tahani's test does a better job of highlighting her transgressions that earned her a spot in the Bad Place than anything else has to this point. Her shallow narcissism is a true Achilles' heel, even despite her good actions. And, of course, Chidi's inability to make a decision specifically because he's so worried about the implications and results is very on-brand.

I am certainly excited for where the show goes, now that all four humans get a second shot at their lives on Earth. Now that I'm starting to see how this show works, I'm predicting it won't take long past the hour-long premiere for all four of them to assemble and figure out what is going on. After that, there's any number of things that could happen, but no matter what it will be a total smoke-show filled with some of the smartest dumb jokes and dumbest smart jokes I've ever seen. This show is something special, honestly. It's a level of soothing fun and stealth philosophy lessons packaged perfectly in shiny quirk.

Random Notes:

-Michael really knows he's in trouble when even Jason sees through the ruse on one of the many, many reboots of the experiment. I love that little bit, because it's a subtle hint at how each character is getting better with each pass.

-"Did the Jacksonville Jaguars win the Superbowl this year?"
"No, they didn't."
"Will they win next year?"
"I don't know, Jason. I can't see the future...but, no. They won't."

-I'm never going to get tired of Eleanor's sincere compliments for her compatriots, particularly when she remarks on how attractive Janet and Tahani are. Something about Kristen Bell's matter-of-fact delivery.

-Relatively mundane things that get you into the Bad Place:
                  Flossing publicly (specifically in an open-plan office)
                  Sarcastically saying "I guess you hated it" to a restaurant customer who emptied the plate                    Putting the "ultimate" in ultimate frisbee

-All-powerful, all-knowing beings dab the concept of envy on their heavenly burritos, to give it a little kick.

-Chidi's lecture on Youtube, and for that matter Chidi himself in person, are speaking English on Earth, despite the whole explanation that he's speaking French the whole time and the afterlife just filters all languages. I'd bet that's going to be turned into a joke for Season 3.

-"Hot diggity dog! Oh, great. Now forever the first time we kissed the first thing out of my mouth was 'hot diggity dog.'"

-Seeing Ted Danson behind a bar for a scene gave me a small visceral thrill.

Rating: A

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