The Good Place Season 3, Episode 2 (“The Brainy Bunch”)

NBC

Oct 04, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Can we talk about Allison Jones for a second? Although she's not a household name, she's made many a new actor into one. Jones has casted TV shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Freaks and Geeks (which earned her an Emmy), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and every show that Michael Schur has helmed. That includes The Good Place.

From its very inception, one of The Good Place's most intriguing qualities has been that its cast of mostly newcomers (plus, you know, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell) can carry a half-hour network sitcom without the huge pull of name recognition. In pretty much every show that Jones has casted, yesterday's unknowns become today's stars, and The Good Place's previously unknown cast members are certainly reaching that level. We'll come back to that in a second, but for now, let's talk about Adam Scott and Maya Rudolph.

The Good Place, like any Schur show, has employed notable guest stars to delirious comical effect throughout its existence to date. It's done so less frequently than Brooklyn Nine-Nine has, because that show seems to pull a new long-beloved guest actor out of its hat every episode, but it's done so in exactly the right ways. Scott's casting as Trevor, one of The Bad Place's most noxious demons, has been an incredible reminder of how well he plays absolute scumbags, and Rudolph's work as the highest being of them all, the Judge (named Gen, short for "hydrogen," because she's been around since the beginning of everything), is all but confirmation that she was put on this earth (and The Good Place's afterlife) to play bawdy, juvenile characters with aplomb.

"The Brainy Bunch," the second episode of The Good Place's already fantastic third season, is the first episode to extensively feature Trevor since season one. It's as thrilling as it hilarious to see Scott transform Trevor from disgusting devil to overly sweet try-hard (and one with a great Australian accent, unlike Danson's demon-turned-hero Michael). Trevor almost succeeds in his vigorous attempts to physically distance the four humans and ruin their involvement in Chidi's (William Jackson Harper) ongoing academic study. He's overly touchy and a brazen suck-up to Eleanor (Bell), which is the exact sort of behavior she hates in a person. She's also not a fan of his "dank memes," in one of the episode's best jokes. Elsewhere, he taps into Chidi's indecisive nature flawlessly, and he toys with the sexual tension between Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) in diabolical, hysterical ways. But under a sweater adorned with him, the four humans, and Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) in Brady Bunch-style boxes with a "Brainy Bunch" logo, he just seems like that annoying, overly eager kid from math class.

His demonic ways, of course, come alive whenever he encounters Michael and Janet (D'arcy Carden). Their early encounters this episode revolve around a callback to disses that begin with "Dick Tracy called," and viewers need know nothing about Tracy to laugh along with the ridiculousness of this whole situation. Demons and an all-knowing not-a-robot-not-a-girl launching middle-school-level insults at each other is insanely funny. It's classic Trevor behavior, but Michael can't at all come up with good insults in the moment, or ever ("Dick Tracy called me too, and he said he was about to call you and say a lie about me that was actually true about you"; "I'm currently formulating a better comeback to your Dick Tracy burn, and it's gonna devastate you"). In this scene, Michael is the middle school bully's victim, a deeply human position for a literal afterlife torturer.

Gen, on the other hand, keeps teetering the line between demon and friend. Rudolph plays her as too goofy, too carefree to be an enemy presence, but her role in the final scene is pretty antagonistic. It's also hilarious, of course: Rudolph is no stranger to making the frequent gesticulations that define Gen, and her flailing arms give more weight to the idea that Michael and Janet's time on Earth somehow precipitated Brexit and the Jacksonville Jaguars becoming good (another of the series' many callbacks to previous jokes; thanks, Jason). "Blake Bortles is kind of okay, maybe? I don't know!" is, in Rudolph's voice and hands, believably both the muttering of a frustrated teenager and an all-knowing entity. Rudolph's casting may well be Jones' masterstroke of guest casting (and Gen's reveal that Mike O'Malley's lovable doorman who happens to be a huge "frog guy," is simply named Jeff is top-notch comic delivery and timing).

"Brainy" suggests that Jones' main cast magnum opus, so to speak, is D'Arcy Carden as Janet. It's the first episode that really, truly leans into Janet's human form and shape; namely, on Earth, Janet has no access to her infinite knowledge and powers and is thus literally a human. Her appearance as a waitress, in full costume, at the America-themed bar where The Brainy Bunch (minus Simone) convenes for after-study hangs (and where the gang is offered a "Manifest Destiny package" that allows it to kick any other table out of the bar for $30), is in itself one of the new season's best visual gags.

Moments later, her complaining about how slowly everything moves for humans, at least compared to her ability to summon anything she needs upon command in the afterlife, puts her in full human mode. Her ability to make an Alexa-style helper seem like a Broad City character (Carden is also involved with that show) is among The Good Place's best personality-driven and comedic charms. Now fully rendered as human while remaining true to her established traits, Janet is amazing in her time on Earth, and without Carden's deftness at portraying all aspects of arguably the show's most fluid character, this just wouldn't be possible.

Change is a huge theme in "Brainy," though mostly as it applies to the demons. On Earth, Trevor changes from a full-on monster into an obnoxious softie (though with malicious intent, of course); Michael changes from a creative, boundary-shattering architect to a tackily disguised, badly accented, often hapless human; Janet changes from a stoic helper to a frustrated, impatient waif. The Good Place has explored the human capacity for change often through its human characters, of course, and via Michael's transition from a protagonist to the main antagonist back to a protagonist. "Brainy" might be the first episode that relies more on the non-human characters than the human ones to explore this topic, which is surely one of the show's key tenets.

At one point in the episode, Michael tells Trevor, "These four humans are all I care about in the universe," and seeing as these are afterlife beings with a full view of Earth at all times, this is a pretty powerful statement that tugs at the very heart of what makes The Good Place as heartwarming as it is hilarious. It's almost like Jones cast these demons as though they were people the whole time. (www.nbc.com/the-good-place)

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