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'The Good Place' recap: 'Existential Crisis'

Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael.
Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael. (Colleen Hayes/NBC)

I was out sick for "The Good Place" recap last week, but it's probably for the best: Episode 4 was one of my least favorite, and yes, I watched it again after my fever went away to be sure of my assessment.

It wasn't anything terrible — relative to the masses of programs available it was probably one of the better episodes of TV this year — but because the expectations for the show have been so high, with stellar story structure and quick wit at every turn, it is easier to notice when the plot drags.

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Luckily, the writers heard about the concerns I was having and came back with a hilarious Episode 5 that made it up in spades.

The core concept of last week's episode saw Michael facing a mutiny and needing Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason to pretend they are being tortured while they all secretly find a way into the real good place. This week picks up with Michael continuing the charade for Vicky and her shallow millennial cohorts ("A millennial is someone who has only been torturing for 1,000 years"). To torture Tahani, they'll be throwing a massive birthday party for Gunner on the same night she was planning to host one. The tactic may be very middle school slumber party, but there is a reason so many 7th grade girls end up crying into their pillows on Saturday nights: It's forkin' effective.

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Given her advance knowledge, Tahani thinks she can rise above their pettiness by throwing an even better party and swears by Grace Kelly she will uphold the socialite code of making everything "too much."

The pace is quick, the laughs are solid, and hot chowder has replaced frozen yogurt.

Meanwhile, at Chidi Academy for the Selfish and Deceased, Michael continues to abhor taking ethics lessons and trying to fit in as a human with stupid little sticks at the end of his arms. Eleanor, reluctantly in the lead for Class Velociraptor, remarks to Chidi that she doesn't think their friend is making any progress. Chidi believes this is because Michael is immortal and cannot face consequences, throwing the whole basis for moral philosophy out the window. They need to make him think about his own mortality, so they bring up retirement and all of its soul-ladling, sun-searing misery.

"You're saying that I would be… no… me?" *Curls up into a ball in Chidi's lap*

From there, we have conflict, and conflict moves the story along, and such a simple, beautiful thing missing from last week's episode is now the highlight of this week's. First, Eleanor offers to cheer him up the easy human way, with food, altered slightly for his immortal palette, but Michael is in a state of cognitive shock, and all of the cool ranch babies in the world can't shake him out of despair. Somebody get this man some paperclips, immediately!

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When food fails to entice him, Eleanor advises Michael to push all of his feelings down. Death is a part of life introduced at a young age, sometimes by your mother after she's had a really long day drinking wine, fighting with Carol and accidentally killing your dog. It's better to have lost and pretend like you don't care than to have lost at all.

Time is running short, and even with Michael in a psychoanalytical haze, they need to keep up appearances by attending Gunner's birthday party. Which, if anyone close to me is reading this, is exactly how I would like my 30th birthday to go, down to the puppy ballpit. You can't even blame Jason for forgetting he is a monk uninterested in worldly things when he goes running off to enjoy the warmth of a kangaroo pouch.

"The Good Place" adjusts to the big twist from the Season 1 finale.

In the excitement of personalized birthday fireworks, Eleanor and Chidi lose track of Michael, but he isn't hard to find. Wearing a flashy white suit and driving a sleek corvette, he has taken Eleanor's advice about pushing down his emotions and gone from a timeless being paralyzed with existential dread to a mid-40s regional insurance salesman who buys a speedboat after being paralyzed with existential dread. He even has Janet(te) go blond and say classic trophy wife phrases like "how many quarterbacks are in a home run?" and "Oh, no, it's still me, Janet."

Becky and the others watch somewhat suspiciously as Michael drunkenly chases the life-is-a-void-and-we-are-its-shell blues away, though they don't forget their critical mission of making Tahani feel terrible. After being reminded of her own inferiority from a stage, she leaves Gunner's party to mope. As Michael grows out of control, Eleanor must wrestle with her earlier advice to dismiss your feelings in the face of death. Seeing Michael on the brink brings back memories of her father's funeral, and her insistence that she wasn't affected. It takes a visit to Bed Bath and Beyond's toiletries section years later for her to realize the depth of her grief, if not for the person her father was than for the close family she never had. Eleanor gently reminding Michael that everyone is a little bit sad all of the time is a poignant moment, and I think I may have to go out and buy my toothbrush a family now.

Jason comes to console Tahani, who is not merely upset at throwing a lesser party — she's horrified to realize that her torturers effectively predicted her shallow response. One of the show's greatest strengths from last season was building out the characters by slowly revealing more and more context from their pasts, and now we get to see those characters wrestle with the images they've made of themselves. It's almost as poetic as Jason rating Tahani an 8, the highest possible score of the 10-point Mendoza Scale of Accurate Hype.

When class resumes the next day, there is a "gosh, glad everything is back to normal" feel as Michael recovers from his sadness-binge, and everyone settles in for school. Everyone except Jason and Tahani, who are just starting to wake up next to each other! Gasp! Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. Jason knows how to make cereal.

The Good Lines – so many tonight!

"I simply did myself."

"The point is don't get sad. Honestly, I'll get kind of annoyed."

"It's Chinese for Japan."

"He is a Jenga tower of sadness."

"Your father was a fart in the shape of a man."

"I am going to do some pushups. Then we'll go around the room and name our favorite cheese."

"A FAMILY PACK?!"

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