‘The Good Place’ and The Ecstatic Imagination of “Dance Dance Resolution”

The show's most memorable episode blew up its premise with joy and creativity.
Dance Dance Resolution

This essay is part of our new series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great.

It starts with a glint in Kristen Bell’s eye. As pint-sized scumbag Eleanor Shellstrop, she looks into the middle distance with an intense air of focus, a triumphant half-smile inching across her face. By the third or fourth time you’ve heard her next line, you’ll want to say it with her like a sing-a-long. “THIS is the Bad Place!” Eleanor proclaims.

The Good Place, which ended last week after a four-season run on NBC, was one of the most creative comedy series to ever grace the airwaves of network television. It was a project that started off with an ambitious premise — in its first episode, Eleanor dies and is ushered into a heaven-like neighborhood after being confused for a philanthropic hero — and quickly transformed itself again and again, becoming a story whose signature constant reinvention was as aspirational as it was delightful.

In the end, Michael Schur’s series settled on becoming a romantic and foundational treatise on goodness, collaboration, and selflessness, but across its 52 episodes, The Good Place managed to sprint through big ideas and arch observations at a rate few if any other shows have ever attempted. No episode embodied all these frantic, metamorphosing charms quite as well as “Dance Dance Resolution.”

In 2017, The Good Place’s first season finale (“Michael’s Gambit”) was the TV twist of the year, as Eleanor’s first uttering of “THIS is The Bad Place!” knocked viewers for a loop and left us groaning when Michael (Ted Danson) reset the group’s memory to try the experimental, incremental torture that made up the first season over again. I worried that the clever, fast-paced series would languish in its second season, repeating the same beats of the first for a long stretch of episodes with only swapped-out jokes to hold our attention.

The two-part second season premiere, “Everything is Great,” played into that fear, rehashing the route that leads purposely misplaced afterlifers Eleanor, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) to one another. But then something weird happens. At the end of the two-parter, Eleanor says it again — ”THIS is The Bad Place!” — and discovers the note she gave Janet just an episode ago. Sure, we didn’t want a whole season of the neighborhood reboot, but we also didn’t expect the series to blow up its recently proposed premise in the course of an hour. Baller move, The Good Place.

Enter “Dance Dance Resolution.” Aptly directed by meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods helmer Drew Goddard and written by An Emmy For Megan creator and beloved Twitter presence Megan Amram, this episode is a joyous comedy highwire act that pulls off every ambitious move it attempts. The most shocking line of the first season gets all but memed in the second, as Eleanor re-discovers Michael’s scheme again and again. A montage of out of context “clip show” type moments calls to mind the Community episode in which the gang remembers moments we’ve never seen before, or the unexplored plotlines hilariously alluded to after the phrase “next time on Arrested Development.” “THIS is The Bad Place!” she says while holding a bundle of balloons in the middle of a cactus field, or while Chidi wrangles a giant pig in the background.

The odds and ends that make up the various neighborhood reboots in “Dance Dance Resolution” — by the end of the breathless 10-minute run-through, Michael is on his 802nd attempt to fool the group — are like facets of a disco ball, glittering and numerous and ridiculous in a good way. The episode is a galaxy-brain exercise in comedy writing, a dextrous display of storytelling and joke-making that would just feel like showing off if it weren’t so damn excellent. Every high stake presented across the course of the first season (Janet’s murder-like reset, Jason’s identity as an undercover monk, Eleanor’s soulmate angst) here becomes an in-joke, played for exactly enough laughs and then retired as the show brilliantly and swiftly moves on. Every second of the first act of “Dance Dance Resolution” feels like a comedic flex and every second works.

The core of The Good Place’s final form first becomes recognizable in “Dance Dance Resolution” as well. Close to two-thirds of the episode actually takes place in a single timeline, within which Eleanor and Chidi discover Michael’s scheme after witnessing a fire demon taking a surreptitious smoke break. They go to The Middle Place, where exceedingly okay Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) tells them they’ve escaped over a dozen times before. She mimics their every idea as they say it, explaining that she’s heard it all before. This is a clever bit that shows the general predictability of humans, but it also feels a bit like an exorcism of writer’s room ideas that didn’t stick, yet another way to demonstrate the show’s ability to soar past our expectations and never settle for anything less than surprising and new.

By episode’s end, Eleanor finds out that she and Chidi have been in love, and Michael proposes that the team, along with Janet (D’arcy Carden), work together to fool the demon Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson). Team Cockroach as we know it is born. For all its lofty premises, The Good Place is ultimately a deeply earnest show with a lot of great jokes. Its principal ideas — that everyone can change, that anyone can be a team, and that the only secret to becoming a better person is to try — are all here in the last triumphant, unpredictable moments.

The Good Place always managed to switch things up before viewers could become bored, always giving us a little less than our structured-sitcom-watching brains naturally expected before moving on to the next exhilarating, premise-destabilizing idea. Perhaps this is why it felt like a rare treat in today’s TV landscape; it was a show on a major network that seemed to exist entirely on its own terms. The high-concept show regularly seemed to be on the verge of cancellation, yes, but there was a sort of giddy magic that kept it going for so long, and a group of fans who happily tuned in to be thrilled by a series whose creativity seemed to know no limits.

In years to come, when we rewatch The Good Place with new fans, the ecstatic, imaginative adventure of “Dance Dance Resolution” is the moment we can point to and declare, “THIS is The Good Place.”

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)