The Good Place S02E06 Recap: 'The Trolley Problem'

I don't usually like putting labels on shows I really enjoy and find to be unique, but tonight's episode of The Good Place distinctly reminded me of another great and under-appreciated NBC sitcom, Community. It's remarkable that it took me this long to realize the similarities between the two shows, or at least a testament to Michael Schur and his writing team for successfully distracting us with the show's very unique concept for so long. Because, after all, as different as that concept may be, the real reason The Good Place has succeeded in such grand ways has a lot to do with its low-key familiarity, it's ability to get us to sympathize and connect with its characters even in a crazy setting where absurd things happen.

If you take away the fact that the show takes place in the afterlife (or, hell, just assume that Community did as well), the two shows are so similar, especially now, in this latest phase of The Good Place. They're both about a ragtag group of very different people who find themselves experiencing lows at the same time and choose to better themselves in order to achieve something better. All of the characters have their own flaws, experience hijinx, even hook up on occasion, and there's usually a lesson one of the characters has to learn after they do something particularly selfish.

At least that seems to be the formula "The Trolley Problem" seems to follow, but there are many themes that flow through the show even after it decides to blow up its concept. In the episode, Chidi is carrying on with his Herculean task to teach the group ethics when they land on the aforementioned Trolley Problem, a famous ethical conundrum in which pupils are asked to ponder whether they'd save one person or a group of five when faced with the choice. On the surface, it seems as if the problem has an obvious answer, but it's a layered ethical quandary which begs further analysis.

But Michael has trouble connecting with the ethics of the problem because he doesn't have the right perspective to understand it. He's an immortal being whose purpose is to torture humans to the best of his abilities, so not only is death trivial to him, he actively encourages it. He literally can't grasp the concept that humans can be good, and envisions a scenario in which he kills all six people. Chidi wonders how he can better a person who doesn't even understand things that should be obvious, so Michael takes a more literal approach to the problem and forces Chidi to live through the Trolley Problem. And in true Community form, the twist turns out to be that Michael was doing all this just for the sake of torturing Chidi, because it made him happy.

So Eleanor has to convince Michael to apologize and of why he was wrong, and everything winds up getting back to normal. But the journey is twist-y and emotional and hilarious, and while we've seen Michael make these kinds of promises before, it still feels like he's experiencing actual growth. This is the kind of thing that made Community great, and that's now making The Good Place great, and once again, it's proving to be one of the best shows going. "The Trolley Problem" gets 10 William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • There's also a subplot in which Tahani seeks counseling from Janet about her issues with being with Jason and how she treats him. The crux of this plot is that Janet seems to be glitching after superseding the parameters of her programming, which could spell major problems for the neighbourhood. As good as it was to see Janet cough up a frog, the Tahani stuff felt tangential and as if the show doesn't really know what to do with her in a meaningful way this season.
  • Michael's way of apologizing to everyone is by giving them gifts, which include an unlimited shrimp dispenser for Eleanor and a Pikachu balloon for Jason (which he immediately proceeds to pop.
  • Tahani: "This is hard because the only trolley I’ve been on is James Franco’s ironic trolley that travels backwards from his penguin grotto to his garage of adult tricycles."
  • Michael: "Well obviously the dilemma is clear, how do you kill all six people?"
  • Jason: "Why are you so scared of people knowing we’re pounding it out?"
  • Chidi: "What do you think about writing a rap musical about Kierkegaard?"
  • Eleanor: "Teaching him to be good would be like teaching me to be not hot."
  • Michael: "Everyone in this story sucks and belongs in the bad place. The thief is bad, the officer chasing him is bad, all the whiny prostitutes are bad plus they’re all French so they’re going to the bad place automatically."
  • Michael: "If you steal a loaf of bread that’s negative 17 points. 20 if it’s a baguette because that makes you more French."
  • Michael: "Sacre bleu, I peed in m’pants!"
  • Jason: "Hi guys what are you doing. Sitting in a room? That’s pretty cool."
  • Michael: "I’m sorry. Old habits die hard. Not as hard those people you crushed with a trolley though."
  • Eleanor/Michael: "You’re pulling an Eleanor." "Posting my cousins credit card number on reddit because she said I looked tired?"