So January is upon us, and after all our Christmas excesses, what better way to feel good than with an analogy about alcohol, right? So if I went into a bar and ordered a gin and tonic, and got a warm measure of Gordons with a splash of flat Schweppes, I’d drink it – I’ve paid for it after all, I’m not a monster- but I wouldn’t be in a rush to go back for another one. What elevates the drink is the addition of ice, garnish, and fresh ingredients. With Unsung Heroes, I intend to take a closer look at a side character from a TV show and make the case as to why they are such an asset. Why they are the sparkler to my cocktail, or the fruity garnish to my G&T. God, Dry January is going to be tough.
First up, is The Good Place.
For those of you not familiar with the show, now in its third season and commissioned for at least one more, here’s a quick overview: Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead. She finds herself being reassured by Michael the Architect (a silvery, foxy Ted Danson) that she has made it into The Good Place, due to her selfless humanitarian work on earth. After meeting a number of other Good Place residents, all with tales of pure, altruistic deeds, Eleanor comes to a horrifying realisation; there has been a mistake, and she should never have been let in. We see this through flashbacks of her 21st century-style malevolence, including episodes of friend-ditching, fat-shaming and charity-trolling, the latter of which contributed to her not so much shuffling as being hurled off this mortal coil. With the help of her new-found friends Tahani (a beautiful socialite known for her high- profile charitable donations), Jian Yu (a Buddhist monk on a vow of silence) and her assigned soulmate Chidi (a professor dedicated to researching ethical philosophy) she plans to become a better person so as to stay in The Good Place.
What I loved about the show, especially the first two seasons, is that this could have been a straight-up story of redemption, a la My Name Is Earl. But while Earl tended to get bogged down in repetitively schmaltzy feel-good vibes, The Good Place recognises that human nature is flawed, and the path to self-improvement is littered with setbacks and temptations. It really takes the time to flesh out the characters and show the dark side of humanity as well as the light, but the character I want to focus on isn’t even a human at all, but a Janet (played by D’Arcy Carden). She is Michael’s assistant and creator of neighbourhood 12358W, where Eleanor and friends reside, and here are just a few reasons why I reckon she is the best part of The Good Place.
1. She is The Good Place’s version of Google
We first meet Janet when Chidi summons her with a friendly ‘Hey, Janet!’, and it really sets the tone for her place in the show. She pops up from nowhere looking like a cheery receptionist ready to give advice or information on just about anything. She is described as an ‘Anthropomorphized Vessel of Knowledge’, and we learn that although she is Michael’s personal Janet, she is one of an infinite number of Janets manufactured to provide information, advice and guidance to residents. This does not mean that she is a robot however, as she gently reminds the numerous people who refer to her as one.
She also cannot lie, and much of the shows comedy comes from her deadpan delivery of excruciatingly honest statements, whether it is reminding Eleanor that she was very much still hung up on an ex-boyfriend who didn’t want to have sex with her, or advising her that her search history is completely confidential, so ‘what kind of pornography would you like to see?’. She’s like the friend that you really want around when you’re trying to pick out an amazing outfit, but maybe not so much when you’re having an emotional meltdown and need comforting. Although you couldn’t be mad at her because shes just so sweet about it.
2. Her omnipotence treads a fine line
On the face of it, Janet is basically a superhero, and one of the things I struggle with in these kind of tales is the ‘Superman effect’, where a character is too high a power to really have a proper antagonist. Janet’s powers include Omniscience, Teleportation, Summoning or Acquiring almost any object, and huge physical strength. This is also alongside creating the neighbourhood, and being the only Entity able to operate the train in or out. All of this adds up, and she feels at times like she could be a walking, talking plot-solver. And its true, over the seasons she has helped the group out of numerous tight spots which would otherwise have damned them all to the Eternal Fire. But the writers have gone to great lengths to ensure they show enough of Janet’s vulnerabilities to avoid becoming irritating. They proved in the first few episodes that she can in fact be destroyed or rebooted, and most of her powers are discussed in the first season to avoid a Deus ex Machina moment. In fact, her destruction is viewed with a certain dark humour – by holding down Janet’s nose and pushing a paper clip into a hole behind her ear she can be turned into a marble, which can be launched off into space, or ‘eaten as a midday snack’, and what superhero can claim that?
3. She evolves over time
Early in Season 1, Janet tells Chidi and Eleanor that there have been 25 versions of Janet, with each one presumably updated and improved like a computer system, as ‘the first one had a click-wheel’. As the seasons progress we see a more sophisticated version come through, and in a show where so many of the sub-plots revolve around what makes us human, it is apt that the lines for Janet become blurred.
Up until now I think I’ve successfully avoided spoilers, so I’m going to tread very carefully through this next bit. But you need to know that Janet dies temporarily in the first season. She informs Chidi and Eleanor that she has a ‘kill-switch’, but at the moment of pressing the button she will start pleading for her life. This does happen, and naturally, causes the humans to freak out, even although she instantly and calmly reminds them she is programmed to do just that. Its a little action that proves how much everyone really does see her as more than just a vessel of knowledge.
As we get further through the seasons, we see Janet rebooted a total of 827 times, with each subsequent version a slightly more complex being. In one version she falls in love, the knowledge of which she seems to retain, and lying about this causes her to glitch. This leads to one of the sweetest moments I’ve ever seen in a TV show, where Janet begs Michael to kill her to avoid her causing harm, which he can’t do, ‘because we’re friends’. Pass the tissues.
4. She’s part of the sisterhood
Maybe this is more of a comment on the show overall, and Janet just highlights it because of her emotional vacuity, but she is incredibly inclusive. By default she is non-judgemental, and gives the same information regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or sexuality. A huge part of The Good Place is built around the development of platonic and female friendships, and watching her evolve into a character who can have meaningful conversations with everyone, not just her romantic interest, is refreshing. I think by the end of season 3 I’d definitely want her as a friend, especially with the glitch that occurred after her 802nd reboot, which allowed her to lie. Even just a little, to spare my feelings.
So there you have it. Janet may have been included as a basic knowledge provider, but in reality she’s so much more than that. She steals every scene shes in without being obtrusive, and with the second half of season 3 due out in January, I look forward to seeing where those 827 reboots will take her.