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Performers Of The Month - Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of December - D'Arcy Carden

30 Jan 2019

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This article was written by Ellys Cartin, Michele Schulman, Jessica Lerner, and Sam Dinsmoor. Article Edited by Donna J. Cromeans. Article prepared for publication by Donna J. Cromeans.

An episode that allows one cast member to take on the parts of multiple characters could be viewed as a gimmick on the surface. That is not true of The Good Place and its entertaining and moving episode "Janet(s)" (3x9), which contains several sequences pivotal to the show’s entire story. D’Arcy Carden’s delightful performances have made her increasingly sentient artificial intelligence Janet a constant highlight. This episode, however, lets her carry the bulk of the story and character development. Carden plays not one but six characters and instead of playing just new versions of herself, she takes on the challenging task of recreating people with whom the audience is already very familiar. Carden shines in every minute of every performance she gives on the show, but her fantastic work in this episode easily made D'Arcy Carden SpoilerTV’s Staff Choice Performer of the Month for December.

Previously on The Good Place, Janet valiantly fought to protect her human and demon companions, eventually risking herself by transporting them into her own void. “Janet(s)” opens with their arrival here. First, Michael (Ted Danson) appears and celebrates the successful transfer. Janet immediately steps up to temper his exuberance. Carden sets the tone with her very first expression. She’s overwhelmed, her mouth hanging open slightly. She closes her mouth upwards into a smile but leans forward for just a second as if Janet is off balance. As Michael rambles on, she attempts to interrupt him more than once. She shows us Janet’s inner dialogue through several tiny but important facial gestures and body language choices. She raises her arms slightly, keeping her hands together, until at one point she raises a hand trying to signal Michael to pause. As Ted Danson bounces up and down and left to right, Carden remains still and poised. Finally, when he pauses for breath, she speaks. There is no hurry or worry to her tone. Just a slight background note of importance to get his attention.

The viewpoint shifts, and four identical Janets have appeared. They’re identical to each other but not the original. Regular viewers immediately recognize that the humans Eleanor (Kristin Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) have manifested in the void with the physical appearance of Janet. From this point Carden must not only portray her own character, but must also take on the personalities, cadence, and behaviorisms of four other actors. With five challenging and wildly different characters to portray - all in the same scene nonetheless - Carden plays each one impeccably. While playing real Janet with ease and a smile, she also nails each of the four humans’ distinctive postures, facial expressions, and voices.

For Jason, she adapts a dumbfounded expression and slowly reaches up to touch her hair, gently grabbing the ends, then changing her face to reflect a sense of wonder. She also has her Jason stand with feet spread further out than the neat side-by-side posture everyone else has adapted. As Chidi, she is rigid, reluctant to move the limbs of this unfamiliar body. She stutters, splutters, grits her teeth, and groans, as Chidi finally doubles over, clutching his stomach. Carden’s version of Tahani gracefully descends into panic. She begins by staring at her hands, turning them over one at time to look closely at each one. She quickly, modestly assesses the size of her chest and abdomen, before clutching at the hem of her vest to smooth it flat. Then Tahani delicately waves her hands in woe, in a way more nail-polish-drying than frantic. Carden also slightly raises her voice and adds some extra pitch for her Tahani rendition. And, finally, she recreates Eleanor through a couple familiar details. As Eleanor, she quietly examines her the situation, looking around at everyone else before slowly touching her new sleeves and wrists with disbelief. Her expression of minimal astonishment gives way to a pointed stare and eye roll when Jason happily announces his new Janet self has boobs. All this work that Carden does to establish these new versions of the characters takes less than one minute of screen time. Carden is a special talent who hardly gets fair recognition for her work. This scene alone proves that she’s a brilliant force and could play anything and still be magnetic.

Immediately following the title sequence, Janet shares with Michael the “next best, but still not that great thing” she has done since she can’t put the humans back in their bodies while in her void. A slow camera pull back first reveals Tahani Janet in a high-neck sleeveless dress, next Eleanor Janet in her pink sweatshirt and jeans, then Chidi Janet in his classic sweater vest and glasses, and finally Jason Janet wearing his tracksuit. D’Arcy Carden dons their costumes as well as their characters. As the characters take in their new surroundings, Carden adapts her body and voice to match each one. She presents Jason stuffed into an armchair, with one knee straight up and one spilling out of the chair. Her Tahani sits very primly right in the center of one couch cushion, with every limb tidy and parallel. When Tahani does gesture with her hands, the motions are perfectly in sync. Carden contrasts this with Eleanor who merely sprawls out on the couch and props her legs up casually on the coffee table.

Michael and Janet visit the Accountant’s office, where the show introduces another iteration of the character for Carden to master: The Neutral Janet. As they enter the office, Carden has Janet react with a little gasp of delighted discovery. She identifies what kind of Janet this is, realizing in doing so that she can now throw shade with her remarks. She turns to Michael with total joy in her face. Even though he ignores her new skill, Carden makes sure the enthusiasm doesn’t leave Janet’s face for several more seconds, as she alternates between a lip smile, a teeth smile, and a wide-open mouth smile. Carden puts on a fresh mood when playing the new character, keeping Neutral Janet’s face completely devoid of emotion. Along with the blank expression, her voice is flat and monotone, ever stagnant, never once deviating in pitch nor speed. Carden also adapts an entirely different set of mannerisms. She stares disinterestedly at a low point in the distance, never breaking eye contact. And she puts just a hint of irritation and condescension into this character’s bland speaking voice. As her regular Janet, Carden also has a wonderful bit of lip sync comedy in this scene as well.

You see further evidence of how skilled a chameleon Carden is the following scene which focuses on an interaction between Eleanor and Chidi. As Eleanor, she adapts a slightly nervous posture, with her hands in her back pockets, shifting around from side to side. She tips her nose up slightly and talks quickly to get to her main point. As Chidi, her voice is deeper, and her posture is calm, except for the methodical petting of the puppy in her arms. When Chidi downplays Eleanor’s wish to talk about their alternate lifetimes, Eleanor removes her hands from her pockets, letting her arms drop to her sides. She tips her head to the side at one point, pondering what Chidi is saying. Chidi slips into a philosophical explanation for a point he’s making. At this point, Carden has the character make a few subtle hand gestures. Very much in teacher mode. Carden shows us Eleanor respond to this thoughtfully. She pauses and looks up, then nods in understanding. That emotion gives way to irritation at the placid, logical responses Chidi is giving. She sucks in her cheeks and starts nodding aggressively. When Chidi argues that their previous lifetimes don’t matter because they were lived by alternate versions of themselves, Eleanor responds with an outburst then tries to make the puppy disappear but fails. Carden ends the scene on a comic note by furiously wriggling her nose, as Eleanor attempts to think the puppy out of existence.

As Eleanor continues to protest Chidi’s refusal to hear about their past together, the weight of the scene shifts to Carden’s portrayal of Chidi. She raises her eyebrows enough to furrow her forehead but slips back into a more serene demeanor when Chidi decides to explain his position to everyone via a teaching session. This scene also shows the other characters briefly, so you get to see Carden further adapting their skins as well. As Eleanor, she throws her head back, with her arms crossed and her back slouched. Tahani, though, sits perfectly upright, with her palms flat on the desk. For Tahani, there is minimal head movement, with Carden using her eyes and lips to convey emotional reactions instead. As Jason, though, she leans forward against the desk, sticks her chin out slightly and lets her arms just lie there casually on top of the desk. There are clearly four different people in this scene, and Carden makes sure you never think of them as Janet but only as the characters they represent.

Carden continues her flawless impersonations in this next scene where Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani have a lesson about the concept of self. As Chidi and Eleanor argue, she nails down Chidi’s bookish, logical nature and Eleanor’s self-centered, self-obsessed self and how they would react to each other. Because of this, she succeeds in somehow managing to keep up the chemistry between Eleanor and Chidi without William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell. Outside of Eleanor and Chidi, Carden was also tasked with playing Tahini and Jason as they must listen to Chidi’s lecture and his argument with Eleanor, which she showed she was well up for. She perfectly encapsulates Jason’s youthful, playful, na├»ve nature and Tahini’s confused reactions to Chidi’s lesson, including her classic head tilt.

As Chidi and Eleanor continue to fight, Carden makes the emotions between them seem so real as she plays Eleanor as getting more and more irritated with Chidi avoiding her and Chidi as getting more and more frustrated with Eleanor not listening to what he is saying. Playing against herself, she is brilliantly able to create this natural atmosphere of a real couple fighting. The way she has Eleanor become so confrontational and blunt and then has Chidi react so urgently and fearful is very on-point for the characters and feels so natural. Then when real Janet appears in the middle of Chidi’s lesson, Carden brings such natural comedy to the scene when she as Janet must play against herself as Jason. She is incredibly relaxed as Jason in the broken hot tub with Pillboi (Eugene Cordero), developing a rapport with Pillboi as if she’s been the one playing the character this entire series.

In an especially brilliant scene, Carden acts as another character pretending to be another character. As Chidi sits alone lost in thought on the couch, Jason comes up to sit beside him. Except it’s Eleanor pretending to be Jason. She mimics him by occasionally saying random things that Jason might say. But even as Carden uses Jason’s vocal patterns, she sends us clues that it’s really Eleanor. She repeats the quick head nodding and nose scrunching that we saw her do earlier when Eleanor was becoming irritated with Chidi. An incorrect number gives away Eleanor, and Carden has her react to the failed deceit by sitting up quickly and lightly punching the couch, while tightening her cheeks and lips into a brief mad pout. While Chidi remains detached yet slightly annoyed, Eleanor becomes more emotional, finally throwing up her hands in dismay. She questions whether she knows who she is anymore. This last observation Carden delivers with heartbreak and confusion.

The real Jason has gone exploring with Tahani. Here Carden is both gliding along with folded arms as Tahani, while also spinning around as Jason. When the two characters find a flat screen with a search engine on it, Jason is thrilled, and Carden looks up at it with open-mouth curiosity, slumping forward as she examines it. As Tahani, though, she regards the screen with tranquil admiration. When the screen reveals to them Janet’s feelings for Jason, Carden plays Tahani’s first reaction as amusement. There’s an upbeat quality to her voice, just short of a laugh, as she takes in the display. But Jason’s face is concerned, confused, and conflicted. Until Tahani recognizes that Jason and Janet were once married. She then gapes at the screen, speechless but not mad. For Jason, she adds a smile of awareness. Her posture straightens, as she leans backwards instead of forwards. The scene is small, but Carden precisely executes each moment, leaving no doubt for how Tahani and Jason feel about the revelation and how they will handle it going forward.

While the humans struggle with their own identities, Michael hits a brick wall of his own. He has discovered there are errors in the points system but can’t find the cause. He starts to despair. Carden is back as Janet for this lovely scene. She tells Michael it has to be him who saves the day. Carden presents this information matter-of-factly but also confidently, with a reassuring smile. Once Michael is calm, though, she speaks more directly. She cheerfully tells him that Eleanor’s crisis means she will shortly be blowing up, so he needs to deactivate her. In this part of the scene, Carden doesn’t break eye contact with Ted Danson. Janet leans towards Michael, making sure he pays attention to her, carefully stressing each word of her instructions. She creates the sense of urgency that fuels the next scene.

Eleanor is spiraling, transitioning among various human forms, so the next scene rests on Carden’s performance as Chidi. To help Eleanor remember herself, Chidi begins listing off facts about her. Carden just prattles at first, but the facts begin to get more personal. She speaks slower, and her hands move closer together. The gestures she makes get smaller. When Chidi tells Eleanor she basically saved his life, there is a pause, accompanied by a quick but deep breath. Next, Chidi brings up Eleanor’s worst nightmare: being told something nice to her face. Carden draws up a strong, determined expression. The hand gestures are replaced by a sudden step forward to kiss Eleanor in a moment of triumph. Though the scene then transitions to the actual Chidi and Eleanor cast members, the emotional heft comes from Carden’s heartfelt monologue.

There may be other performances someday where an actress segues from smiling contentedly to lip syncing a belch and "Believe" emphatically to reflecting pensively afterwards. It is unlikely if such performances ever exist they will take place in just 15 seconds or be executed with such casual aplomb as D'Arcy Carden carries in every one of her scenes. Placing all these characters in Carden's hands might have been one of TV's safest risks, given her stellar work on the show so far, but the final compilation is an awesome portfolio of her talents. Whether she's glowing with joyous disbelief as one character at the appearance of a puppy or gently murmuring dire warnings as another character before kissing that same puppy, D'Arcy Carden authenticates even the smallest gestures with her energetic sincerity. For the reasons discussed in this article and many more, D'Arcy Carden was our Staff Performer for the month of December. Please use the comments below to keep discussing her splendid work and your favorite moments of this episode.