It’s hot as hell on the set of The Good Place.
The wickedly smart NBC comedy about a group of misfits struggling to make their way through the afterlife largely takes place in its own version of Satan’s domain. The show’s central neighborhood looks like a pastel paradise filled with punnily-named shops like Ponzu Scheme, The Pesto’s Yet to Come, and Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow. But it’s built on the Universal backlot in the San Fernando Valley, which can feel like the sun’s anvil as production hits the summer months. Between takes while shooting the series’ upcoming fourth and final season, leading lady Kristen Bell tries to explain the concepts of “swamp ass” and “monkey butt” — “It’s just a general stickiness” — to legendary co-star Ted Danson, and each time a crew member orders the cast to step out of the sun, Bell and D’Arcy Carden harmonize on a lyric from Dear Evan Hansen about doing exactly that.
“It would be an accurate temperature in hell,” Bell acknowledges later from the comfort of her trailer. Maybe this is part of [Good Place creator] Mike Schur’s big plan. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
Through its first three seasons, The Good Place has pushed the limits of where a sitcom can go — physically, metaphysically, stylistically, and philosophically. It began in what appeared to be an exclusive version of heaven, where four newly-arrived human dum-dums — selfish con artist Eleanor (Kristen Bell), panicky philosopher Chidi (William Jackson Harper), narcissistic philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and “Florida man” Jason (Manny Jacinto) — didn’t seem to quite fit, despite encouragement from gregarious celestial architect Michael (Danson) and chipperly omniscient artificial intelligence Janet (Carden). In a twist that was kept secret from all the actors save Danson and Bell — and that transformed The Good Place from clever sitcom to something addictive — they would learn that Michael was actually a Bad Place demon testing out a new way to torture souls, and would spend the ensuing seasons trying to save themselves from eternal damnation and figure out why the universe seems utterly broken. (A recent episode revealed that no one has qualified for the Good Place in centuries.) Silly as it can be, the series asks big questions about the best way to live, how to treat the world and people around us, and how to cope in a life that seems more profoundly unfair by the year. This ridiculous, surreal show filled with impossibilities such as lava monsters, genies, and giant flying shrimp has turned out to be an essential guide for staying sane in the age of Trump.
“This and The Handmaid’s Tale are two documentaries about the time we’re living in,” says frequent guest star Marc Evan Jackson (he plays the snippy demon Shawn), only half-kidding.
“It’s about what it means to lead a decent life and that there are consequences to our actions,” says Danson. “So it’s a really wonderful, ethical conversation. And there’s a lot of nine-year-old fart humor interspersed to make that go down. And there’s lots of visual magic to make it all sparkly.”
The existence of The Good Place on TV at all, much less on a traditional broadcast network, feels as unlikely as an atheist would feel about the afterlife itself. But after the success of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur was offered a rare opportunity in television.
“This all started,” he recalls, “from NBC doing something insane, which was telling me that they would take any idea I had and guarantee it 13 episodes. And what I took from that offer was, ‘Well, I now owe it to the concept of ideas to come up with a crazy idea.’ Why play it safe in that scenario?”
Schur was already fixated on notions of fairness and ethics. He first developed the show’s concept of a point system to get into the Good Place while fighting L.A. traffic and deducting or adding points for other drivers based on how they behaved on the road. He found it was a fascination he shared with Bell, with whom he’d worked briefly on Parks.
“It’s something that I think about a lot,” she says. “How do we share Earth? Not one person owns Earth. We’re here together. We are one big family, whether we want to admit it or not. And in a family, people have to cooperate or it’s dysfunctional, and how do you do that? Are there rules? Should there be rules? Who has ideas about the rules?”
Schur tries to practice what the show preaches. He’s long had a “no assholes” rule on his sets, unusual in a business where bad behavior is too often indulged as the alleged price of great art. The writing staff regularly consults with philosophy professors for story ideas. (Harper, who as Chidi has to explain most of the show’s ethical concepts to the audience, admits he often turns to Wikipedia for a basic grasp of them, because he finds key Good Place texts like T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other too dense to follow.) The show’s themes have gradually infected most of the cast and crew. Producers have instituted a series of green policies (electric vehicles or solar power whenever possible, no plastic water bottles) extreme even for a Hollywood set.
Writer Megan Amram (who’s responsible for the majority of the punny restaurant names) says the writers room can get intense: “We talk at length about death, and about what it means to us to be a good person, and how we as the writers are genuinely trying to change our day-to-day lives to be better people. We sucked so bad when we started the show, and now we’re all vegetarians. It’s great.” Writer Jen Statsky says The Good Place has helped her cope with our current national nightmare. “The main tenet of the show,” she says, “is you’ve got to try. Everything is so screwed, is there any point of fighting it? But you can try to take some action and do something. Or you can just lie down and let it all wash over you and turn into a pile of mush. And the better option for me is to try, which I’ve gotten from the show.”
Jameela Jamil has stopped killing insects, and admits her behavior is now influenced by Schur’s point system. “You never come to Hollywood and become a better person,” she says. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
In another era, a show about ethics would have been a harder sell, but this one happened to debut in the fall of 2016. “It didn’t hurt that from the moment the show aired,” Schur notes, “the word ‘ethics’ was appearing in every newspaper on Earth every day.”
“I think we’re craving positive entertainment now,” argues Bell, highlighting one of the few upsides of America’s ongoing sociopolitical malaise. “Eight years ago, five years ago, when the world felt safer, it felt OK to root for an antihero. Walter White was awesome, because the world felt safer, right? Now, the world feels unsafe, and I don’t think people want to turn the television on to that. I think they want to see people fighting for good.”
Even the citizens of Jacksonville, Florida, who take an enormous comic beating from the references to Jason’s hometown and his many loud name drops of former Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, get positive vibes from the series. “Whenever I meet somebody from Jacksonville,” Manny Jacinto says, “I ask them, ‘How do you guys feel about these jokes?’ And they’re usually like, ‘We love it. We love that you’re representing for us.’”
None of this would matter if the show weren’t so forking (to borrow the profanity workaround that prevents Eleanor from cussing in the afterlife) funny and inventive at every turn. There’s a density of jokes in every scene that the actors find inspiring. The writers use and discard plot ideas in a single episode that most shows would devote entire seasons to, just to keep viewers excited and engaged.
“The show is something that’s incredibly optimistic and snarky,” suggests Harper. In other shows right now, “if there’s optimism or any sort of openheartedness, it lacks bite. And if it has a lot of bite, it’s just completely devoid of any heart. And I feel like our show has a really good meshing of the two.”
Every detail is obsessed over, by cast and crew alike. As a little girl, costume designer Kirston Mann flew a lot on her own, and came to look at flight attendants “like angels.” She used their uniforms as a model for Janet’s purple and blue skirt suit. (“I have a little fetish for that kind of person,” Mann says, “and that’s how I saw her, as this person in between worlds, which is like a stewardess.”) Carden rotates through several identical copies of the same outfit, and even more had to be made for last season’s “Janet(s),” an episode where the four humans all temporarily looked like Janet, which meant that multiple stand-ins had to be simultaneously dressed like Carden for certain shots. This season, Carden got into wardrobe and could instantly tell someone had mistakenly given her one of the “Janet(s)” costumes because one of the vest’s button holes was too small. “That’s how much I’m wearing this,” she says, gesturing down at the familiar ensemble. “I know every centimeter of this costume.”
To bring the writers’ strange inventions, like the multiple Janets, to life, the series has its own in-house visual effects wizard, David Niednagel. But Danson himself supplies at least as much of the magic, with a performance that’s everything Schur asks of him and more: otherworldly but also deeply childlike and vulnerable, cartoonish but also capable of intense, admirable humanity. Carden jumps back in her chair and grips the armrests recalling the creepy laugh Danson improvised in the scene where Eleanor figures out that she and her friends are actually in the Bad Place. She and all of Danson’s other co-stars light up when talking about how humble and genuinely curious he still is, in a way that goes beyond normal Hollywood platitudes about how everyone in the cast is a family.
“He’s just kind of joy personified,” says Bell. “He’s witty, and he’s happy from the moment he wakes up until about 3:00 p.m. And then he gets sleepy.”
Jamil had never acted before the show and was terrified during her first scene, where Michael introduces Eleanor to Tahani. To break the tension, she says Danson “just kept on pretending to fart on me. Which was so weird but brilliant, and just made me feel so instantly comfortable. He kept making himself seem as little and silly as humanly possible, because he could tell that I was awe-struck by him.”
Danson once famously opted to end Cheers before NBC was ready to, for fear the show would grow stale. Now he finds himself on the receiving end of a similar choice by Schur, who chose to make this upcoming fourth season The Good Place’s last, having told his sprawling story at warp speed. It’s a decision everyone understands, even as none of them wants to let go.
“I think we don’t know how lucky we are,” says Danson. “I’m really proud to have been part of it. It’s a great conversation to be had. And the fact that 11- and 12-year-olds are coming up loving the show, to me that’s when kids are just starting to turn their headlights on and they’re understanding humor and they’re very impressionable and smart. So if they like the show, we’re doing something right.”
“I suppose I feel exactly the way it would feel at the end of your life,” says Bell. “I know it has to end, but I didn’t quite get enough and I want a little more.” At 39 with “two little kids who are desperate for me to be home more,” Bell is thinking seriously about taking a step back from a business that’s kept her working steadily since Veronica Mars started in 2004. “Maybe this is a great note to go out on,” she suggests. “I’ll do a movie here or there or be a guest star, but maybe I won’t be number one on the call sheet anymore.”
Danson and Bell have been through this before, multiple times, so it’s hardest on their less-experienced co-stars. “I am unemployed, so if you have anything, please let me know,” Jacinto jokes. “I can wash your car.”
Through her infectious performance as the all-knowing, all-powerful, always-optimistic Janet, Carden may embody the series more than anyone. She gets choked up just thinking about the conclusion to her big break.
“You want to hear something really cheesy?” she asks. “If you really think about it, if someone were to design my Good Place, it would be this. It sucks that now my Good Place is ending. But it’s good, it’s good. It’s right.”
The final season of The Good Place premieres September 26th on NBC.