No comedy on television churns through more story ideas, in more surprising ways, than NBC’s The Good Place. The first season seemed to be about a group of flawed people who had somehow found their way into a version of Heaven, only for the finale to stun them — and us — with the revelation that they were all being punked in the Bad Place. Season two used and abandoned new status quos within an episode or two (see: demonic architect Michael rebooting the experiment once the humans figured it out; the humans having to go undercover in the more overt Bad Place) that any other series would devote years to, and in its finale left the afterlife altogether so that selfish loner Eleanor, cripplingly indecisive ethics professor Chidi, narcissistic do-gooder Tahani and sweet Florida man Jason could get another chance at life on Earth to prove their metaphysical worthiness.
As he did after the first season, Good Place creator Michael Schur went radio silent for several months to let the audience consider the finale’s ramifications without being influenced by the voice of the show’s deity. Now, he’s finally ready to spill via a long email interview, as he clarifies where exactly the four dum-dums are, discusses what it was like to put former Cheers star Ted Danson behind a bar again, explains some more about how his version of the afterlife functions and a lot more.
The audience seems split between those who think Eleanor and the others have been brought back to life and those who believe it’s another simulation. Would you care to tip your hand about which? Does it matter?
Normally I don’t like to just flatly state what’s going on, but here I don’t see the benefit of people experiencing ambiguity: The four of them are straight-up back on Earth, in a new timeline where they didn’t die.
Was that what Michael and Judge Jen were debating in the opening of the finale: the idea of changing the timeline and bringing four dead people back to life?
Yes – Michael gets the idea, she immediately understands what he’s hinting at and is reticent to do it because it means changing the timeline on Earth. (That’s why he says, “It’s only four people!” Like, “Eh, in terms of timeline-changing, it’s not that big a deal.”)
When and why did you come up with the idea of returning the four of them to their original lives?
A lot of the progress they have made as people has been sort of theoretical, because it’s all come after they’ve understood that they are dead and in the afterlife. It seemed like a natural move to send them back to a time before they made that progress, and to use the idea of nearly dying to test their ability to improve. Especially because now that Michael has watched them improve, over and over, he has started to wonder whether or not there is something fundamentally wrong with the way humans are judged.
A lot of the show’s humor comes from the surreal and magical qualities of the Good/Bad Place, and from the things that Michael and Janet can make happen instantaneously. Is any of that possible during this phase of the story? Do you have any worries about having to work, even briefly, without that particular tool in the box?
Yes, frankly, we were worried about that. One of the things we set as a goal for ourselves in the first two seasons was to have at least one weird magical thing in every episode that could only happen in the afterlife. I think we’ve found some good ways to sustain that idea even when they’re on Earth.
You stopped doing flashbacks to the characters’ real lives in every episode of season two. Why was that? And what is it like having to write them in that milieu again?
We had to do them in season one, because we needed the audience to know what they were all like when they were alive. We were building to this massive revelation, where you would learn that all four of them were actually ticketed for the Bad Place – if the viewers didn’t feel, when that revelation occurred, like they understood why they were all “bad people,” then it wouldn’t have the impact we wanted it to have. That’s why you had to have a sense that Chidi drove people crazy, or that Tahani did everything out of jealousy and competition with her sister. After that first season, the flashbacks were less important, because we didn’t have to plant all that evidence, so to speak. They became just a tool we could use when we wanted to, which was maybe four to five times over the course of the season.
There have been hints throughout the series that the Good/Bad Place system is fundamentally flawed and unfair, and it became an overt discussion topic late in the season in the scenes with Judge Jen. Should we expect the series at some point to try to rewrite the rules of Heaven?
I can’t really comment without spoiling some things, directly or indirectly. I will say that back when I was writing the pilot, and developed the omniscient mathematical system on which humans were judged, one of the first things I thought was, “Well, this system would be just as effed up as any other one I’ve ever read about.”
How long have you been dreaming of writing a comedy scene where Ted Danson is tending bar?
When we had the idea for Michael to re-intervene in Eleanor’s life down on earth, we needed a situation where she would show up and be happy to spill her guts to a stranger – a bar (and bartender), was really the obvious choice. I cleared it with Ted first – told him the idea and asked if he’d be OK with it. He, of course, was. Directing him was predictably lovely, as it always is. And I had written into the script that he was cutting limes and had a towel over his shoulder, because the thought of him playing a bartender and not doing those things was too depressing to deal with.
What was the genesis of the Jake Jortles joke? At what point in the series did you realize how much you enjoyed having Jason throw Molotov cocktails while screaming Blake Bortles’ name?
A lot of that is Joe Mande, who just loved Jason’s dedication to Blake Bortles. (And Manny, who is uncommonly funny when he yells that name.) It really comes from the tribalistic nature of humanity in general, and sports fans in particular, that makes people care a very great deal about whomever happens to be wearing the right uniform. We just kept doing it, as an almost inside joke, and then it just kept getting more complex – yelling “portals!” when he jumps through a portal, or “Jortles!” when he has adopted a very dumb undercover persona.
More Bortles: What would you have had to do in season three if the Jaguars’ playoff run this year had gone all the way to a championship, thus disproving what Michael told Jason about them never winning a Super Bowl? And was Manny Jacinto’s trip to the Jacksonville sidelines in any way part of something you were planning to do, or just something the Jags marketing people cooked up on their own?
Manny’s trip was the result of the Jags’ media team very kindly reaching out and asking if he wanted to go – they’ve been super cool from the beginning. We developed a plan for them winning, and a modified version of that plan will actually appear in episode three (as of right now), so I don’t want to give too much away. But we had a plan, and were kind of sad we didn’t get to employ it.
A device you introduced near the start of the series is that Eleanor hears everyone other than Tahani speaking English with an American accent because that’s what she’s used to, whereas Chidi is hearing people speaking French, and so on. But when we see the YouTube clip of Chidi’s lecture near the end of the finale, he’s still speaking with that American accent. Did you decide it was just too much trouble to have William Jackson Harper adopting an accent? Do you have an in-story explanation for this?
It’s partly an in-show explanation and partly an out-of-show one. Bear with me. When I wrote the line in the pilot about how Chidi was speaking French, and the Good Place just converts speech into whatever language the person wants to hear, it was (a) to show how magical the place was, (b) to highlight the differences between Chidi and Eleanor and (c) just something I thought would be a cool and necessary detail about any actual “Good Place” neighborhood. I figured we’d see flashbacks, but I accounted for Chidi’s speaking English as a sort of show cheat – we did consider subtitled French, but comedy requires timing and pace and rhythm, and subtitles are bad for that.
I obviously did not anticipate ever spending a long time on Earth. So when we wrote the finale last year, we had a long back and forth with Will where we discussed the pros and cons of Chidi speaking French, or Wolof-accented English, or something else. In the read-through, when Eleanor watches his video, Will read the lecture in a sort of pan-African accented English, and it was wonderful, and flawless. Like in a “Meryl Streep doing a dialect” kind of way. After the read, Ted predicted he would win an Emmy, it was so good. We were very tempted. But, since we had seen flashbacks with him speaking non-accented English, I got worried it would be confusing – like, were we saying that in the timeline where he never dies, something was different about his life, that now when he spoke English it was accented? Also, he and Kristen have such a specific chemistry and rhythm, I was afraid accented English would mess with it somehow, alter it. So in the end, I denied Will his sure-thing Emmy nom, and decided to just have him speak in his normal voice.
And because we’re continuity/backstory nerds, we give the audience an explanation for his accent/non-accent very early in the season.
Does time move differently in the afterlife than it does on Earth? Judge Jen and all the Bad Place bros are all making references to contemporary pop culture (Bloodline, Gronk, Joe Francis), even though hundreds of years passed during all of the reboots. And now Michael and Janet are able to monitor and even interact with events from 2016.
Oh, does it ever. Enjoy episode five!
Could you have spent more than one episode in the Bad Place proper, or is the danger to the humans too great for that to be sustainable, despite all the potential for background gags? Were there any phases of this season that, in hindsight, you probably could have stayed in for an extra episode or two?
Possibly, but again, we are trying not to stagnate. I’d rather leave a place, or a premise, too early than too late.
Did you and the studio/network have to have any discussions about the impact on the budget of abandoning the neighborhood, at least for a while?
Yeah, many. It’s much harder to produce a season of TV with no significant standing sets. But NBC has been very accommodating. And luckily, I work with the very best line producers in the universe, Morgan Sackett and David Hyman, who just somehow magically figure out how to do whatever it is that we dream up.
Getting back to the greatness of Ted Danson, what was it like watching him play Michael’s existential/midlife crisis in episode 5? And to watch him admit how much he cares about Janet in “Janet and Michael”?
Sometimes, if you have a really good read-through, the writers and producers start to get actively excited for a scene, or a plot line, or something in the episode. Like, post-table read, people will come in every day and say, “When is that scene shooting? Is it today?” Sometimes a room will even take a break so people can go watch something they think is going to be especially great or funny. In some cases, people will actually get that excited just for the table read itself – we will look forward to just hearing something read out loud. (That’s rarer, because no group of writers is ever really confident in a table read. Too much experience with failure and embarrassment.) Ted is such a great actor, the writers get excited at the concept stage. Like, when we talked to one of our philosophical advisors, Todd May, about what an Existential Crisis actually is, and the form it takes, we got giddy just imagining Ted playing the scenes. It’s a very rare thing, to get that excited that early in the process. I remember feeling that way when we had the idea [on The Office] for Steve Carell to host a dinner party and when we imagined Amy Poehler [on Parks and Recreation] being delirious with the flu. We feel it about Ted all the time.
How did the idea of the Tahani/Jason/Janet love triangle come up?
Tahani and Jason was just us trying to play out character dynamics – Tahani spent her life caring what other people thought of her, and linking herself to Jason represents a sort of rebellion against that. He is also, despite his many flaws, uncommonly kind and loving, as a person – he’s intellectually deficient, but emotionally very intelligent, and treats people very well. So a Tahani-Jason link made sense. (It also makes sense because Manny Jacinto is unpleasantly handsome.) The Janet-Jason thing we stumbled on when we decided to reboot Janet, and discussed how she had to re-upload all the information in the universe. We had the idea that at a key moment – early on, when she and Jason were roughly at the same intellectual level – they would bond somehow. Jason, who again is incredibly nice and happy all the time, would show Janet a sort of kindness that she was not used to, and it would sort of rewrite part of her internal DNA/code/whatever it is. That mutation within this particular Janet would then become permanent, no matter how many times she was rebooted. It’s all a big, fun, weird mess.
How important is the Eleanor/Chidi love story to wherever the show is ultimately headed?
Hard to answer that. I guess I would say that the most important thing is the question of how people can be good, and how they can be good to each other, and their relationship helps to answer some of those questions. Or I could be Janet-y about it, and say “It is 27.41% important.”