When The Good Place ended its first season with an enormous twist, I realized that I had many questions about what had been revealed. But for once, the show’s usually talkative creator Mike Schur had opted to pull a David Chase and go radio silent and let the rest of us puzzle out what happened and what it meant.
Six weeks later, though, Schur is finally ready to get down into everything that went on behind the scenes as (SPOILER) he ran an elaborate con on his audience while Ted Danson’s Michael was doing the same to the show’s other characters. I emailed him a bunch of questions about the fact that The Good Place isn’t set in The Good Place at all, but is rather part of an elaborate psychological torture experiment set up by Bad Place architect Michael.
At TCA and elsewhere, you told a story of how you came up with the idea for the show, but that was when you were trying to convince everyone that it was about a slightly malfunctioning version of Heaven. Where did the idea come from for the actual story you were telling?
I got the idea for the twist almost immediately after I had the original idea. I got excited about the basic concept, but as soon as I began working on the pilot story, I began to feel that it would make a very tough show to write, long-term. “Woman gets into heaven by mistake, hides her true nature from powers that be while trying to improve” — seems like it gets repetitive pretty quickly. Audiences are savvy, and they get bored easily, and that’s the kind of “premise pitch” where the premise would burn off and then I’d be left spinning my wheels. So I decided I couldn’t commit to writing it unless I knew where it was going. Then I thought of that endgame, and everything clicked into place.
When you played “Is This Anything?” with Damon Lindelof, how did you frame the twist to him? And how did he respond to that?
I just straight-up told him the twist, figuring if he couldn’t keep a secret, no one could. He liked it a lot, if I remember correctly. He also gave me some very good general advice about writing a show like this, which I needed desperately, being new to the genre.
Similarly, did all the actors know upfront? Did you think about only telling Ted Danson and anyone else playing a Good/Bad Place employee, and leaving Kristen and the others in the dark?
I told Kristen and Ted when I pitched them the show. I felt like, before signing onto something like this, they should know the entirety of their characters, as well as the whole large-scale plot. I decided not to tell any of the other actors for a while — I struggled with that, because I felt they had a right to know as well, but on the other hand: the fact that they did not know, and thus were only acting their scripted intentions, kept everything pure and simple. (Even though it was maybe a little mean to keep them in the dark, their characters were also in the dark, so it all sort of made sense.) Toward the end of the year we all gathered and I filled them in — Kristen actually took a video of them as I pitched the twist. It’s pretty great. And the fact that none of them had guessed it made me feel like we might be able to get all the way to the end without the truth revealing itself to the viewing audience at large.
Ted and I had a code, when we wanted to discuss something on set without anyone understanding what we were talking about — we used the old acting terms “objective” and “super-objective,” to refer to what Michael appeared to be doing, and what he was ultimately doing. So, his objective in the scene would be like “cheer Chidi up, by telling him that you will happily help him write a new philosophy thesis,” and the super-objective would be “make Chidi voluntarily throw his life’s work in the trashcan.”
What does the script say about the look on Michael’s face when Eleanor confronts him with the truth? What, if any, direction was Ted Danson given before he produced that grin?
I don’t remember exactly how it was scripted, though I believe the original intention was for him to react more petulantly. We did a bunch of takes where he paused, the camera crashed in, and he acted like a spoiled kid — more “Gahhhhh damnit, Eleanor!” — and then kind of stomped his feet and threw a fit. (Sort of what he does in the version that aired, after we come back from the act break.) After a bunch of those he said, “I’m gonna try something else,” and did the little evil giggle, and it was a hundred times better. I know this is a controversial statement, but I think Ted Danson is good at acting. I know it’s silly to care about stuff like this, but it was a real bummer that people didn’t get to see that before things like SAG voting happened, because when you consider the totality of his work, knowing what you end up knowing after that moment, it’s certainly a performance that deserves recognition.
How much quality control had to take place over the course of the season to A) make sure everything fit the real version of the story if anyone went back and looked, B) offered at least some clues to the reality so that it wouldn’t feel like a total cheat, and C) didn’t make it so obvious that the audience figured it out as quickly as they did the Man in Black stuff on Westworld? Did anything slip through that you then had to justify after the fact? Are there any significant clues beyond the ones featured in flashbacks in the finale?
Man, that’s a complex question. Okay. Bear with me.
A) We were pretty on it, in terms of making sure everything was consistent with the “long game.” That’s the benefit of knowing the end before you start writing anything — we had a bunch of filters, among the writers and actors and producers, who could catch potential problems or inconsistencies. Some big-picture things were easy: We knew, for instance, that we could never have a scene with Michael where one of the four others wasn’t around, because as soon as he was alone, he would drop the act. But at the same time, I was afraid (paranoid?) that if we never showed Michael apart from the four people he was torturing, someone would figure out what was going on. (It now seems paranoid, I think.) So we wrote this small moment in the sixth episode, in which Eleanor had promised to help Michael find the problem in the Neighborhood, where she showed up at his office and he had his back to her and was sort of mumbling to himself and staring at a map on the wall with a crazy burned-out energy. Then we made sure his door was already open when the scene starts, so if you go back and wonder why he is “acting” when no one else is around, you would think, “Ah, he cracked the door and got into character, so when she showed up she would see an “authentic” moment of him being freaked out, which would make it harder for her (and the audience) to ever think he was pulling off this grand illusion on her/them.
B) As far as clues go: One of the best parts of teasing out the season was that I realized, pretty early, that all of the standard-issue conveniences and contrivances that naturally occur in any season of TV would, in this show, end up being strengths instead of weaknesses. Like: at the moment Chidi and Eleanor are in a big fight, the whole Neighborhood goes on lockdown and they can’t get away from each other. That’s the kind of little unlikely coincidence that viewers just kind of put up with, or look past, in the name of “allowing a story to be told.” But in this show, it’s not a little unlikely coincidence, it’s a very deliberate maneuver by an omniscient torturer. There’s a million of those — as there will be, in any season of TV — but if you stuck with the show and got all the way to the end, they ended up being fun little moments to think back on. (At least I hope they do.)
The point (vis-a-vis your question) is that we felt like all of these things are also essentially “clues” that there is something off about the neighborhood. There needed to be clues — as you suggest — because if the ending just came out of nowhere it would seem like a cheat. But I felt like the clues would sort of emerge naturally from the process of trying to make stories about “heaven” and having little unlikely things happening all the time.
C) The Westworld guess-a-thon kind of freaked me out, although by the time that show was airing we were pretty much done with our season, so there was nothing I could’ve done anyway. I took comfort from the fact that Westworld was sort of actively inviting the audience to try to figure out its twists, and we weren’t, really. We had a bunch of small twists — Jason not being a monk, Eleanor confessing unexpectedly — and one gigantic one, and only the gigantic one really mattered, in terms of making the season feel satisfying in retrospect. When we were a few weeks out from it airing and it hadn’t been widely figured out (at least, that I could tell), I felt like we were safe.
There was only one line that I trimmed out because I felt like we were on thin ice, in terms of giving it away: in the pilot, when Michael introduces Tahani and Jianyu/Jason to Chidi and Eleanor, I had him say something like, “The idea of the four of you living next door to each other for all eternity just fills me with so much joy!” It felt a little tippy, so I trimmed it. It’s in the extended cut, for posterity. Everything else that might have really given it away we cut before we shot.
Speaking of Westworld, grade your anxiety level on a scale of 1 (Tom Brady playing against the Cleveland Browns defense) to 10 (Eli Manning with the ball in his hands for the last possession of a Super Bowl against the Pats) as the season went along and you waited to see if the internet solved the puzzle too early?
Sort of answered already, in the previous endless response, and even if it weren’t, I would refuse to answer on the grounds that the prosecutor is taunting the witness.
How much should we actually believe about what Michael has said about the Good Place? Is the point system exactly as explained? Do Good Place residents all get soulmates and perfectly tailored houses?
The details of how it all works will largely be answered more definitively next season, so I don’t want to give too much away. One thing I can say is that Michael, like all good improvisational actors and con men, used a lot of true facts to build his giant lie.
Does Michael have any control over Janet other than being able to reboot her and convince her that she still works in the Good Place? If not, then does this mean that the fake Good Place has to largely resemble the real one so she won’t figure it out?
That will also be addressed. The key about Janet is that he does not “control” her. She is just part of every afterlife Neighborhood. One analogy we used internally: Janet is to the afterlife as Clippy the Paperclip (or whatever it’s called) is to Microsoft Word — it’s just there when you turn on the program.
Is the Medium Place real, or part of the con?
Medium Place is real. The essential story of Mindy St. Claire’s situation is on the up and up.
What kind of resources does the Bad Place have that Michael could put this much effort and people and material into punking four random humans out of the millions and millions who die every day? Is there an authority above Shawn who could put a stop to this?
It’s not a question of “resources” — there isn’t like an “economy,” in the Bad Place. It’s more a question of protocol and procedure. What Michael did is sort of like suggesting a new way to organize the Army — it’s unorthodox, and the Bad Place is not super into change.
Is everyone who works in the Bad Place — like Trevor — in on the gag, or just the people who work directly under Michael?
It’s just a little beta program, very contained and limited. I would assume a lot of the other Bad Place folks know it is happening, and maybe have an opinion on it, but the only “people” directly involved are those you see in the “Good Place” neighborhood.
What was Michael’s next move going to be if Eleanor hadn’t figured things out? For that matter, what was his plan going to be if she hadn’t confessed her true identity earlier in the season?
He says in the flashback that part of the fun for him was that he couldn’t predict everything that would happen, that they would have to be on their toes and improvise. In most of those scenes, the writers would develop a backstory, for internal use only, of what he might have done if things had gone differently. It’s probably more fun to leave it up to the viewer to imagine what he would’ve done in any of those scenarios.
I don’t want to know where this is going next, but how much do you know? Do you already know what happens if or when Eleanor or one of the others figures it out again? What season 3 or 4 or 7 would be about? Or after a certain point do you have to make like Michael and start improvising?
By the end of last year we had a decent idea of what the beginning of this season would be. We’ve now broken roughly half the episodes, and we also know where we are going to end up, which (we learned last year) makes writing a show like this a lot easier.
Also, without spoiling anything, how different has it felt writing a version of the show where the audience now knows what’s going on, even if these four idiots don’t?
It’s both easier and harder. Easier because we don’t need to hide this one giant surprise that, if it got out, would kind of harm the entire year. And harder because that one big surprise gave a strong shape to the season. I think part of the reason we got all the way to the end without the big twist being spoiled on a grand scale is that no one was really looking for it. We are now operating under the assumption that people are looking and guessing and trying to get ahead of us, so we have to either be extra-surprising, or else come all the way around to not being “twist-y” at all, but rather tell different sorts of stories that themselves feel fresh and interesting.
In breaking the new episodes, how did you figure out how much you want to replay the events of the first season from a new perspective (and with little tweaks like Eleanor’s new “soulmate”) versus wholly new stories? How much Groundhog Day can you do in an ongoing series?
I guess I would say, sort of unhelpfully: you’ll find out when they air. But we certainly understand the danger, when you press the reset button the way we did, of repeating yourself. Next season will have significant differences.
In hindsight, the fro yo shops should’ve been a tipoff, because in a perfect afterlife, you could just enjoy ice cream and not worry about your diet. So what is secretly evil about all the pizza shops that replaced the fro yo?
Well, the trick for Michael is to make it subtly terrible (for torture reasons), using the “this is what everybody here likes!” excuse, without making it obviously terrible so it’s a giveaway. There is a significant clue in the first season about how he will achieve this, with pizza.
Office, Parks, and Brooklyn all had learning curves as you figured out the strengths and weaknesses of the cast and characters and how they interacted. But those were also all low-concept shows where it was easy to fiddle until you figured out that, say, Andy Dwyer should be a well-meaning doofus instead of Ann’s jerky boyfriend. With this, you had a lot of plot to deal with, a twist to guard, etc. So what did you figure out over the course of this season about when the show and these people are at their best?
It was certainly less kind of loose-y goose-y than Parks or Brooklyn. In the backstory of the show, Michael chose these people because they had very specific character traits that meant they would behave in very specific ways that would cause very specific types of reactions in other people, so the casting was immensely important. Thankfully, we work with Allison Jones. We said to her, like, “We need a tall, stunningly beautiful woman, of Indian or Pakistani descent, who speaks with an Oxford-English accent, and dresses like Grace Kelly.” Then Allison was like: “Here she is. Her name is Jameela Jamil. What else you need?” So much of the work was done for us when we found her, and Manny, and William, and D’Arcy. With them, and Ted and Kristen, if the characters hadn’t been rich and compelling, it would’ve been 100% on me and the writers.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org