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.