‘The Good Place’ Creator Michael Schur Explains The Show’s New Twist

The Good Place just reached a pivotal point in season two, which I discuss at length in my review of tonight’s episode. As I often do when big things are brewing on a Mike Schur show — including after The Good Place unveiled its big season-ending twist — I emailed him a lot of questions about what’s happening and why, with full spoilers coming up just as soon as the Bad Place is Vanessa Redgrave’s panic room…

First we got into how the season’s first few episodes dealt with the repercussions of the twist that Eleanor and friends are really in the Bad Place, and Michael’s decision to keep rebooting the scenario until he can get it right, then moved on to the new status quo where Michael, Janet, and the four humans will team up to pretend the torture is working while Chidi teaches everyone — Michael included — ethics in the hopes of someday getting into the real Good Place.

When you initially came up with the twist, how long did you think you could get away with the cycle that we see play out over the season’s first three episodes? Did that amount of time shrink once it was time to start writing this season, or was it always going to be a brief thing before you moved on?

The chunk of time the characters spent in the dark (again) was never going to last very long. In fact, one version we toyed with had the Groundhog Day sequence even earlier — like the second half of the premiere. But then we had the idea of starting the year by spending one act with everyone’s new personal torture, and that seemed new and fun, so the “torture-solve-reset” was pushed to episode 3. But we felt pretty strongly that the characters had to catch up to the audience — and that the show needed to swerve onto a new course — ASAP.

The third episode in particular blitzes through the amount of plot you might have tried to spend a season or more on. Why did you want to do that? Were there any iterations where you feel like you could have actually let them run for a while without it getting old?

That’s part of the fun of this premise — in order to stay ahead of a very savvy audience, we have to chew up plot and barrel forward. When we settled on the “Groundhog Day” idea for the third episode, we felt like: we can do this, but it’s only Groundhog Day for one act, like eight minutes or so. Then we gotta keep moving, and the episode has to spin off into some other story.

Besides the food, what ways did you look to easily differentiate one reboot from the next? And were there any pitches — food or otherwise — that you wanted to use but didn’t have room for in this condensed period?

That sequence in the first cut was like 14 minutes long — there’s a ton of stuff on the cutting room floor, ranging from just “more jokes” to little actual scene-lets that played out in various reboots. Drew Goddard directed it and shot like a million wonderful 2 second-long things. But as it crescendos toward the end, we felt like in some way the different reboots shouldn’t even be really “differentiated” — they should just all jumble together.

When you were breaking that episode, how thoroughly did you think through the various scenarios that we glimpse for only a few seconds? Do you know what the bees are doing, or what Eleanor’s life was like as a monk, or a cowgirl, or soulmates with Tahani? Or did it not go beyond the joke itself being pitched?

Some of them were just jokes — what are some images that, in one second, tell the story that Eleanor got put into a situation that caused her to put it all together? Some of them were just versions of things you’d already seen — all four of them arguing over who had to go to the Bad Place, or Eleanor at the opening night party wearing the “Best Person” sash. Others were due to Drew Goddard — who directed it, and who has a wonderful visual style — saying, “We’re out here at Mindy St. Claire’s house shooting those scenes, and there’s a barn in the back, so let’s grab one of Eleanor’s revelations while we’re there.” We didn’t so much think through an entire scenario related to each revelation and its corresponding torture that has suddenly became clear to her (like the bees, or the scary clown). We mostly just wanted each of them to feel like the kind of thing that could be explained based on what you had seen thus far in the show — which is why, for example, Eleanor posing as a monk worked.

When and how did you come up with the idea of Michael teaming up with the humans in an attempt to avoid Shawn’s wrath and maybe get into the Good Place?

Last season. We set up the idea that Shawn wasn’t on board with Michael’s experiment, and put in the line where he says “If this thing goes sideways again you are done,” so that this year we could make this move. As for “why,” I guess I would say that I’m a big fan of spy novels, and the elite Russian spy defecting to the U.S., and the Americans wondering if they can trust him, is a super fun story.

This feels like a more durable new premise than constant reboots would have been. Without giving it away, do you have any idea how much life there is in this idea, or are you still playing it out as you go?

We sort of game-theoried it out at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, and plotted out where things could go from here. We’re basically putting Michael in the position Eleanor was in at the beginning of S1 — begrudgingly taking classes on how to be a good person in order to avoid getting caught — so there was a template for how long this chunk of the show might last.

Why does the Bad Place have such minimal surveillance? Eleanor and friends wouldn’t be able to get away with all that they do otherwise. Ditto Michael lying so extensively to Shawn.

Well, this Neighborhood is a brand new experiment, so they don’t have any precedent for how to run things. Also, Michael tells Vicky (in the new iteration) that he will handle surveillance, so she assumes he is watching them all the time, and then he reports back to her that all is well. And in the big-picture sense, our internal analogy is: it’s like if you were looking after four puppies, and you had them in an enclosed downstairs area, with gates on the staircases, and all the doors are locked. You don’t feel like you have to watch them every second, because there’s nowhere for them to go.

About how much time passed in season one before Michael wiped everyone’s memories? And given that only a week had passed in Version 802, how different are these versions of the characters from the ones we got to know last season? Should we assume that there is no Eleanor/Chidi/Tahani love triangle at the moment, for instance?

We figured that the events of S1 took somewhere around four months of “time.” (Michael then reboots them 801 more times, the longest lasting 11 months and the shortest being 8 seconds…we calculated that the median length was probably in that 4-month range, so the total length of all of the reboots is somewhere around 250-300 years.) The important thing is that the humans completely refresh with every reboot, so there is no residual feeling of “I know you from somewhere…” In this latest version, #802, they’ve only known each other for a week, so they’re around maybe where they were in episode four of last year. You can assume that their relationships and dynamics are roughly where they were in the episode where Eleanor first spent a day with Tahani, and stole her diary. (Of course, now Eleanor also has some very advanced information about how things have played out with her and Chidi in other reboots, as well.)

Why did you decide that this was the stage of the characters and their relationships you wanted to use going forward for this new arc? Was there thought given to them knowing each other more, or less? And given how much effort the first three episodes make in not repeating too much of what we watched last year, how do you safeguard against different character beats (Eleanor developing feelings for Chidi, Jason doing the same for Janet) feeling like rehashes, assuming they even happen again?

It just seemed like the right moment in their loop to begin the next chapter, for maximum drama — just at the point where the lessons have started, so Eleanor is on board in theory with becoming a better person, but hasn’t yet crossed over into truly seeing the benefit of learning. As for not repeating things, Michael’s entrance into the study group is a big shake-up, and presented brand-new stories. Nothing from ep. 5 on plays out the same way any of season 1 played out. Promise.

Janet points out in the fourth episode that she must now be the most socially advanced of all Janets because of all her reboots, and Darcy is playing her a bit more “human” this year. Why did you want her to be the one character to evolve significantly to this point?

Stay tuned.

Mindy shows Eleanor and Chidi all the failed plans they cooked up against Michael on previous visits. They are laid out to look like the walls of a lot of writers rooms I’ve been to. Do you have a similar wall of post-twist ideas that you realized were actually terrible?

Ha — no, although at some level: yes, because all writers rooms have walls of terrible ideas on index cards. That moment is a little meta, though — there are some unavoidable parallels between the world of this show and the world of a writers room, so we did think of it as a small homage to have Mindy lay out their ideas on index cards.

Did everyone in the writers’ room hate La La Land, or just Megan [Amram, who wrote episode 3]?

Don’t think it’s “hate,” really. It’s more like, “Man, a lot of that movie was a white Canadian dude explaining jazz to us. And to John Legend.”

Related: why go back to froyo as opposed to any of the other food pitches?

The idea is that Vicky likes the first version the best, because that’s when her part was the juiciest. (Although, she did alter things in “her” version to make her part even bigger.) So it’s a full reset for a lot of the stuff that got jumbled up and changed in the many reboots.

I like that you devoted a good chunk of episode four to answering many of my questions about the twist. I’m not sure I have a new question here; I just appreciate it.

Well, I think a lot of people had a lot of questions about the mechanics of the universe, so we decided to try to answer as many of the big lingering ones as we could. There were many that we had to cut — some of which will be in a longer cut of that episode.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is out 10/10 and available for preoder now.