For me, NBC’s The Good Place, from creator/executive producer Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation), has been the most original and entertaining delight of the Fall 2016 TV season. The brilliantly inventive and hilariously funny series follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to an inexplicable error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, where she actually belongs. While trying to hide her true self from the completely unaware Michael (Ted Danson), the wise and kind architect of the Good Place, she’s determined to discover whether she has a good person within.
When the series took a break back in November, the Good Place was left in a bit of upheaval and we got a deeper look at just what the Bad Place must be like, so we recently got on the phone with Mike Schur to find out what fans can expect from the last four episodes of this season. During the 1-on-1 chat with Collider, he talked about figuring out most of the first season before even pitching the series to NBC, the importance of always knowing what comes next, the magic of Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, why he wanted such a diverse cast, the fake Eleanor vs. the real Eleanor, having a good sense of where Season 2 would go, and why he thinks there’s more of a chance than ever for a TV series to find an audience. Be aware that spoilers and some major plot points are discussed.
Collider: First of all, congrats on what I think has been the biggest surprise of the season! This show is so funny, so original and so great!
How much thought did you put into where to leave things, knowing you would have a two-month break?
SCHUR: Some of it wasn’t up to us. We had to take this weird break because of the NFL deal. Most of the episodes end on cliffhangers, but I think that was a particularly good cliffhanger to carry people over into the last four. When we knew how many episodes it was going to be before we had to take the break, we did shift one thing around. The cliffhanger that ends it is that Tahani discovers the true identity of Jason/Jianyu, her soulmate. That was one of the last big shoes we had to drop and one of the cards we had to play. He revealed to Eleanor, in Episode 3, that he was like her and not supposed to be in the Good Place, so it had been a lot time that Tahani hadn’t found out yet. Originally, I think we were going to have her find out one episode earlier, but when we found out that Episode 9 was going to serve as the real cliffhanger before the last four, we moved it one episode later, so that it would play suspenseful for what happens next. What’s nice about it, too, is that you ideally have felt for her. She’s living in the dark about this aspect of her life, so there is a little bit of a sense of relief to know that she knows. You don’t have to worry that she’s being fooled anymore. So, it all worked out really well. Obviously, it would have been better, if we could just keep going and finish out the season, but you’re at the mercy of the schedule, a little bit, when you do a network show, and we knew that, going in.
This is your first high-concept series, and it’s quite different, premise-wise, from what you’ve previously done. Because of that, did you have to sit down and outline the rules of the universe, and know the answers to questions like, where is the Bad Place, and is there a Medium Place, early on, or did you have to discover some or all of that stuff, as you went along?
SCHUR: Most of it, I figured out before I even pitched the show. I felt like the show was fairly high-concept, so both for my own sense of security that I could execute it properly, but also for NBC to have faith in it, I had to pitch them the whole season. So, I worked out a lot of it before I ever even pitched the show. It changed a little bit, once the writing staff got together. A lot of them came over from Parks and Recreation, so we had a good shorthand and worked really well together. Some things changed and shifted, and some things were massaged a little bit, but the biggest stuff about the world, I had worked out, and then we worked out, before we even started writing. When you’re trying to do a show like this, you can’t screw up. If you screw up and you contradict yourself, or the rules stop making sense, or you suddenly have to make a giant shift in the middle because you said that Janet can’t do something that you now need her to do, you just lose the trust of the audience. So, it was very important that we had the rules of the universe established and the big picture stuff established, right from the beginning, so that we didn’t screw up.
Most shows seem to take a season to find their groove, but this show seems to have found itself and the people who inhabit this world very quickly. How soon into the production did you feel like you’d really hit the type of groove you were hoping to hit? Was it pretty instant?
SCHUR: A lot of that credit goes to the cast, I think. When you’re writing a new show and the people you’re writing for include Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, the problem is not going to be the acting. You can be pretty sure that they’re going to take your ideas and make them work. So, they get a lot of the credit, as does the rest of the cast, which I think is wonderful. The biggest problem for us was that the biggest location setting and theme of this show requires a lot of exposition. You have to know what’s possible in the Good Place and what is not possible in the Good Place. We also had to introduce Eleanor. The DNA of the show is that something crazy happens at the end of every episode, or some big move happens. We had to then have Jason/Jianyu be introduced as a second person who doesn’t belong there, and we had to see who he is, and we had to introduce Tahani. We had to introduce all of the people, like any show does. I think the show worked pretty well, right from the beginning, but Episode 5 was the first one where you had met all of the main players and had spent time with them and knew how they fit into the landscape. The fifth episode is the one where the giant sink hole is growing and not repairing itself, and there’s a lockdown, so Eleanor and Chidi are trapped in their house, and Tahani is trapped in her house and learns that she barely made it into the neighborhood. That was the episode where all of the people had been introduced and you were spending time with them, after knowing where they fit into the puzzle. When we executed that episode and I saw the cut of it, I was like, “Okay, we’re good. All the pieces are on the chess board. Now, we just have to move them around the right way.”
Ted Danson and Kristen Bell are magical to watch together.
SCHUR: I agree!
At the same time, the diversity of the cast on this series is fantastic. Was that a conscious decision and effort, from the start?
SCHUR: Oh, yeah, 100%. I wanted to make it very clear that in this conception of the afterlife, there was no right answer, in terms of where you were from, what religion you were, what your ethnicity was, or what your sexual orientation was. I wanted it to be a true random sampling of the entire world, so to that end, when you crunch the numbers, 40% of this afterlife neighborhood should be East Asian, 30% is some version of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Indonesian, 20% is Caucasian and 10% is African. I don’t know that those are the actual numbers, but it’s a pure numbers game and whatever they were, we tried to represent that, not only with the main cast, but with the background, as well. Even for the people who are in for one episode or a couple of episodes, we always choose specifically what country they’re from and what their background is. The names that we gave them are true to the country we’ve said those people are from. We’re trying to replicate the world population. By the way, it’s not that hard. It’s pretty easy. But, I really wanted there to be a sense that there’s no Western Hemisphere or North American bias. We’re saying that this is a place that’s truly just reserved for the top 150,000th of 1% of all human on Earth. You can achieve the best life, whether you are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Senegal or Australia. That was a very conscious thing and a very deliberate thing, throughout the whole run of the show.
When you created the fake Eleanor, did you always know who real Eleanor was, as well?
SCHUR: Yes. From the moment Michael uses her full name, which is a very weird name – Eleanor Shellstrop – and you realize that she’s not supposed to be there, there’re a couple of possibilities. Possibility number one is that he just made a mistake and yanked up this woman into the Good Place because he just blew it. But if we’re saying that this is a truly omniscient system, the only other real explanation and the one that we went with, which is obviously a lot funnier, is that there was another woman named Eleanor Shellstrop and there was a clerical error. They got switched somehow, and the good one went to the Bad Place while the bad one went to the Good Place. When I pitched the show to NBC, one of the things that I pitched was that half-way through the year, she was going to confess, and then soon thereafter, the person that she’d replaced, for whom her little house and her whole world had been devised, is going to come up there and hang out with her, and she’s going to have to live with the good doppelganger. The fun of that is that we’re saying this is an omniscient system that creates soulmates for people, and she’s been bonding with Chidi and maybe beginning to have some feelings for Chidi, and vice versa, and then the actual person the universe has decided is perfect for Chidi shows up. So, it’s a love triangle between a man and two women with the same exact name, one of whom the universe has decided is his perfect soulmate, and the other of whom he’s spent a lot of time with in a very normal way and has gotten to enjoy and like and be interested in. That was definitely one of the things that I had, from the beginning.
Now that Chidi has found his real soulmate, Tahani knows that Jianyu is not who he’s been representing himself as, Adam Scott’s character is not happy with how things have turned out, and there’s someone still coming to judge them all, what can you say to tease what’s still to come for these last four episodes?
SCHUR: Well, I can say that they have to figure out a way to try to keep fake Eleanor in the Good Place, and they don’t have a lot of time. There’s only four episodes left, and they pretty quickly run out of time. The question is, can they figure out a compelling argument for why she deserves to say, before this judge rules on the case, one way or the other? That’s the big question that’s left, in the last four episodes.
Do you also have a good sense for where things would go in Season 2?
SCHUR: I used to have this rule, at Parks and Rec and at other shows I’ve worked on, where if you come up with a big idea that fundamentally changes the path of the show, you shouldn’t commit to that idea until you have at least a couple of pitches for how that could play out. You don’t necessarily have to stick to that, but you should have a couple of options. I did that on this show multiple times. When I came up with the idea for the pilot, I was like, “I have to know how this is going to play out.” And then, I pitched out to the end of the season, and that’s what I took to NBC. But once I got to that point, knowing that there are other big things that will happen in the last few episodes, I was like, “Okay, if I do that, I’ve gotta know what happens next.” So, at least have ideas. Whether or not I stick to them, who knows? But I have some ideas for what could happen in Season 2, and even beyond that. That’s just because a show like this, that is very plot intensive with big cliffhangers, if you don’t keep following through and finding ways to surprise the audience and develop the idea, then people are just going to lose interest. You set yourself a certain pace, and if you can’t maintain that pace, you’re going to be in trouble. So, I’m always trying to look ahead and at least have some idea of what I could do down the line that’s going to be interesting.
Since you started working on TV, the landscape has changed so drastically. What are your thoughts on the current sitcom landscape, as a whole? Do you think a show like Parks and Rec or The Office could survive and be as big of a hit now, in the age of Netflix, where everything is either high-concept or very cinematic?
SCHUR: Oh, I totally think so! In part, I think that because of those places. If you missed the first eight episodes of a show, you used to think, “It’s too late now. I can’t jump in now.” But because of the availability now of everything that airs, there is going to be a number of people – and what number, I don’t know, but hopefully it will be a large number – who didn’t watch any single episode of The Good Place for the first 13 episodes, and then sometime in July, they’re going to hear from their friend that they thought it was good, and it’s going to be very easy for them to go watch the whole thing. Now more than ever – and I think it’s a very good thing – the success or failure of shows is pretty meritocractic. You cannot blame the failure of a show on inaccessibility or an inability of the public to get your show. If the show is good and enough people talk about it, at least people have a chance to go watch it. That is always going to be the #1 thing that leads to the success or failure of any show. It’s about whether people can get it, and now, more people can get it in more places than ever before. It’s a really big country and a big world. There’s room for a lot of different kinds of ideas and shows that appeal to a lot of different groups of people. I would like to think that shows of any size, shape, color, stripe, or whatever you want to call it can be successful, if they’re executed properly.
The Good Place returns to NBC with new episodes on January 5th.