Writer-producer Michael Schur is responsible for some of the funniest sitcoms of this century, including The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Drew Goddard has crafted some of the most entertaining explorations of the apocalypse depicted on screen, among them Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield, and several of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s most acclaimed episodes. Together, the two creators have fashioned The Good Place, a new NBC sitcom about what happens when a self-centered young woman named Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) is killed and mistakenly sent to the show’s titular afterlife. Tasked with helping her navigate a place where no ones curses or drinks—a hell to Eleanor—is kindly middle manager Michael (played by Ted Danson). Schur, Goddard, Bell, and Danson all appeared at today’s Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in LA to discuss the world they’ve created, its specific rules, and how we can all be better people.
Schur explained that The Good Place—the idea for which came to him in the wake of Parks and Recreation‘s final episodes—will, in its 13 half-hour first-season episodes, keep viewers on their toes by continually changing its story, offering hairpin narrative turns at every episode’s conclusion.
“This show is never gonna be a wash-rinse-repeat kind of deal. The pilot is a pretty good template for what is an average episode. It has a contained story and at the end something dramatic happens and sends the show spiraling off into a different place. The model in my head is Lost. Damon Lindelof was one of the first people I called [for advice]. I said, ‘Were gonna play a game called, “Is this anything?”‘ Damon is also the reason Drew directed the pilot. That was also Damon’s recommendation.”
“The story of modern comedy branches out from Mike Schur,” says Goddard.
One of the show’s running gags is that denizens of the Good Place can’t use traditional swear words. And so a new language is created for them to express exasperation, one that incorporates random, innocuous wordage. Schur admits that he idolizes the pseudo-swearing of TV’s Battlestar Galactica…
“In my my mind the best fake cursing on TV was ‘frakking,'” he says.
“Then along came ‘forking…'” says Bell.
“In the fourth episode, Kristen calls someone ‘shirt for brains,'” Schur adds. “We have to be careful. If you give a writers’ room a game like that they tend to lose their minds.”
Schur confirms that, like Battlestar, The Good Place could be categorized as sci-fi: “There is a science fiction element to the show, and like all science fiction it will probably serve as a Rorschach test for people.” Like many science fiction classics, The Good Place takes care in its world-building, establishing a “point system” for its afterlife. The rules of which sprang from Schur’s frustrations with our everyday world.
“It was a system of pure justice,” he says of the way The Good Place began. “The way I thought about that was the way you’re driving around LA and someone cuts you off—‘That’s negative eight points man!’ You don’t have to worry about judging bias. It’s like, this is the system, these are the points.”
Schur tells us, “The first season was very carefully plotted. A lot of thought and energy went into making sure we weren’t flying off the rails. I didn’t pitch the show to NBC until I knew what the whole season was gonna be. And I didn’t know what the whole season was gonna be until I knew where season two would start… I feel very good about it.”
Bell adds, “They layer in so many things, because the idea is so well-thought-out from its inception.”
Just don’t expect the show to address today’s real-world social issues too directly.
“I think the only objective is to discuss the main question,” says Schur. “Which is, ‘What does it mean to be a good person?’… Religion is almost irrelevant. It’s really about ethics. The intention is not to make any current commentary on any people or things except to say that the behaviors we all exhibit in our everyday lives have ramifications. [Michael] says, ‘Every thing you did had an affect that would ripple out over time…’ The only intention was to discuss the nature of actions and what they mean and what effect they have on the world.”
He continues, “The characteristics that Eleanor display whens she gets to the Good Place aren’t malicious. Her road to learn how to be a good person is really about learning how to incorporate other people into her world view. When she asks him for help she’s got a lot of hard work to do. But unless she discovers how to be a good person she’s not gonna earn her place there… The lesson for Eleanor is that these little flaws about people that might have annoyed her on Earth, [like] someone who’s a little condescending, is far outweighed by the good they did on Earth.”
The show posits a Good Place and a Bad Place. But is there a Medium Place?
“That is Eleanor’s contention,” remarks Schur. “That the system sucks. That there should be a Medium Place. Like Cincinnati… We do go more into that as the season goes on. But the system, if you crunch the numbers, is that one out of every 450,000 people gets in [the Good Place].”
Bell says, “What I love most about Eleanor is the fact that she just lets her tongue loose. She has no editor or tact. She just says what she thinking or feeling at all times. It’s usually inarguable, but it’s not necessarily the nicest thing to say in the moment.”
With neighborhoods that cater to the preferences of their inhabitants (some with cold weather, some with hot; some heavily populated, some farmland), and clothing stores with names like “Everything Fits” and “Warm Blankets,” the show’s afterlife lends itself to the bureaucracy of any society. Which is where Danson’s character comes in.
“I am middle management here in the Good Place,” Danson says, “and my desire is to make sure that every blade of grass is perfect. [But] we’ve had a clerical error. So as middle management, I realize I’m in over my head. I get to be nice and caring but also way over my head. So there’s something fun to play in that.”
Regarding Danson’s role as Eleanor’s mentor, Schur laughs, recalling one early meeting with the TV vet…
“Ted said, ‘Why would I choose to be in this body?'”
His response: “[If you] wake up, as Eleanor does, and someone said, ‘Here’s the deal — you’re dead…’ that would freak you out. But if Ted Danson said that, you’d say, ‘Whatever…'”
The Good Place premieres on Monday, September 19, 2016.
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