The Good Place was one of the best surprises on TV in 2016, and one of the best forking comedies of the entire year. Part of what makes it so special and unique is what makes it hard to talk about with people who haven't seen it yet—and it is at this point in the introduction that I must warn you that there will be big spoilers for the first season of the show from here onwards.
We learned at the end of season one that our four protagonists were not actually in The Good Place as they were initially led to believe—rather, they all were being tortured in very elaborate and specific ways (clown paintings, endless fro-yo, "Who Let The Dogs Out") by Michael (Ted Danson) in The Bad Place. The cackling reveal in the finale was both a complete shock and also completely foreshadowed throughout the season. In essence, the show had figured out a way to apply the twists and turns of Peak TV dramas such as Lost and Breaking Bad to a comedy format.
Season two, which kicks off on NBC tonight with a two-part premiere (and then switches to Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. for the rest of the season), gallops out of the gate, blowing up the audience's assumptions about the show left and right. But before then, we got a chance to talk to creator and showrunner Mike Schur (who also co-created The Office, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) about how he planned out the first season, how much the cast knew ahead of time, and his love for philosophy and ethics.
I think like a lot viewers, I came to the show not really knowing what to expect beyond knowing your track record and some of the actors. It was such a delightful surprise as every episode went on, and there were these new twists and turns. When you first imagined the show, and when you first pitched it, did you always plan on churning through plot and twists at this rate? I did. Partly because I've never done a huge, high-concept thing before. The shows that I had worked on were like The Office, which is the lowest concept show ever. Even Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it had a more spicy setting, but it's still just like a workplace comedy with a bunch of goofballs hanging out and interacting with each other. Parks and Rec had a little bit of a concept, but again, a workplace comedy with ersatz family kind of thing. This show was such a high concept, that I felt like the problem with high concept shows is the concept burns off really quickly, and then you're just left with nothing. They make for good movies and not very good TV shows.
But I just really liked the idea behind it, and I liked the world, and I liked how different it felt from things I'd done before. The only thing I could think of to do is just rip through the story, just never stop moving. Maintain a crazy sense of momentum, and have the thing that's consistent and sort of slow burning be this quest to become better people through philosophy and ethics and the study of human behavior. That was the slow burning thing, and the quick burning thing was to just change the story constantly. I feel like that it was something I had to do in part because we're 80 years into TV at this point or whatever, there's no plot move that no one has ever tried. [Laughs]
I was like, if audiences are just very, very savvy, and they're very smart, and they've seen a ton of television—and if the premise at the beginning of the show is a bad person is mistaken for a good person and tries to become a better person to earn her spot—I sort of felt like, well after six episodes, people are going to be bored of that. It's not going to be interesting anymore, those near misses where Michael almost catches and then doesn't. You can only do that so many times. I was like alright, well then she's going to confess halfway through the season, and then that's going to send the show off into a different world. Then there's going to be this gigantic twist that upends the world at the end of the first season, and we're going to keep shifting and changing so there's no filler. There's nothing where we're repeating ourselves. Every episode should feel new and different and exciting.
Were Ted Danson and Kristen Bell the only people who were aware of the full arc of the season when you first started? Yes. I felt as though actors of their stature had the right to know the whole story before signing on to something. When I met with Kristen, I said, "I want to tell you about this idea I have, and it's going to take a really long time, and I'm sorry. It's going to take like 90 minutes." [Laughs] I pitched her, and it really did take like 90 minutes to walk through the whole thing. Then I did the same to Ted. I said, "I'm really sorry, this is going to take a while, but you'll understand why I need to tell you the whole story by the end."
They knew about it coming in, and we decided to keep the other actors in the dark for awhile. In part because for all of the other actors, their characters were in the dark. I felt like it was only going to make things more complicated for them to do their jobs well if they had this knowledge. As long as they were in the dark, they were going to act exactly the way their characters would act. I just thought it seemed both cruel and kind. It was cruel because it felt cruel to keep a secret from people who were part of the family. But it was kind because I think if I were an actor, I have enough to deal with day-to-day just remembering my lines without you laying on this crazy other layer about what's really going to happen to me. [Laughs]
Did any of the other actors figure it out? Did they have like a eureka moment or any fun reactions? None of them figured it out, which I found very heartening, because I was frantically trying to gauge whether we were being too winky and whether we were hinting at it too much or hinting at it not enough. The way to make something like that twist work really well is not to have it just completely come out of left field. You want it to be like The Usual Suspects where when the twist is revealed at the end, the audience goes, "Oh my God, of course!" That's what you want. You don't want it to just be, "Surprise! Keyser Söze is really this random extra who's in the background of this scene." That wouldn't mean anything.
When the twist is in your plain view for the entire movie, when the truth is in view, that works. In the second episode of the show, we had Micheal run up to a tiny, cute, fluffy dog and kick it into the sun where it exploded. When we get the reveal at the end that he's really the bad guy, the audience goes, "Oh, of course he is! He kicked a dog into the sun!"
So I was tracking very carefully whether I thought we were not revealing enough or revealing too much. When we revealed the twist to the actors and they hadn't guessed it, that made me feel really good. I felt like they had been living with this show intimately for 10 weeks or whatever, and if they didn't guess it then the chances of the audience guessing it were slim. Kristen actually made a video of them as I pitched them the twist ending, and it was pretty good. She meant to tweet it out the night of the finale, but we totally forget. Maybe we'll put it up this year.
I was just going to point out that the dog thing was the biggest little tell when I went back and watched the season again. Yeah. I think that was a big one. Michael does this thing to execute his plan properly. He's got to keep them all sort of on a yo-yo string, because he's selling this as paradise. If he makes it too awful, they're going to start to go like, "Wait, a second. What the hell, man?" He gives Tahani this gigantic mansion, and she feels like, "Yes, of course, I get a giant mansion. I'm Tahani!" But he then makes her plan all these parties that go terribly wrong. Then when she's at her lowest point, he comes to her, and he says, "I owe you an apology. I'm so sorry. You're a wonderful person. If I ever retire for real, I hope you throw the party." That gives her the, "Oh, yay, I'm fine, everything's fine now!"
So he's constantly bashing them over the head with a mallet, and then building them back up so that they don't guess the truth. There's a bunch of stuff like that, if you go back and watch it, you'll see he was just toying with them like a mouse. The kicking a dog into the sun is pretty on the nose bad guy behavior. [Laughs]
Michael has a bit of an improvisatory style—he knows the general big picture of what he wants to do, but he's working out the details of how to really torture them and make them their most miserable in real time. You said you pitched the show to Kristen and Ted, but did you plan past the first season, or did you set this story up and then take a page from Michael and figure the rest out as things played out? A little of both. Yeah, Michael has a line when you see the flashback in the finale to him when he was pitching the idea to his boss. He says, "I can't predict everything that's going to happen, but that's what'll make it fun. We'll improvise, we'll be on our toes." He can't pull off his plan without there being room to make it up as you go along. That's part of the fun for him. He has this incredibly detailed, 15 million point plan or whatever it is, but then it's also like, "If Chidi does this then ooh!" You see that in the flashback when he's standing outside with the couple that he moves into Eleanor's house with Chidi. You see him improvising a little. He's like, "Okay, you play this character, and you play this character."
The analogy is that I had the first season planned out, and then the writers helped me get everything in line. But you also want to be nimble enough where if someone comes up with a better idea, a lateral move that improves the show and it doesn't screw everything up, you want to be able to embrace it, and to say, "Okay, yeah. We can throw this away, and do this instead."
I had the whole first season planned out, including twist and the reset. Then towards the end of the year, the writers and I started talking about what this might mean for season two, and got a little bit of the way down the road. Then when we got picked up for season two, we had a head start on how we could make it work. So it's very, very carefully planned, and then also week-to-week you want to be able to be agile enough to handle new ideas that are good.
Ever since I watched the show, I've spent a lot of time recommending it to friends and coworkers. But whenever I do this, I never want to give away too much info; I don't even know whether I should say that this is a "twist" show, because then people are looking out for surprises. How do you prefer people to refer to the show? Do you think discussing the twists takes something away? Well, I don't know. It's hard to know honestly. I have to say that I think that part of the reason that we got all the way to the finale without people guessing the big twist is because people aren't looking for twists in comedy shows.
When Breaking Bad was in its endgame, all we did was speculate as audience members about what was going to happen. The same is true of Game of Thrones now. People all over the country are having these conversations like, "I think Tyrion is going to sit on the Iron Throne," or "I think Daenerys is going to kill this person." People are looking for it in drama, and they're not looking for it in comedy. I think that helped us. Going into the second season, we wanted to maintain the same crazy pace and the sense of the unexpected, but also I'm very, very aware that after last year people are going to be looking for twists.
We didn't try to come up with a twist as big as the one that up ended the show last year. I'm not sure we could have come up with one if we wanted to [Laughs] because "heaven's actually hell" is a pretty big twist. We didn't really try. We just said to ourselves, well, the DNA of the show is that things move really quickly, we don't run in place for very long, we're constantly moving the characters forward and propelling them forward. As long as we continue to do that, whether or not it's big twists or big story moves or whatever, as long as we're having the character rapidly change and their circumstances change, then it'll still feel like the same show. So that was our goal.
The last thing I wanted to ask was, have you had any traumatic experiences with academia or academics in your life?[Laughs] No, I love academics! I'm jealous of academics. We have two advisors, a woman named Pamela Hieronymi, who is a professor at UCLA, and a man named Todd May, who's a professor at Clemson. When we have questions, or we need to figure something out, or need information about some school of philosophy or something, we meet with them or we Skype with them.
Pamela came in and visited with us, and taught a class on a certain subject. There's an episode, it's like the sixth episode of the season, that's all about this one subject in philosophy. It makes me want to quit my job and to go back to school. All I want to do really is be back in college studying philosophy, because I find it's so endlessly fascinating. It's something I didn't study in college, and I wish I had. So no, you should read zero anger into it. You should only read jealousy that I don't get to do that full time.
You don't get to be like the Chidi in your life. Yes. I wish terribly that I could change places Chidi, even given all of his flaws and problems. I would happily change professions with him. I think that on some level, the study of ethics is the only thing that really matters in the world. I believe that if ethics were a mandatory class for all human beings on Earth, and everybody had to learn about the basic philosophies of good and bad, right and wrong—in a non-religious way, in a non-tribal way, where it's just purely like these are what thinkers think about right and wrong—I think that most of the problems in the world would go away.