"The most secure I've ever felt in my life about a story of any kind, is maybe...70 percent," says Michael Schur, creator of The Good Place, NBC's high concept comedy about a woman who gets sent to heaven because of a clerical error. "There's a daily sense of like, 'Man, this could really be terrible and so wrong.'" While most writers feel that looming potential of failure as they work, it's unusual to hear that from the man responsible for some of the most successful sitcoms of the decade, including The Office, Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99.
"It's different, most of the shows I've worked on were very kinda chill hang-out shows, you know? But The Good Place...it's more of a high wire act than what I'm used to," says Schur. "And that is scary, because when things are plot driven, if you make a wrong move in the plot, then people aren't gonna enjoy what you're doing." For Schur, the stakes of The Good Place were higher than any other project in his career. When the show premiered in 2016 though, his worries were — temporarily — laid to rest as fans not only enjoyed the plot but were genuinely surprised by it, a feat increasingly rare in an age when TV viewers are exceptionally savvy.
As the show revealed its ultimate twist — that the good place is in fact the bad place, the show's version of hell — audiences were left waiting with baited breath for the next season, in which the show would be rebooted along with Michael's (Ted Danson) torturous experiment. However, now that viewers knew to anticipate unexpected tricks and turns, Schur was left with an intimidatingly raised bar to clear. After all, one only needs to think of LOST to remember how badly plots gone awry can ruin television legacies.
But for Schur, the solution was simple. Rather than hang his hat on the writing hooks that enraptured fans in Season 1, he looked to the richness of the characters to dictate the story moving forward. "If we need to do certain things to tell the right story, sometimes that means us doing a little trick in the employment of a larger purpose," says Schur. "But we're now deep enough into the show that the relationships and dynamics between the characters is telling us how it needs to be written, which is a good place to be instead of just imposing your will onto the story."
"We don't have to rely these little narrative tricks or misdirections or whatever," Schur explains. "Those are less crucial now than they were at the beginning of the show, because now the relationships have deepened and they're more interesting."
A huge part of the reason he's able to do that is because of the diversity of the show. According to Schur, this element happened very naturally: "If everyone, including the characters, thought they were in essentially heaven, it was very important for me to present a version of heaven that was very clearly not biased toward North American culture." The idea that heaven would be filled with only American citizens seemed completely ludicrous to Schur and his team. He sat down and did "some basic math," which revealed that if the good place was a truly random sampling of good people around the world, it would be something like 40 percent East Asian, another 15 or 20 percent Central Asian or South Asian, and so on.
With this principle firmly in mind, Schur and Allison Jones, the casting director behind Freaks and Geeks, Parks and Rec, The Office, VEEP, Arrested Development (and many more), turned their eye to the main four: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Schur knew he wanted them to reflect a sampling of the world's population, but didn't set out to write each of the specific cultural identities now seen in the show. "I had this sense of true joy in that, like the rest of the show, [the casting] was going to be thwarting expectation," says Schur. "If the main character is a woman from Phoenix, Arizona, then her soulmate should be from the other side of the world. It didn't matter where, for Michael's torture plan to succeed, she needed to feel completely at sea."
Once cast, Schur used the personal and cultural tensions between the characters as a guiding light. Schur laughs as he recalls one of his favorite Jason lines: "Everybody thinks I'm Chinese, but I'm Filipino. Heaven is so racist." Not only was it a great way to expose the ignorance of the industry he works in, but it also denotes why these characters drive story so well.
"In Hollywood's [eyes] it's like, all Asian people are considered the same. It's amazing that we got this chance to actually have Manny comment on the kind of racist casting that has existed forever, not just because we had done it as intentionally as a joke, but also because his whole gambit was that he [thinks he's taking advantage of] being mistaken for someone else," says Schur.
With the flexibility of casting came increasingly nuanced and rich veins of comedy to tap. Where Schur brilliantly takes advantage of that fact is in exposing the way these people are bad — or perhaps, more fairly, mediocre. "If you look at the history of TV, I think the kinds of people who are considered bad [enough for the bad place], they're bad in very boring and uninteresting ways," says Schur. "They're either murderers or rapists or arsonists or something. Or, there's the misogynistic version of it, which is like bad women are women who are promiscuous or drink too much. There's nothing to their characters beyond that fact."
"And so, the goal then became to say, well, if these four people have been determined to be bad by this omniscient system, how can I draw four different versions of people as bad, without being boring?" Schur continues. In Jason, it pans out as sweet but undeserving guy who lies and leverages systemic racism to secure a cushy spot in what he thinks is heaven. The genius of this move is that it lets audiences root for him, even though he's undeserving of his spot. Every single person of color in America — including this reporter who used to use the fake ID of Pakistani girl who looked nothing like me in college — has taken advantage of someone's ignorance in the same way. It's one of the few silver linings in a world where people treat you like garbage because of things you can't, and shouldn't have to change.
These hilarious subversions of expectation and complexity of character plays out beautiful over the course of The Good Place. Looking back, it's easy to see how the most shocking moments weren't actually the twists in the plot, but the character growth that drove them. For example, fans were thrown for a loop when Eleanor stood up and confessed in Season 1 that she was the reason the neighborhood was imploding. Schur knew that the outing of Eleanor's secret was the thing audiences would expect to happen at the end of the season. But it wasn't just the decision to move that climatic scene up to Episode 8 that shook people, it was the fact that Eleanor confessed, rather than being caught.
"People were expecting Eleanor to be caught by Michael, but Eleanor standing up and saying, 'The person you're looking for is me,' we were very sure that moment was gonna work [better]," says Schur. That wasn't just because of Kristen Bell's acting chops; it was all grounded in her relationship with Chidi. Despite being unable to relate to each other, Chidi agrees to teach Eleanor how to be good because, duh, he's an ethics teacher for reasons his own experiences in Sengal have played into. Despite the fact that she doesn't quite get it, Eleanor knows she needs to do right by at least the one person who tried helped her.
Schur and company used the same emotional core of this connection to speed up Season 2 as well. "While we were plotting the Season 2 premiere, it became clear that there should always be a fly in the ointment in every reboot that Michael tries. His design has a flaw in it that means that no matter what he does, it blows up in his face," says Schur. "And the flaw is, every time Eleanor asks Chidi for help, Chidi says yes and helps her. And he's really good at it, which means that she's always moving towards the point where she's a more thoughtful, kind person, which in turn always leads her to realizing that this whole thing is a torture chamber."
In developing these rich characters and relationships, Schur created one of the few bright spots in the trash fire that's been 2017. The main four might technically be bad people, but together, they make each other better. "They're sort of a different version of 'misery loves company'," says Schur with a laugh. "[On The Good Place], if you're miserable, the way to make yourself less miserable is to be with other people. They share their burden, and what's become clear is these people will only learn to be good at being ethical if they're in groups of people who are all supportive." By exemplifying how tension between four mediocre strangers can bring out the best in each of them, Schur hands viewers 30 mins of hope at a time.
The show is only going to double down on that moving into the back half of Season 2 and beyond. Fans can expect even deeper explorations of these characters, their backgrounds, and how their drastically different experiences are the reason they're accomplishing more in the afterlife than they ever did in the mortal realm.
"In the realm of the show, the only way out of this is together," says Schur. No matter how many twists and turns The Good Place takes, "[with these] four characters, as long as they can be together, then some good things will happen" assures Schur.
They might, in fact, even become good people. Thank forking god.