You may have noticed that The Good Place did a very naughty thing in its season finale: It revealed that everything you knew about the show was motherforking bullshirt by jacking the premise of the show 180 degrees due south.
The not-so-uplifting but oh-so-entertaining final episode of the NBC comedy’s first season changed the way that we will interface with the show moving forward: As it turns out, nasty (reformed?) soul Eleanor (Kristen Bell) wasn’t erroneously admitted into the afterlife neighborhood where she bonded with soulmate and dithering academic Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and the avuncular architect of the neighborhood, Michael (Ted Danson). No, neither she nor Jacksonville DJ Jason (Manny Jacinto) — who was seemingly mismatched with name-dropping charitable socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) — was a “glitch” in the Good Place. And no, two members of our quartet weren’t facing exile to the Bad Place and an eternity of hell after supreme judge Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) ruled that they had conspired to hide these glitches. Why? Because they were already there.
With a chilling laugh, Michael validated Eleanor’s suspicion and then revealed his wicked plan for these four individuals to torment each other for 1,000 years in the Bad Place. And while he persuaded Shawn to give him another shot at perfecting the ruse and wiping the foursome’s memories, Eleanor had just a few seconds to scribble a few words on a piece of paper and stick it in the mouth of knowledge nexus Janet (D’Arcy Carden) that would remind her of what in Hades had transpired. The paper read: “Eleanor, find Chidi.”
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While you have found yourself without any guidance or answers since the finale aired in January, we are hoping to change that right now by seeking great wisdom and knowledge from the creator of this vast universe, Michael Schur. Below, he reveals when he came up with the twist heard round the TV world, likens that M. Night Shyamalan-level twist to the big reveal in Westworld (with one key difference), offers several big hints about season 2 (which is expected to air later this year), and divulges whether or not you will witness the raw firepower of Todd the Lava Monster again. (Short answer? Hell, yes.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you come up with the idea for this twist?
MICHAEL SCHUR: I had the original concept that I locked into, which was: “Woman mistakenly put in heaven when she belongs in hell.” I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” I poked around and tried a couple different versions of it in an early exploratory way, and felt like there was something here. But then I very quickly realized that premise pilots get old real quick. Whatever the big, giant, honking, flashing siren of a premise is, you can’t sustain that premise for too long, because it gets repetitive and boring. Very quickly, I was like, “I can’t write this unless there’s something more to it.” Then I came up with the twist, and once I had the twist, everything else fell into place pretty quickly. It was part of the original idea. By the time I had outlined it — way before I pitched it to Kristen, Ted, or NBC — I had the whole first season mapped out.
Were you worried that the twist was too dark? How did the network react when you pitched it to them?
I wasn’t worried that it was too dark. If Michael had waved his arms, the walls disappeared and it was like demons, fire, lava, and misery, and that was the ending, I think that would’ve been too dark. But it has this weird catch in the premise, which is that they appear to be in the Good Place; they’re in a heavenly environment. Obviously psychologically it’s very dark and freaky, but the other thing is the show was explicitly about people that were trying to improve themselves and learn what it meant to be a good person. Even though you end up pushing the reset button, you still have that as the central theme of the show. I feel like any show about people trying to get better is always going to be more optimistic than pessimistic — that’s my theory, at least. We’ll see if I’m right.
By comparison, viewers watching Westworld knew it was a show in which there were mysteries to be solved, but viewers watching The Good Place didn’t even know there was a mystery to figure out. As you were watching people figure out Westworld‘s mysteries, was part of you happy that everyone was so focused on that show?
I was a little bit happy. There’s some funny, completely accidental similarities. Obviously, their show is about robots that are slowly developing a consciousness. We had Janet, which obviously wasn’t the main part of the show, but it’s in the show. We also have people who were ostensibly human who are trying to improve or get better. We finished shooting our show before Westworld aired — at least we were certainly done writing. So I was like, “There’s nothing I can do.” Either these shows are going to dovetail in a really weird way, or they’re not, or people are going to guess, or they won’t. I’m very grateful for that, because I didn’t have to make any decisions about the way we execute our show, because I wasn’t watching a different show that had sort of slightly overlapping Venn diagram section. That was one thing.
The other thing was that you’re exactly right when you say that Westworld was explicitly inviting people to try to untangle the mystery. They had the maze and all of these big, mysterious J.J. Abrams Mystery Box kind of things that were explicit. They were engaging in the conversation with the audience. We had certain surprises and twists, but our show was a comedy show. I was pretty sure that what actually happened was going to happen, which is to say that people weren’t going to be looking for it. They certainly weren’t looking for it in the way that they were looking for it in Westworld. So I felt like we were going to get away with it, because I don’t think we were necessarily inviting the scrutiny.
Obviously, some of the things we did did invite scrutiny and a sense of there being a puzzle, but I also knew that we had all these safeguards in place. For example, we were going to have Eleanor stand up and confess halfway through the year. To me, that was a really big red herring, because once she confessed, the central theme of the show got taken off the table. It was like, “I’m not supposed to be here,” and then I knew after that, we were going to have people from the “Bad Place” show up, and they were going to torture Michael, and Michael was going to hate them, and they were going to be in a fight. I felt like even if you were looking for it, you’d be thrown off the scent because of the way that the plot unfolded. I would say I was cautiously optimistic that we were going to be okay. I was, for the most part, proven right. I’m sure that people somewhere guessed. Somebody somewhere guessed the ending, because somebody somewhere guesses every possible ending of every TV show and episode of TV. But in a large-scale way, I think we got away with it.
NEXT PAGE: Schur on why Janet didn’t figure out why this wasn’t the Good Place, and whether the Medium Place was real
Will we get to see the actual Good Place, if there is one? How much of what Michael said about it was true?
Without wanting to get into any specifics, our operating principle — for internal use only, as I like to say — was that Michael was telling an enormous, complicated lie. Like all good improvisational actors — and liars for that matter — he used real facts of the universe to sell the lie. In the episode where they end up killing Janet, he talks about how beings like him get killed; they’re disintegrated or done away with. Privately, with Shawn in Eleanor’s bedroom during the finale, Shawn says in a wry way, “Retirement might be on the table here,” and that’s a private moment where there’s no humans around, so that’s a dead giveaway that retirement, in some form or another, is a real thing. The operating principle should be that a lot of what he said is actually true about various aspects of how the world works. Obviously, we saw flashbacks, he really is an architect — he just happens to be a Bad Place architect instead of a Good Place architect. A lot of the details that were laid out about the world and how it works are true.
Why didn’t Janet figure out that this was not actually the Good Place?
[Laughs] Good question. That will be the central theme of at least one, if not more, episodes next year. That’s obviously a huge question. A) You will explicitly find out. B) The general thing is we thought of Janet the way that you think of a computer. If you buy a new computer and you take it to a food bank and turn it on, or you take it to the KKK headquarters and turn it on, the computer doesn’t necessarily know under what circumstances it is serving the person who installed it in that office. Janet is not created to pass judgment on things, or look around and go, “Huh, this is interesting and different from what it’s supposed to be”; she’s just an informational delivery service. So, as a result, she was able to be installed in a fake Good Place neighborhood without figuring it out, because she’s not built to question whether or not her environment is real or fake. That’s the simplest way to put it.
So the Medium Place was real.
Loosely connected to that, Eleanor was listed as file No. 3. Can we assume that Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) was file No. 1 or No. 2? And will we meet the other anomaly?
We made Eleanor’s case No. 3 because we knew we had Mindy already, and we have an idea that might be way down the line for what case number either 1 or 2 is, depending whether it happened before or after Mindy. We just wanted to really allow for the possibility that we could revisit that at a later time, so yes, we gave ourselves one extra potential story move of a case that came before a judge in some way. Obviously, when Shawn said, “I’m here to rule on case 00003,” he is not obviously the real judge — if there is even a real judge. He’s acting like the real judge. So, also he could just be full of it, frankly. But, even so, given that a lot of what the liars tend to do is draw on true aspects of the universe in order to tell their lies, we made it 3 for exactly that reason. We already had one other one, which would’ve been Mindy, and we gave ourselves an option of having a third case that would’ve come before a judge somewhere in history. Good eye.
The finale flashed back to a couple of key moments to show how these characters were experiencing a form of hell. What were some of the others that we didn’t get see in the finale?
I’m not demanding you go back and watch it again, but if you think back on significant moments of the series, it was obviously a writers’ room rule that nothing could happen that wasn’t torture for someone. So, all of the stuff that Eleanor did to Chidi was obviously torturous for him right up until the moment she confessed. If you think about the episode where they killed Janet, at the end, when Janet wakes up and Michael’s like, “Okay, I’m going to postpone my retirement for a couple of days,” and everyone is happy, it cuts to Eleanor, Jason, and Chidi in her house, and she’s like, “You’ve got to admit, I nailed it.” She’s super psyched. They’re like, “Are you going to tell anyone, Jason?” and he’s only upset because by the time he got to the piñata, all the candy was gone because he’s an idiot. But Chidi is miserable, and he has a final flashback to his friend after his friend almost died from an aneurysm, when he finally told his friend he hated his boots, and his friend is like, “This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” When it comes back from that flashback, he just says, “I can’t take it, I’m going to confess to killing Janet.” She convinces him not to and he basically says, “I know you can laugh this off, but I can’t; this is going to literally torture me for my entire life.” Until that moment, at least, everything Michael had done for Chidi in the service of torturing him was working really well. He was a nervous, bumbling wreck; he was sweating, he couldn’t sleep and he was just a disaster.
If you think about all of the main character traits that Michael was preying on, Tahani loved being the center of attention and throwing these giant parties, but every time she did, they went terribly wrong and they blew up in her face. She had an image of herself as someone who of course she’d be the soulmate of a beautiful, centered Buddhist monk. That was her self-image; only a person connected deeply to the universe and spirituality could be good enough for her. But, it turned out, he was a complete idiot and was a total phony. All Jason wanted to do was eat jalapeño poppers and play video games, but he couldn’t do it unless he was completely alone. He didn’t have any friends. All of the main thrusts of every character, the plan was working pretty well until Eleanor confessed and everything went haywire.
I thought it was a neat trick, and it was a late addition to the script, for example, that Michael not only told Chidi that he could write a new philosophy thesis, but Michael actually got Chidi — as an extra twist of the knife — to throw his old thesis in the garbage. We used that one for him, and we used the neighborhood rankings for Tahani, because that, to me, was the best, tiny, specific Tahani torture. He knew that she wouldn’t be able to resist scrolling through that list and finding herself as being someone who almost didn’t make it in. We chose the ones that were the best tiny knife twists, but there were dozens we could’ve chosen from ultimately.
NEXT PAGE: Seriously, why didn’t Eleanor write more on the note?
Why didn’t Eleanor write more than “Eleanor, find Chidi,” on the paper?
This was probably the most debated moment of the whole season, I would say. We thought about it. We probably talked about it for a total of about 10 hours, and in chunks — when we first wrote it, we were coming up with it, and when we shot it. We actually shot a couple other versions of things that she wrote that were very similar, but slightly different versions. We also talked about it a million times when we were in editing, because we had the ability, with visual effects, to change it to whatever we wanted. In these days, the writing process never ends; you can just keep writing things forever.
Here’s the theory, I will lay out the whole theory for you: There were a couple circumstantial things, and then there’s the actual specifics of the message itself. The circumstantial things are that she has almost no time, right? Michael, at any moment, is going to walk in here, and if he even sees her holding a pen, she’s doomed. It won’t work. So she has to do it very, very quickly under tremendous pressure where the stakes of that moment are literally, “Are you going to be tortured for infinity or not?” She has basically no information of what her life is going to be once she’s rebooted, except for the fact that Michael has said that he is going to split them up and keep them apart from each other. She might be in a completely different environment, she might be on a different planet, she might be anywhere, with anyone, under any circumstances. The only thing that makes sense is to try to get her back to the position that she is in here, and the best way to do that would be to say, “I need to find one of these four people.”
We thought about her saying, “There are four of you,” or trying to write their names quickly, but the truth is that if she found Tahani first, and she said, “I’m not supposed to be here,” there’s every possibility in the world that Tahani would just turn her in, because Tahani is not what Chidi is, which is a person of extreme ethical and moral exactitude. And Jason is a disaster, so if she found Jason first, the two of them would just mingle around together being disasters, and probably eventually get caught. She also couldn’t write anything that might lead her to go to Michael, because if she wrote something vague, like, “You’re really in hell,” and she showed it to Michael, like, “What does this mean? I’m scared,” anything that would lead her to go to him that doesn’t specifically say, “Avoid that guy,” might end in her being found again.
We had the line earlier in the episode where she says, “I was dropped into a cave and you were my flashlight.” So it was like, “Oh right, that’s in her head,” so the first breadcrumb on the path that leads her back to figuring it all out is Chidi. If she can find Chidi, she can confess who she is to him, he will keep her secret because he did the first time. He also is the only person of the four of them who can actually help her get better, and learn about how to be a good person. And by saying “Find Chidi” specifically, the implication is don’t trust anyone but Chidi, so wherever you are, basically it’s a warning to her, from her, that says, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t do anything until you find this guy.” So all things being equal in terms of the amount of time she had and the various dangers that she faced, it seemed like that was the best opening gambit to tell herself to make when she woke up, whenever she woke up with her memory having been erased. That’s the theory; it’s kind of complicated.
Will season 2 follow similar adventures as season 1’s, but with new participants as the quartet tries to find their way back to one another?
I’ll only say that the starting point — well, you saw the starting point, basically. The very end of the finale, she woke up, she was in a similar looking office, there were small changes to the neighborhood. The premiere will show where everybody is starting from, at the very least, but I don’t want to say too much about the future of the season beyond that.
When Eleanor landed in the new Good Place, the welcome sign said, “Everything is great!” instead of “Everything is fine,” like in the pilot. Surely you don’t want to get specific about the changes to the new Good Place, but is Michael basically overcompensating?
Well, he’s going for a different thing now. He says when he gets the idea, the revelation, that the problem was that they all spent too much time together too quickly, so he’s going to spread them out, give them each a different soulmate, torture them individually for a while, and then slowly bring them together. Obviously, the long-term plan, his explicit plan, is to design a world where they torture each other. That’s why he chose these four specific people, because they had specific personality traits that would drive each other nuts. So he can’t just torture them individually, because what’s the point? The fun of it — the game of it —is getting them to the point where they torture each other. Again, it was working super well for the first half of the season last year. Because he’s splitting them up, he has to make certain changes to certain things, because now he’s trying to make them all miserable individually, which means he has to turn up the flame a little bit on how sad they are alone. The changes, I would say, are intensifiers. They’re little adjustments and things that he has done to make the baseline level of misery individually a little bit higher than it was before. At least for Chidi, until Eleanor said, which is pretty soon after he arrived, “I’m not supposed to be here, there’s been a mistake,” he was in heaven, literally; things were going great, this place was amazing, he had all the books he could ever read, he felt like he had been rewarded for this perfect life he had led. It was the same with Tahani. Those two especially were really happy right away, so the trick for Michael now that he’s keeping them apart is to make them all miserable individually a little bit, and then, down the line, bring them all together.
In that sense, do you worry about the audience being ahead of the characters?
Oh yeah, very much, that’s a huge fear that I have. When you push the reset button, as they say, your biggest problem is the audience knows everything. So you basically have to be extra entertaining, and funny hopefully, and throw enough new information at the audience that they don’t feel like they’re just waiting for the characters to catch up to what they already know. That’s a massive challenge for us. That’s the biggest challenge. I believe that we have a good plan for how to overcome it.
NEXT PAGE: Schur tackles burning questions about season 2
Can the quartet redeem themselves enough to be sent to the actual Good Place?
Well, I don’t know, that depends on A) if the Good Place really exists, B) what the standards are for getting into the Good Place, if they’re as stringent as Michael and the others have made them out to be, and C) if you were a theoretical judge sitting on high, whether you would value the accomplishments or deeds of people in the afterlife as being worthy inclusion in any kind of file that you were evaluating to determine whether those people got into the Good Place. Those are a lot of ifs. But I think the show is taking the position that the most important aspect of these characters’ new lives in this new weird place that they are is whether they’re trying. The details of the plot and how the plot actually plays out are obviously important or the show, but for the characters, we’re focused on the idea that what’s important is that you try. That should be the very first level of trying to be a good person is you’ve got to try to be a good person, which seems reductive and silly, but it’s a very important and oft-overlooked thing. If you’re not trying, then forget it, you’re not even in the game. So, to get in the game, you’ve got to try.
Does Doug Forcett — the Canadian kid who got high on mushrooms and guessed 92 percent of the Good Place — actually exist?
[Laughs] It is canon in our writers’ room, at this moment in time — subject to change — yes, Doug Forcett exists and that story is real.
Will Todd the lava monster come back?
We have no actual plans to bring him back, but I’ll tell you this: This is all stuff I’ve learned in this last year, because I’ve never worked on a show like this before, but in terms of visual effects, the largest expense is the original design, right? Once you have the design, now it’s in the computer and it’s a lot cheaper and easier to bring it back and do more fun things with it. Let me put it this way: I don’t know how long this show is going to be on the air, I hope it’s a long time, but if you think that I’m not going to take, at some point, a lava monster named Todd Hemple, who has Joe Mande’s voice, and bring him back in the show for some reason, at some point, you don’t know me at all. [Laughs]
Is it possible that you actually are perpetrating a double fake-out here, and Michael is pretending that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, and this will be the ultimate test for Eleanor to see if she’s worthy of staying in the Good Place?
I would never want to say definitively yes or no to such a big scale question like that, but I would also say that if there’s any conception of the real Good Place and it included being kind of tortured for a long time, and then being told that you were actually not in the Good Place, but in the Bad Place, but then later somehow making you see that, “No, really, it was the Good Place all along,” that would be a pretty s—ty version of heaven. [Laughs] “Aha, we tricked you twice because you’re great and you made it into heaven!” I can’t imagine a scenario in which that would be revealed to be true.
Just had to check!
That’s the interesting thing about doing a twist like that. Like I said, in the Westworld analogy, no one was really looking for it in the first season, and now it feels like people are going to be looking for it a little bit. That’s another new challenge. Like everybody, my mind was blown at the end of The Sixth Sense, and then every M. Night Shyamalan you’ve ever seen after that, the whole time it’s in the back of your head, “What’s the twist?” It’s a burden that he, in particular, bears in part because he invited that burden to be brought onto his shoulders, and was cocky about how awesome his twists were. But the fact is he was never going to have back that moment of pure audience innocence before they saw the end of The Sixth Sense, where they didn’t go into one of his movies expecting that. I don’t think I’m M. Night Shyamalan at all, I don’t think this show is an M. Night Shyamalan show at all, but it is also true that we did this big twist. So now, our challenge is to figure out how to not fall into that same trap. I don’t think we’re going to approach the second season, and the end of the second season specifically, like, “How can we outdo ourselves?” because the reality is that people are going to be expecting it. So our challenge is to do another season of the same show, with the same vibe, but with a different feeling and being surprising in different ways. So, it’s challenging, but it’s fun — so far, at least. Check with me in a couple months. [Laughs.]