The Good Place creator hints that 'things go off the rails' for Michael in season 2

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Has the wait for The Good Place to return to your TV been, well, hellish? Have you had, say, a devil of a time trying to be patient? Good news! Your pain and suffering will soon be over — though it now appears that Eleanor’s and her friends’ will continue from here to eternity.

Eight months after uncorking one wild season finale twist — what we thought was heaven was actually hell! — NBC’s twisty afterlife comedy resumes its delightful (and now frightful) morality tale on Sept. 20 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Recently deceased Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Jason (Manny Jacinto) thought they’d been mistakenly admitted to the Good Place, where they were each assigned soulmates, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) for Eleanor, Tahani (Jameela Jamil) for Jason. In the end, though, all four of them discovered the horrific truth: that they were in The Bad Place. And bumbling architect Michael (Ted Danson), who designed their cheery-but-buggy heavenly neighborhood, had actually been slowly torturing them — or having them torture each other. When Eleanor figured out the ploy, Michael erased the quartet’s minds to start another 1,000 years of misery, but before he did, Eleanor managed to slip a piece of paper into the mouth of the Siri-like Janet (D’Arcy Carden) that reminded herself to “find Chidi.” And so the game re-begins.

How hard was it to keep secret what was arguably the most ambitious plot twist of last season? What literal fresh hell awaits Eleanor & Co.? With “retirement” hanging over his head, how desperate will Michael be to make this ploy work? Is Todd the lava monster coming back? These are all equally important questions that shall now be presented to the evil genius himself, Good Place creator Michael Schur.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like holding on to this secret all through season 1? Were you nervous the entire season that it would leak out?
MICHAEL SCHUR: I was very nervous about it, because in a weird way, the entire season’s success or failure was going to be based on whether we kept that a secret. I felt pretty strongly that the season really wouldn’t be considered a success unless we got all the way to the end and no one knew that it happened. It’s sort of like a long-form version of The Usual Suspects. If you knew the secret of The Usual Suspects before you went in to the movie, the movie was far less enjoyable. And we were doing a similar thing, except we had a 13-week endeavor that we were embarking on. So, I tried not to be super paranoid about it, and I really tried not to go overboard. If it had leaked out, I didn’t want to feel creatively like the year was a failure. I wanted to feel like it a failure of whatever you want to call it — marketing or something.

But at the same time, I knew I was going to be super bummed, and so the fact that we did get to the end without it leaking out was a huge, huge success. Ted and Kristen knew from the time I pitched it to them. And then we made the decision not to tell the other actors for the simple reason that I didn’t want them to be distracted —

Or change their performance…
Yeah. Their performances were going to be exactly what they should be without knowing it, so it didn’t seem like there was any actual benefit to telling them outside of, like, friendship. I sort of rolled the dice on the idea that they wouldn’t hate me if I didn’t tell them until later. I seem to have won that dice roll. Most of the crew did not know as well. It’s funny because along the way there were certain people in the world that I had pitched the idea to, to get advice from or to run it by them and to just get their reaction, like Damon Lindelof.

At one point during the shooting of the pilot, Joss Whedon — who is friends with [executive producer/director] Drew Goddard — was hanging out, and I was like, “Hey, man, can I run an idea by you and see what you think of it?” So we took a little walk and I basically pitched him the season and the giant twist, and he was very into it and that made me feel like, “Okay, good. If it feels like it’s up Joss’ alley…” And if he thought it sucked, then I would question it. But then much later, right before I told the cast about it, I had this weird feeling where I was like, “Joss Whedon has known about this for four months and he was on the set for one day hanging out and he’s never been back…” In a show about ethics and morality, I did stop and check in with myself every once in a while, like, “What is the ethics of this?” and I decided it wasn’t really an ethical issue. It was a creative issue and that made me feel better about the decision.

Like Eleanor and her friends, viewers found out about Michael’s plan in the finale. Now they are in a position to feel like, “Okay, we know more than these characters.” How much of a comedy challenge is that for the writers, knowing that the audience is just waiting for the characters to figure it out again?
This is a big thing that the writers and I and Drew Goddard all talked about. It was very exciting and fun to have that sense of dramatic irony that the audience knows a lot of stuff that the characters don’t. The problem is that if you drag it out for too long, it becomes very boring. Because you’re just like, “Yeah, I know, man — get to the point where they find out.” We wanted to get all the comedy and fun and joy out of the new scenario that we possibly could, and then we wanted to have the show move into a new direction. It’s obviously a big part of the design of the show that it moves very quickly, and you don’t have too long to feel like you’re on safe ground before the show is moving on to some other new thing. That’s why we have Eleanor confess in episode 7 last year, and then we sprung the big surprise at the end. We don’t want to sit in any one version of the show for too long. I think it’s fair to say that in an amount of time that will not be too drawn out and frustratingly long, this show will shift and change again in an exciting new way. Don’t get cocky. You won’t be ahead of the characters for too long… It’s not going to be a situation where it takes the whole year for Michael to figure out what the hell’s going on. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s going to happen pretty quickly.

[In addition], we get to shift point of view and we’re now going to be in Michael’s point of view for big chunks of the beginning of the year, which we’ve never been in. It’s always been Eleanor’s or Chidi’s or whoever’s. Right now, Michael knows less than Eleanor, because Eleanor knows that she wrote herself a note and Michael doesn’t know that, so we actually don’t know more than the characters in this case.

NEXT PAGE: Schur on season 2 torture ranging from new soultmates to Hawaiian pizza

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We are now resetting the game. The big question is: Can Michael build a better mouse trap so he can avoid “retirement”? And how flopsweaty will he be as his big plan starts to fall apart?
At the beginning at least, he feels pretty confident that it’s all going to work out. But pretty quickly because of the note that Eleanor wrote herself, there do start to be some weird things happening from his point of view, and he does start to feel like, “What the hell? I don’t understand. This should all be working better than it’s working.” And while Eleanor is seeking out Chidi and the others are meeting their new soulmates, Michael is on this sort of secondary investigation as to why things are going wrong already. And by the way, that’s the not the only problem he has. He also has problems with his own staff which you’ll begin to see. The people that he got to sign onto this program — this isn’t what they mostly do. Before this, none of them were actors. They were people who poked people with hot sticks and dropped spiders into people’s mouths. So he has the energy of an indie-film director who’s trying to make his masterpiece on an extreme budget, and there’s a lot of people on the crew who are less enthusiastic about the project than he is. That’s to serve the other big drama vector for him — keeping the crew’s spirits up as things continuously go off the rails.

We already met Chris Baker, Eleanor’s new soulmate with the abs, in the season 1 finale. What can we expect from the new soulmates, other than that they are perfectly designed to inflict maximum torture?
Michael’s belief is that they should be tortured individually before they start to torture each other, and part of that individual torture is pairing them with a soulmate who is exactly the kind of person who would drive each of them crazy. I really don’t want to give anything specific away, but for example, Tahani and Jason were paired together, and the reason it was a stroke of genius on Michael’s behalf is that all Jason wants in the world is to play Madden and hang out with Pillboy, his best friend from Jacksonville, and he was turned into a silent monk. And because he was turned into a silent monk and paired up with Tahani, he had to do the exact opposite of all of those things. He had to sit quietly and pretend to be meditating, and simultaneously that silent spiritual monk was exactly the kind of extraordinary human being that Tahani and her warped self-image would’ve imagined what she was worthy of.

The ruse was able to be maintained for both of them simultaneously while at the same time making both of them miserable because Tahani might have been like, “Oh, of course I’m paired up with this amazing monk, because that’s what kind of extraordinary person I am,” but then he never talked to her. And he didn’t know anything about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and all that sort of stuff, so he simultaneously was driving her a little crazy. The new soulmates have to be that good at driving each of these people crazy individually. The writing staff did a very good job in figuring out exactly the kind of people to be paired up with each of the humans to make them absolutely miserable.

How “surprising” will season 2 be? How does the show top itself after that crazy twist in season 1, one that changed the entire game?
It hopefully feels exactly as surprisingly as season 1, if not slightly more surprising. The big tentpole surprising movies that we make, I think we figured out cool ways to make it as, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” in different ways. Obviously, we’re not going to completely upend the entire structure of the show where the show is basically called heaven and it turns out it’s in hell; there’s nothing that’s quite that thoroughly inverting that we can do. But I hope that this show is at least as surprising if not more surprising in many ways than it was in season 1.

We know about the clam chowder fountain, and the disturbing increase in clowns in season 2. What other small details would you like to tease about the reset?
Well, my personal favorite, it’s an axe I like to grind, is that it’s not frozen yogurt anymore, it’s pizza. But it’s not just pizza, it’s Hawaiian pizza, which is the worst pizza. All of the restaurants in the neighborhood are Hawaiian pizza restaurants, and the best one is called Hawaii Five-Dough. It’s commented on, by the way, that they’re all Hawaiian pizza restaurants. We hang a lantern on it, as they say, but it’s my favorite. It’s a true and unyielding belief of mine that Hawaiian pizza is the worst pizza, and there are many, many, many jokes about it.

The finale took us behind the curtain a bit into the backstage area, if you will. Will we see a lot more of that world and the demon operation?
It might take a little while, but yes, eventually you will see more of the demon operation… The Bad Place is pretty straightforward. The people would show up, the Bad Place would say, “What kind of person is this?” “Okay, well, then we’ll put them in a volcano full of scorpions.” “Okay, what kind of person is this?” “Okay, well, let’s put that person in a hot lava pit.” And Michael’s experiment is not just a little different, it’s a lot different from the way that the place has functioned and that sort of tension is a big part of the danger for him.

What he’s doing is extremely weird, and you’ll see a fair amount of discomfort on the part of his boss. At the end of last year, Shawn [Marc Evan Jackson], said, “Look at me, I’m already in a judge’s robe. What are we doing?” And that’s the attitude of a lot of the people in the Bad Place: “What is this weird thing that you’re doing? I don’t get it and I don’t like it.” So there’s a lot of that that he’s fighting. Michael is a true believer in the value of this project, so he works very hard to try to convince people that this is good. You should go along with this because it’s cool and valuable and interesting. It’s a pretty hard sell for a lot of the Bad Place crew.

NEXT PAGE: Schur on whether we’ll see the Good Place or Todd the lava monster

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How would you characterize Eleanor’s mission at the beginning of the season?
Obviously, she knows somehow or another that this note is real. There’s no question for her of, “What do I do?” The answer’s obvious. “I try to find whoever Chidi is.” So she spends the entire premiere following that mystery, and the story of the premiere is the story of that note and of her self-guided mission towards, “ I don’t know where I am or what the hell is going on, but I do know that this is real.” She has a line at one point in the season where she says, “The only person I trust is me,” which is sort of her whole attitude about life in general, that she is, for good and ill, a very self-reliant person. And if the only person she trusts is herself, then when [she] tells herself to do something, she does it, and that’s the situation with the note.

She’s basically Sam Spade. She’s like an old-timey private dick who has a clue and she puts it together, and she’s not an actual private investigator, so she’s not great at it. One of the attractive qualities of Eleanor is that she’s pretty savvy. In the pilot last year when confronted with, “You’re a human rights attorney and you did all this wonderful stuff and you went on a relief mission to Ukraine,” she totally rolled with it; she did not blink. I think of her sometimes as a more benign Vic Mackey. One of Vic Mackey’s best qualities frankly, even though it’s sort of horrifying, is that he could get himself out of almost any situation that he’s ever in because he was just really savvy. And so her savviness is what ends up getting her through a lot of the pilot. It’s not that she’s a great detective, it’s that she’s a really savvy person who has a sixth sense for who to trust and where and when and why and how.

What’s in store for the others?
There’s two things [for Chidi]. Number one is because of the way Michael has reorganized the sort of soulmate system, and I won’t give anything away, but he has his own problems with what his soulmate is doing in his soulmate situation. Even in the event that she finds him in the premiere, it’s not as easy as, “Hey, come help me,” because he’s got a lot of stuff going on in his own life that he needs to deal with. But also, one of the most attractive qualities you would say about Chidi is that Chidi isn’t the kind of person who will turn the other way when someone is in need, right? His insane ethical compass means that when someone approaches him and says, “I need your help,” it’s very unlikely that Chidi is going to ignore that person. So it’s a fairly complicated situation, but on the other hand for Eleanor, there’s no better person to be looking for really than Chidi, which is exactly why she wrote the note the way she did.

[Jason] has his own crazy soulmate situation. In his tinkering with version two of his neighborhood, Michael makes some good decisions and he makes some bad decisions, and the decisions he makes with Jason are probably the worst decisions that he makes, which is in terms of how he thinks he’s going to be able to better torture him.

Tahani is easier to torture because Tahani thinks she’s great. She thinks she belongs there, so in certain ways, it’s very easy for him to knock her off her perch. He has a better plan going forward for her than he does for Jason, because Jason’s not delusional. Jason knows instantly that there’s something wrong in the same way that Eleanor does. Tahani, upon finding out she’s in the Good Place, her reaction is going to be the same every time which is like, “Yeah, of course I am. That stands to reason.” So, yeah, she’s easier to fool, but also I think it’s fair to say he slightly underestimates all four of them.

It was said last year that every time Janets are rebooted, they gain more abilities and social awareness. I won’t say how many you see, but each new version of Janet is a little bit more advanced. It’s a benevolent version of the Borg.

Do you have fun by calling back to the Jason-Janet love story?
Yeah, we certainly have fun with it. The thing about it is it was a very specific situation, right? Janet was rebooted in the middle of the attempt. While she was rebooted, she sort of bonded with Jason in a very specific way, and Jason is sort of a child, and so at a crucial moment as she was slowly uploading all of the information in the universe, they became friends and he was very nice to her. I don’t think it’s like a these-two-are-destined-for-each-other kind of love story because it had to happen in a very specific way. But also the fact that it happened once means that I guess it’s possible that it could happen again in some other version.

Will the show address why Janet didn’t realize that this wasn’t the Good Place?
Yes, we will indeed… The basic idea is that there’s a Janet in every neighborhood — Janets are the operating system of the computer, and the Janets don’t make value judgments. If you bought a computer and you plugged it in and turned it on for the first time, that computer wouldn’t necessarily know whether it was in the KKK headquarters or NASA headquarters, it wouldn’t know one way or the other. It’s just providing its function; it’s providing information for you. There are good Janets and bad Janets, they don’t come with a preconceived understanding or knowledge of what it is, where they are, or anything like that. So Michael just lies to the Janets in the same way he lies to the people for whom he constructed the neighborhood, and Janet has no reason to question him.

Will we get to see the Good Place this season, if it even exists?
I don’t want to say whether or not you’ll actually see it, but yes, it is real. The things that are real in the show are the Good Place, the Medium Place. Mindy St. Claire is real. Janet is real, and the fact that Janet is not in on Michael’s ruse, that’s real. If people are wondering whether they’re real or not, or whether you can believe in them or not, those are all real.

How much of what Michael said is real? Obviously, the idea of his being an architect and facing the threat of retirement was. Will the point system work into the story this year?
The point system is also real. The fact that the point system is real is brought up fairly early on; you get definitive proof within the show that that is real. I don’t think it ultimately plays that big a role.

What about Todd the lava monster? At the end of last season, you said you had no concrete plans to bring him back, but you left the door open. Is there anything you want to say about that now?
I can exclusively confirm for you that Todd the lava monster will make at least one more appearance in the show.

Any context for us?
I can’t possibly give you context for that.

Any chance of seeing Trevor (Adam Scott) again?
Unfortunately, Adam went off and did his own show. The nerve of him that he wouldn’t just wait around for us to call him and ask him to come back — so unlikely at least in this season. Hopefully if the timing works out better in the future.

What one word or idea best encompasses season 2?
Spy craft. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

After the hour-long premiere on Sept. 20, The Good Place moves to Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET starting on Sept. 28. 

For a peek at the premiere, click here. To read a Q&A with Danson about season 2, head over here.

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