Creator Michael Schur breaks down the video game you didn't know you were playing
Monday night’s intriguing, charming premiere of The Good Place confirmed a few things: For starters, there is an afterlife. And it looks pretty sweet, actually. (Besides the surplus of frozen yogurt stores and flying shrimp.) We also now know that when it comes our pre-death time here on Earth, everything counts. But what we didn’t know was that our next-world overlords are playing it strictly by the numbers.
The first episode of this high-concept NBC comedy introduced us to Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a self-centered individual who accidentally gained admission to the afterlife paradise — which, by the way, is not called heaven but “the good place” — after being welcomed by Michael (Ted Danson), the avuncular “architect” who finally got his big break and was allowed to design the neighborhood that she would live in. During orientation, Michael explained that all of our actions on Earth are being monitored from above, and we are being assigned points — positive or negative — based on these actions. At the end of our lives, only the cream of the crop, those with the very highest point totals, ascend to the good place. To give the newbies a better understanding of the point system in action, Michael showed a few hilarious examples, which you can study below.
How did The Good Place‘s true architect — also named Michael, as in creator Michael Schur — brainstorm the idea for the numerical system? You never know where your thoughts in L.A. rush hour congestion will lead you. “I was driving around in traffic and seeing people do things that are terrible and offensive to the social contract,” says Schur, who also co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “I remember thinking all the time, ‘If anybody is watching, you just lost seven points!’ And then I started to do that as I walked around and live my life. That was the genesis of this whole thing: What if it’s just a video game that we don’t know we are playing? And it’s not just big things. It’s not like if you save a person from a burning building, you get into heaven. That’s good — that will get you a lot of points — but if you’ve been polluting rivers with awful sludge for 50 years before that, then too bad. You don’t get in. You did that one good thing, but it doesn’t make up for all the other bad things.”
In the original pilot script, the system was explained in even more depth. Point totals were based not just on the inherent benevolence or malevolence of the act, but how it ultimately impacted other people. And they weren’t static. “Let’s say you read a magazine and you see an ad for something and you’re in a doctor’s office and you tear out the ad and you toss the magazine back on the bench,” says Schur. “Maybe the thing you tore out the ad for is a kind of medicine that could help your allergies, right? So you get plus two points for that because you’re trying to help yourself have a healthier life, but negative one point for ripping out a page out of something that wasn’t yours. Someone who suffers from allergies comes along and they’re flipping through that magazine, and if they had seen that ad, they might have done it. Also, their whole family suffers from allergies, so they could have used that ad to buy medicine for their whole family. Suddenly what was one fixed negative point at the moment you did it now is negative 13. The idea is the point values are constantly changing and shifting, depending on the kind of ultimate ripple of whatever you did and how it ripples through the rest of society.”
Schur initially planned to have Michael walk newcomers through various scenarios in the orientation video instead of displaying the graphic. “He said, ‘Save a child from getting hit by a car. Great job. That’s plus 4,000 points,'” recalls Schur. “And you actually saw that happen. And then he said, ‘Poison a river with dirty chemicals. Uh-oh, that’s negative 9,610.’ And then he said, ‘But it’s not just the big stuff.’ He went through that argument and laid that out. But it just took too long, so we came up with this idea of having those things appear on the screen as a much clearer and ultimately funnier way. It explains the premise. Once we had that idea, there were a ton of jokes.”
Good ones, too. For example: Eating vegan earns you +425.94 points, but never discussing your veganism unprompted earns you a whopping +9875.37. “If you just eat vegan, that’s just a personal thing that you’re doing,” reasons Schur. “That’s just a choice that you’re making about the kind of food you want and where it’s sustainably sourced. But the reason we decided that never discussing your veganism unprompted was way better is because people who proselytize about personal choices are often the most annoying people. The people who tell other people, ‘I do this and it’s great that I do this and everybody should do this,’ and if you don’t do this, the implication is you are a bad person, you get far more negative points for that kind of negative action than you do doing something that is an internal choice: ‘This is the way I’m going to live my life.’ And a lot of the ways that we calculated the points had to do with the concept of rippling out. Imposing your value system on someone else is a worse thing to do than just doing something that’s like, ‘I’m pretty good.’ It’s pretty good that you’re vegan, it’s good for the environment and you’re not killing animals, so that’s good in the long-term. But the worse crime than eating meat would be lecturing on other people on why what you do is better than what they do.
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Another fun one: Rooting for the Yankees is shown here to be almost twice as bad of an action as disturbing a coral reef with your flipper (-99.15 versus -53.83), and almost 15 times worse than stiffing a waitress (-6.83). Keep in mind that the point calculations can vary depending on the individual. “The reality is there is no one fixed value for any of these actions,” he says. “There’s no such thing in this system as a one-time-only objective final version.” Example: Perhaps a waitress was so frustrated that you tipped her poorly that she eventually quit her job, became a research doctor, and devised a cure for a major illness. Then your “negative” points would revise down, whereas if the $5 that you decided not to give her resulted in her not being able to pay her rent, which prompted an eviction and her living out her life on the streets in tragic poverty, you would be penalized accordingly.
For the sake of amusing argument, though, let’s ask Schur (an unabashed Red Sox fan) why rooting for the Yankees — who have won more than twice as many World Series championships as the No. 2 team — is calculated here as being much worse than harming nature or your friendly server. (Sidenote: Remaining loyal to the long-suffering Cleveland Browns will earn you 53.83 points.) “The first argument would be that it’s sort of like rooting for Microsoft,” says Schur. “I think people should be rewarded for being loyal to teams that stink, even when those teams are horribly mismanaged or terribly run and knowing that those teams don’t care at all about you. I think it’s a sign of good character when people remain loyal to teams. What you’re seeing now is like when the Golden State Warriors suddenly get the best team in history and they win a championship — that championship was way more fulfilling and valuable for the people who have been Warriors fans since the ‘70s than they were for the tech bros who decided, ‘Oh, I gotta go check out this Steph Curry guy,’ halfway through the championship season. It takes no courage or fortitude to remain loyal to the Yankees at all, so that’s half of the argument. The other half of the argument is: Objectively speaking the New York Yankees are horrible and evil and anyone who roots for them has a horrible personal defect that needs to be corrected through therapy.”
Many of the actions displayed are simple human courtesies (someone who held the door 4,090 times for the person behind them earned 8815.23 points), some tap into zeitgeist issues (telling a woman to smile docked someone 53.83 points), and others are just… eccentric (“Fail to disclose camel illness while selling camel” saddles you with -22.22 points.) “It’s all twos, which is just another weird thing about it,” says Schur, deeming this example his favorite of the bunch. “That really makes me laugh every time I see it.” A few oddly specific ones have even been culled from real-life events experienced by Schur and his writers. Take, for example, “Maintained composure waiting in line at water park in Houston: +61.14.” “That is a real event from my life when I was 13,” says Schur. “I used to spend the summers in Houston. We saw an ad for a new ride at AstroWorld, which is some sort of stupid rollercoaster thing, and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ And my Uncle Jeff, who’s a wonderful man, took me to AstroWorld, and the ride had just opened, it was probably early August. Houston in August is a bad combo. And we waited in this line to get on that ride for two hours, and it was fine with me because I was like, ‘This is going to be the most amazing thing ever!’ The ride was probably 53 seconds long, and then it was over, and I was like, “That was great!” And he was like, ‘Yep. That was great.’ Now having kids of my own and having been to many hot amusement parks, I cannot believe that he maintained his composure in that line for two hours.”
As for the origin of “Researched West Indies Test Cricket Tournament results to facilitate conversation with father-in-law (X14): +100.02,” a Good Place writer had pitched “Talk to your father-in-law about the Phillies when you have no interest in the Phillies.” Given that Michael’s orientation film is being played for people from all over the world, “I didn’t want it to be all Western Hemisphere-centric,” notes Schur, “so I changed it to cricket instead of baseball.”
Now that these people have won the video game — or have experienced a glitch that lets you win the game, in Eleanor’s case — what happens with those points? How will Eleanor’s corrective good deeds (if she’s able to cobble a few together) be measured in the afterlife? And how exactly will the point system factor into future episodes? “I would say that the point system is the fundamental basis for the entire universe, right?” answers Schur. “The assertion of the pilot is that points matter for people and their actions, and that Eleanor is trying to be a good person, and the way that this universe measures good and bad is with points. So without being specific about any stories, it’s not the last that we will at least discuss the concept of the points system.”
While you wait for those answers, we’re not telling you how to live your life, but it might not be the worst idea in the world to give out full-size candy bars at Halloween this year. In fact, you might have 630.20 points riding on it.