By Dan Snierson
August 08, 2019 at 08:16 PM EDT
Colleen Hayes/NBC
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NBC’s afterlife adventure The Good Place has become one of TV’s most challenging and delightful comedies, exploring questions of ethics, morality, and lower-circle-of-hell torture techniques over the last three seasons. But the expectation-subverting show that loves to shift paradigms has pivoted in another significant way. Speaking to reporters during The Good Place panel at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, creator Mike Schur explained how the intention of the series wound up evolving over time, and he seemingly hinted at a component of what will be the show’s ultimate message entering this fourth and final season.

The series began with ethics/moral philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) attempting to teach Eleanor (Kristen Bell) what it means to be a good person. Later, the entire group (which also includes Jameela Jamil’s Tahani, Manny Jacinto’s Jason, and D’Arcy Carden’s Janet) sought to help demon architect Michael (Ted Danson) find his humanity. Most recently, the Soul Squad prepared to prove Michael’s humans-can-evolve theory with a fate-deciding experiment. And somewhere along the way, as the points system went to, well, hell, the show’s writers discovered a deeper truth than the one they initially thought they were seeking. And it involved a simple word: Try.

“I pitched the show as an investigation of what it meant to be a good person, and found over the course of working on it with the writers and the actors and the entire crew that that’s even a more complicated question than I think I thought it was,” Schur explained. “I thought at the beginning that the show could, if given the chance, describe what it meant to be a good person. That was my hope. And that didn’t mean ‘Do this and not that.’ It meant ‘Here’s what a good person looked like in the world. Here’s how a person can feel like he or she led a good life.’ At the end of the day, that objective kind of shifted a little bit. Because what we found as we discussed it and wrote it and executed it is that some very, very smart people over the last, say, 3,000 years have had a lot of very different opinions about that question.”

He continued, “So what the mission of the show then became was to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to give you a bunch of options. You can be a good person this way or you can try to be a good person this way.’ And what we ended up saying is ‘We’re going to present a bunch of options, and by the way, there are plenty more we didn’t describe, but what’s important is that you try one of them.’ That was my internal shift over the course of making the show: the newfound belief that the important thing wasn’t actually — and it’s counterintuitive to say this — being good. The important thing was that you’re trying.”

Schur indicated that said effort seemed to be in short supply among us in these complicated, fractured times. “It feels like a huge part of the problem, from my point of view, is that not enough people are just trying,” he said. “And trying means failing. Everybody fails all the time; even people with the best of intentions will fail. It doesn’t matter whether you follow this theory or that theory, or this belief or whatever. You’re going to fail a lot. We all fail all the time at this. So… at the beginning I pitched what it means to be a good person. And at the end I would describe this as a show that makes the argument that we all ought to try harder than we are. And as long as you’re trying, you’re on the right path.”

The path to the final episode of The Good Place begins Sept. 26, with the unveiling of the season 4 premiere. And Danson — who, like Bell, welled up with tears at the TCA panel — expressed his admiration for and satisfaction with the conclusion of this heady journey. “I’m grateful that it ended with as much integrity as it started with,” he summed up.

For a first look at the 14-episode final season, divine your way over here.

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