In the final moments of the series finale of The Good Place, things got real, man.
As in: Michael Realman. NBC’s ambitious adventure comedy — centered on four lost souls and the human database and demon squid architect who helped them — concluded its four-season topsy-turvy-twisty-turny tour of all nooks and many crannies of the afterlife with an emotionally charged, satisfaction-saturated finale last month. When the dust and sparkly particles had settled, three of those souls — Manny Jacinto’s Jason, William Jackson Harper’s Chidi, and Kristen Bell‘s Eleanor — felt complete enough to opt out of paradise and dissolve into pleasant nothingness, while Tahani (Jameela Jamil) chose to help others through better design, and Janet (D’Arcy Carden) remained behind in the afterlife to provide stellar assistance. But it was that dashing demon, Michael (Ted Danson), who took the biggest leap of faith.
After Eleanor persuaded the Judge (Maya Rudolph) to bend the rules onnnnnne more time and allow Michael to become a human, he was sent to Arizona to explore the species with which he had always been captivated, with no guarantee of re-entry to paradise. Viewers watched Michael go through the most quotidian of human rites: ringing in the new year; learning a chord (and about love?) in a guitar lesson (taught by Danson’s real-life wife, Mary Steenburgen!); texting a friend that he was five minutes away when he hadn’t even left his apartment; and burning his hands when pulling a too-hot dish out of the microwave.
The entire series would end on the most Michael of moments. After Eleanor returned her matter to the universe, a sparkling piece of her fell to Earth, landing on the shoulder of a stranger who had just thrown out a piece of mail. He instinctively changed his mind, fished it out of the trash, and delivered it to Michael. It was a Coyote Joe’s Marketplace Rewards Card — issued to one Michael Realman — which delighted its rightful owner, and Michael thanked the man, who bid farewell by saying, “Take it easy.” Michael then responded with a callback to a season 1 scene in which he lamented all the things that he’d never get to do as a human. “I’ll do you one better,” he told the neighbor at his door. “I’ll say this to you, my friend, with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: Take it sleazy.”
What did Danson think of those triumphant, bittersweet end-game moves of The Good Place? How did that surprise cameo come about? What happened to Michael on Earth after the credits rolled? EW sought out answers to the mysteries of the universe from the afterlife’s most dapper being in a skin suit, Ted Danson. Read on for an engaging Ted talk.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been six months since you shot that finale and two weeks since it aired. What’s the most potent feeling or idea about The End that is still rocketing around your brain right now?
TED DANSON: First off, we had the luxury of knowing that we were saying goodbye for the entire year that we were shooting the show. Mike [Schur, the show’s creator] knew that he would have told the story by the end of the season, and he didn’t want to vamp, he wanted to do it the way he envisioned it from the very beginning. So that was lovely. You got to be sad in real time and appreciate and celebrate the fact that we are all together doing this amazing show, because a lot of times you get cancelled when you thought you were going to be back. So the actual goodbye was not as sad. For me, the sadness of the actor and the sadness of the character saying goodbye kind of coincided, so it was kind of this wonderful, sweet, sad acting and also, you know, real life. By the time we watched the final show and did that whole final episode thing, it was just sweet, it wasn’t really even sad.
The takeaway — there are so many little messages or thoughts about how the universe works. And I have to say that I walked away going — and I heard some other people say — “I sure hope that’s the way the universe works.” Because you don’t know. And that’s the wonderful, sad, and exciting thing about being human. And it’s probably the reason why we have faith, because you had to live your life not knowing but having faith that certain things might be true. So there’s all of that, which I found so pleasing to be part of. I took away — the one thing that you know: just try to be better every day. Just try. Trying to be better is perhaps all we can really, really do and really know. Just keep doing better.
In a finale that explored the idea that all journeys must end, the power of connection, and the great unknown, the man who desperately wanted to be human chose the path of greatest uncertainty. And it was made possible by Eleanor, someone whom Michael had helped along her journey. Was that the ending you were expecting — or hoping for — from Mike Schur?
Well, I knew it for a while, but when I heard it, it just made me so happy. It just was so perfect. Because even in the beginning, you could tell he was fascinated and just intrigued by humanity. And then he just grew to love them. So it was a perfect, perfect ending to experience what it is to be human. And I loved that [Mike] asked my wife, Mary, to play the guitar teacher, with the implication, “Oh, he will get to experience the most human of all things, which is love.” I just found it — oh, I can tear up just thinking about it. I thought it was just very sweet and perfect.
How long had Mary’s cameo been in the works? Was that something you all had been talking about for a while and then Mike brought it to her?
I think we all had the same idea at the same time when we read the final script. We heard that he was going to bump into another human being that implied — I think Mary actually thought about it in our household. And I’m sure Mike had it in his head all along. It was this perfect idea that we all just loved.
Let’s talk about the different ways that Michael tried to pass through the door — hopping on Eleanor’s back, doing sort of a side sashay, and pretending to disappear into the back side of it. What sticks out to you about filming that sequence and the physical comedy you created?
Just the “This is what I’ve wanted so badly. Don’t leave me behind,” and obviously it’s not gonna work. Then Eleanor finally realized that that’s [her final mission]. The final one was written. “Okay, here I go. All right! It’s working now!” That final moment was in the script. Everything else was just Mike encouraging me to come up with something else. [Laughs]. And, you know, silly is kind of my middle name. So we just played around. There were about six or seven different choices, and I think [Michael’s] thinking that doing that, as you said — the side sashay dance step — would do the trick just tickled me.
A sparkly particle of Eleanor compels a stranger to deliver that letter to Michael, a bit of divine intervention, if you will. What was your first reaction to that pay-it-forward, your-life-will-go-on concept when you first learned about that?
I wish I had something pithy to say. I think I was just delighted by Michael’s delight in being human, you know? I just loved that he was so excited about getting a — what was it, like a…?
A Coyote Joe’s Rewards Card.
In any world, did you think the final words of the entire series of The Good Place would be “Take it sleazy”—
—which was such a perfect callback to season 1?
Yeah, I remember that was one of the things that he was bemoaning in season 1, but when he was faking not being a demon that he would miss not being able to say, “Take it sleazy.” [Laughs] And it’s said as if he was imparting a truism, some piece of wisdom that would alter the man’s life — and somehow it does. Or implies that it does.
As a serious actor, how many different ways did you try to deliver the line “Take it sleazy”? I mean, this is the final message of The Good Place.
Yeah, a moment like that, all you want to do is not get in the way of the line. You just want to be… present. Film is so weird — you’re either there, alive in that moment, or you’re pretending to be. And anything short of truly being there in that moment, the audience can tell and it doesn’t have quite that same impact. So you really just try to keep doing it until you somehow get there. You just keep doing it until finally you are in the moment.
How do you think Michael wound up faring on Earth? What do you imagine his adventures were like? Finding love seemed to be something.
Definitely finding love. That was the implication of hiring Mary to do that. Clearly he was as hypocritical as all of us by texting that he was five minutes away. I think he’ll experience what Kristen Bell narrates over that moment. He’ll be fully human. He’ll do all those things that human beings do. He’ll make stuff up. He’ll be sad. He’ll be happy. I remember my mother used to wish me in my life — me, Ted — “I just wish for you to be fully human, to experience being fully human.” And that is everything from the sadness, the vulnerabilities, experiencing loving someone, being loved, feeling anger, it’s everything. It’s literally being fully human, and that has all the dark and scary, and all the happy and joyous, all bundled up. And what you do is you just keep trying to be better every day. And have faith that matters.
Did you imagine what day job that he might’ve had?
I’m trying to think if I — you know, they did not show this in the actual [episode]; they took it out. But I started working for an architectural firm, which may make total sense. [Laughs] You know the guy who was in the bar and is sad and I’m comforting him as one of those little vignettes? He was boss in the architectural firm. So I’ll go with “architect.”
What was the most challenging moment for you to play in that finale?
Probably that very last moment, trying not to get in the way. Because it’s silly, it’s funny, and yet it was Mike Schur’s way of saying, “Here is a truism from the heart.” For me, I guess “Take it sleazy” means, “Just keep trying, keep trying, keep trying.”
When I was on the set during the finale, you told me that in addition to some suits that you might be taking, you were going to keep Michael Realman’s wallet, which Janet hands to him when he goes to Earth. You could have taken a bunch of things. Why was this important to you to keep?
Oh, I’m bad at memorabilia. It’s sweet and wonderful for a moment, and then it’s a cardboard box that makes you feel guilty. So I figured that’s something I could keep in my drawer forever. A wallet that had everyone’s picture and my character’s name on a driver’s license — it’s kind of perfect.
While the finale admirably provided closure, what’s the one burning question that you’ve been thinking about since?
Here’s the joke, because we’re not going to do this. But the joke reboot of this show is Michael dies, gets to the afterlife, and discovers that there’s been a coup in heaven and Shawn [Marc Evan Jackson] has taken over, and it’s back to torturing people, the good old fashioned way. And I somehow get the old band back together to try to defeat him again. [Laughs]
Next up, you play the mayor of Los Angeles in a new NBC comedy created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. What can we expect when you trade the architect’s chair for the mayoral seat?
Well, I probably will not be fixing any of Los Angeles’ problems. [Laughs] It’s going to be hopefully just funny as all-get out. That’s our mandate: be really bright, really smart, and really funny. And I really don’t know because I literally have done one episode and I haven’t seen it yet. So that’s part of the leap of faith, which is “Hey, we’re about to crawl into Tina Fey’s brain, Robert Carlock’s brain, and see where it takes us.” But they’re so smart and such great people, I’m really looking forward to that journey.
Where would you rank this Good Place role in your career? It’s been such a signature chapter for you.
You know what? I’m kind of bad about roles. I can talk about the show, though. The show ranks up there as one of the things I’m most proud of to have been part of. Characters are too subjective and it’s hard to have distance and rank them, but the show — here’s what I love about being part of it. I love that 12-year-olds would come up with beaming faces, having watched every second of the show, and their parents were so happy that they were watching something that was funny but decent, and about something, what it means to lead a purposeful life. I love that [universities such as] Notre Dame have ethics and philosophy classes built around the show. I love that when I came to get an honorary doctorate at CMU [Carnegie Mellon University], the ethics professors were so acknowledging of this show. I love that you can walk down the streets of New York and a construction worker will pop up and say how much he enjoyed the show. My hope for this show is that because of the way things are streaming nowadays that every new crop of 12-year-olds that come up get excited looking at this show, because it’s quite a little gift of “Hey! Here’s a way to think about how to live your life.”