As far as modern-day TV success stories go, it’s hard not to be stunned by how The Good Place ascended from being “that weird NBC show with Veronica Mars and Ted Danson” to a show that has made us genuinely examine what it means to be a good person.
It’s something that stars Manny Jacinto and William Jackson Harper are very conscious of, especially since they still remember what it was like when they first came to the Television Critics Association press tour in 2016 to talk about Michael Schur’s oddball examination of the afterlife. This time, they were much more prepared to talk about the show and its legacy, while revealing the one strange thing they wish they’d been able to do during the show’s run. (Given how much strange stuff they did during the show’s run, that’s saying something).
The A.V. Club: Do you remember your first experience at the TCAs?
Manny Jacinto: Yeah—I remember doing the circuit and nobody wanted to talk to us. And that’s still the case, but that’s fine.
William Jackson Harper: I just remember people being like, what are we? What is this? And just having no idea what this really was and what we were supposed to do and how we were supposed to behave. Am I going to piss somebody off, you know? Now, honestly, the strange thing is being somewhat used to it.
AVC: At that point, did you know the big twist at the end of season one?
MJ: We had no clue where the first season was going. Which was probably for the best because we probably would have spoiled it right then and there.
WJH: At the time, it was one of those things where we were being asked to talk in-depth about something that we were really, really unfamiliar with. I was trying to answer questions and not appear to be aloof, but I just really didn’t know anything.
AVC: Now we’re in season four, which is focused on wrapping up these seemingly unsolvable questions about life. When you guys hit that point in this final season, how did you feel?
WJH: I felt like, okay, well, now we’ve definitely bitten off more than we can chew. There’s no way that this can be satisfying. But I think the thing is, there’s been so much research done, so much thought put into every single script about the argument that we’re making, which is consistent with the world that we set up. So I feel that it really works well. I also feel like this show still asks more questions than it answers. There are definitely answers, because there’s got to be. But it’s more about this imagined world, and it’s staying true to the story in this world that has been created over these last four years.
MJ: The way I like to look at it is that yeah, we do try and provide as best answers as we can know—not everybody has the right answer. And that’s why Mike [Schur] surrounds himself with people that are knowledgeable, whether it be the writers or the philosophy teachers and whatnot. And they try and provide the best possible answer. But I think the best part about this show is that at the end of it, the questions that come up are toward yourself and what you’re doing with your own life. We provide a final picture, and that causes people to ask more questions.
AVC: It’s not outside of the realm of possibility that 100 years from now, however people watch the things they watch, The Good Place could be considered an important religious or philosophical text. Is that something you guys think about?
MJ: Not really! What’s really interesting is universities are studying our show, in terms of trying to learn about moral philosophy. And I was contacted about linguistics, with how Jason speaks. But Will and I, we’re just telling the fart jokes in this little story. We have no idea, the repercussions of what’s happening outside of it.
WJH: There is this course at Notre Dame that follows our show and its philosophy. [Note: The course is called “The Good Class.”] It’s cool to make these concepts a little bit more accessible. Because it really did. I mean, I don’t know what I’m talking about most of the time [on the show]; I just get on Wikipedia before and I’m like, how do I not sound like I have no idea what’s coming out of my mouth. I’m just trying to get a basic sort of layman’s understanding. But I think that one of the things that the show does really well, and I think is inspiring to people, is that it takes these concepts and gives them examples to help you think about them.
AVC: Manny, what was the linguistics conversation you had with a college?
MJ: I forget the college or the university, but they’re doing a study that revolves around the idea of how Jason speaks—his intonations. And how that [affects] him in terms of how dumb he seems, but also lovable. They wanted to study those kinds of patterns, because he speaks in a very specific way, and they really were intrigued by it and wanted to study it. I don’t know what they’re gonna use it for.
AVC: Both of your characters have had extended romances over the course of the show. In terms of fitting that into the overall tone, what has that experience been like for you?
MJ: From my point of view, being an Asian-American male, you don’t always see that on screen. So that was very interesting for me, and it was almost a privilege, because you don’t get to see a lot of male Asian love interests in the media, especially in North America. And I get a lot of love for that, which is great. It’s something that we should see more again, down the line but I was able to marry D’Arcy [Carden as Janet], I was able to marry Jameela [Jamil, as Tahani]. I just wish that I could have married Will.
AVC: I’m sure there are many people on the internet who very much agree with you.
MJ: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. I think our writers were not shy to sexualize our characters in a sense, whether it be like taking off our shirts or making us do a Magic Mike sexy dance. So we can’t take all the credit.
WJH: Sometimes the writing just takes you where it takes you, and it’s never really been hard to navigate necessarily. There’s something about the familiarity of just being on set with people 12 hours a day, where you do just fall in love with everybody a little bit. So it feels actually super-natural to just receive it. It feels very natural to say, “Oh, yeah, I could totally see what a relationship with this person would be like,” because we all like each other. So when our characters go to those places, it doesn’t feel like a leap. It feels like our characters have been in this pressure cooker for so long, and we’re the only people that they can rely on with each other and that something could blossom out of that. Just out of that proximity and that need.
AVC: Looking forward, let’s say you were able to get at least most of this team back together for a new show. What would you want that show to be?
MJ: I always tease about a Pillboi and Jason spin-off. Yeah, Pill And The Boys. That’s where my head goes. But also because of the supernatural aspect to it, I always wanted to see us switch places—Will plays the DJ and I play the professor and whatnot.
WJH: If I could work with this exact same group of people again, I would do it in a heartbeat. And I have always wanted to just take a shot at Jason.
MJ: Will would be an amazing Jason.
WJH: Manny breaks me all the time, it’s like his mission is to make me laugh. So I just want to do it to him. I want to get him back.
AVC: Well, there you go.
AVC: A lot of the conversations around this show have been about how it makes you think about being a better person, because it’s impossible to watch it and not think about that. What do you feel are the most important lessons you will take away from the show?
WJH: That kindness doesn’t equal naïveté. You know, I feel like any sort of impulse to just be sweet can be taken for weakness, and being around Ted [Danson] and Kristen [Bell] and Mike, that’s not at all the truth. It was really great to be around a group of people who wiped that weird, toxic thought out of my brain. So I think I’ll probably hold on to that more than anything else.
MJ: For sure. Ted and Kristen and Mike are prime examples of treating others with kindness, whether they be in the cast or a visitor or a P.A. Regardless of who you’re working with, or who you’re around, just to treat them with kindness goes a long way. And we really need it right now. It’s definitely something I’m always going to be carrying.
The series finale of The Good Place airs Thursday, January 30, 8:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC.