Michael Schur’s new comedy The Good Place is a departure for the Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator. For one, it’s set in the afterlife. For another, it’s a little bit of a mystery show, with its protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), finding herself in the titular paradise despite a multitude of earthly transgressions. For inspiration, Schur looked toward a certain island: At this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, he told reporters that the model for The Good Place was Lost, and that he went so far as to consult that show’s co-creator, Damon Lindelof, during the development process. Speaking with Schur after The Good Place’s TCA panel, The A.V. Club got more details on this meeting of the showrunning minds, while also discussing how the seeds for the show were planted by unconscientious drivers and massive philosophy tomes.
The A.V. Club: What was the starting point for The Good Place?
Michael Schur: The starting point was literally driving in L.A. traffic: There’s an intersection that I pass through a lot where I have to turn left and it’s a left-hand arrow and it’s like three seconds. It’s one of the really fast ones. And when it gets to be a yellow light, people turn left around you, right? And my feeling was, we have all made an agreement, a tacit agreement, that two cars are allowed to do that. And whenever there was a third car, I would be like, “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt because you might need to race home and see your sick kid or something. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt even though you’re slowing us all up.” When there’s a fourth car, I lose my mind. I started thinking, “If someone’s keeping score, that’s like negative 20 points. I just know it is.” Because you’re saying, “My need to go left trumps everyone else’s need to either go right or straight.” It’s selfish behavior and I think it’s wrong.
I started building the character of Eleanor out of that idea. When I pitched the character to Kristen, I said, “You are the driver of that fourth car. And if someone honks at you, you flip them off.” That was the original perception. And the point system led to the idea of an omniscient system, like we’re all playing a video game that we don’t know that we’re playing. And someone’s keeping score, and the 10 highest scores out of every 10,000 people get rewarded with their initials in the thing. That was the idea.
AVC: Starting with Eleanor—how was that experience different from the starting points of Brooklyn or of Parks And Rec, where Jake and Leslie are flawed characters, but they’re essentially good. Eleanor’s not exactly the opposite of that, but she doesn’t belong in The Good Place.
MS: She’s certainly undeserving of this world, and even if it were less stringent she might not even make a less stringent version of the world. At some level, Leslie Knope was my personal ideal of what a government worker would be. Someone who’s in public service purely for the sake of making everyone’s lives better. Brooklyn was really more about pairs of relationships. Brooklyn was more like “Jake Peralta is like a slightly overgrown kid who needs a dad and then Andre Braugher is his dad.” They were a binary star. There was always a sort of binary star beginning place.
I didn’t set out to create something that was different from either of those two [shows]. It happens to have been different, but it was a more sort of organically emerging character. It’s really fun when you have Kristen Bell, because in the writer’s room we had a lot of debate—and continue to—about how bad she should have been. Because she has to have been definitely not great, but if she’s a terrible person then no one’s going to root for her to get any better, right? The great thing about Kristen is that she’s so talented and then also so warm and inviting as a screen presence that we could just keep pushing outward a little bit and we definitely amped up her actions on Earth—like in flashbacks and stuff—a little bit because we knew that you wouldn’t get too angry at Kristen.
AVC: She has that warmth, but she can be a very intimidating presence as well.
MS: Totally. And she’s tough. Every character she’s played has a self-assuredness and toughness about her. The backstory of Eleanor which you get later in the season—you get it, you understand why she’s that way, but Kristen herself has that feeling of, like, “Don’t mess with me. I’m a not-to-be-trifled-with kind of a person.” So that also helps you explain as you delve into her character, you have that quality and that actor that helps you define her character, which is wonderful.
AVC: What were the next steps in terms of populating the world around her?
MS: Well, once I knew that it would be the afterlife, I needed someone to run the afterlife and, like, Ted Danson is my creative acting hero. Cheers is my favorite show, Sam Malone is my favorite character. I had this thought: If you got to the afterlife and Ted Danson was there, you’d be like, “This is going to be fine.” And then it was a question of modulating the rules of the world. First of all, when you’re creating literally something as unknowable as the afterlife, you have to have a lot of rules because you ask a lot of questions: Is this possible? Is this possible? It’s all you’re thinking about. So I tried to do as few rules as I could that would explain everything the audience needed to know to feel comfortable. That was my goal. There’s a lot of rules, but if you get too many, then you might as well just have them scroll up the screen. [Laughs.] “Here’s what’s going on.” Like the end of Dune: There’s like a 180-page index of the geology of the planets and all this crazy stuff that you know Frank Herbert wanted to work into the book but was like, “Oh this is way too boring. So I’ll take all of this stuff out and if you’re a really hardcore fan you can read it at the end.” So I tried to do the minimum number of rules that would make people feel like they understood what was going on.
AVC: You talked with Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof while preparing the show. What was his feedback when you told him that you had a plan for the first season?
MS: His feedback was instantaneous and decisive, which was such a relief, because I literally said, “The game I want to play with you is called ‘Is This Anything?’” As soon as I finished pitching the world and the characters, he was like, “This is something. Let’s start there.” And then he, in an incredibly smart way, told me, “Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit.” I actually at that point hadn’t come up with the whole season. I had come up with the beginning and the middle. He actually I think said to me, “You just need to know where you’re going.” He talked about how on Lost, in the middle of a season, if they didn’t know where they were going, they started to feel like they were spinning their wheels and treading water. Now they had to do 22, 24, 57 episodes a year, whatever, and they were an hour long. They had bitten off an incredible bite.
But, yeah, that was the reason that I didn’t pitch it to NBC until I had the whole idea, because of hearing him talk about the process of writing a show that has these qualities and how hard it can be. So I thought, like, “All right, I have to get my shit together a little bit,” and know this isn’t like Parks And Rec where this is the setting and then they have relationships with each other. This has to be planned. I had to plan this. So I did, and then I worked really, really hard trying to figure out where it went, where it got to, and what were the big tentpole episodes and tracked—I had like a crazy number of index cards and corkboards and stuff. It looked a little like a serial killer’s office. But I’m so glad that I did that because when we laid out—when I got the writers together, we laid out the season. We had these tentpoles where we were going and it made it a lot easier to break in the individual episodes.
AVC: How did you do in terms of sticking to the plan? Were there unexpected detours?
MS: No. Well, there was one thing that we did which is kind of boring, but—there’s a sort of midpoint to the season and I had set the midpoint of the season one episode too early. So the only real thing that we did is we moved it one episode later and then conceived of a new episode that we went back and slid in. By the time you get to this midpoint, relationships seemed to have crystallized in certain ways and I felt like we hadn’t done enough work. But it wasn’t much deviation from the original plan, which I took as a victory.
AVC: When it came time to read up on ethics, what were the books and philosophies that were the most compelling to you?
MS: Well, before I answer, you should know that I would say, on average, I understood about 20 percent of every book I read. I was almost entirely uneducated on the subject—I took one philosophy class in college—but what was really fun about it was, you read on a theory—aided heartily by Wikipedia articles to break it down and other people’s summaries and stuff—and you think, like, “Well, this is it! This is the answer. I get it. I think. And this system of evaluating morality seems really smart and great and I’m on board.” And then you read the next one, which is a refutation of that [previous] one, and brings up all the problems with that one and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, shit, this is terrible. This one! This is the answer!” And that’s so fun. That’s obviously the history of thought in a nutshell—people constantly adding on and changing.
There’s a wonderful New Yorker article about Derek Parfit, who some people think the greatest modern-day philosophy professor. His great masterwork came out fairly recently, which is called On What Matters. It’s like two volumes and 1,700 pages and it’s impenetrably dense, and it took him 25 years or something from beginning to end. It’s like, “Yeah, man, I don’t blame you. This stuff is hard.” To come up with a grand unified theory after all of these great thinkers for hundreds of years—literally back to Aristotle and Socrates and Plato—have been trying to pin down what it means to be a good person or a bad person. It’s a lot. In the moments when I would suddenly feel like I understood something, in the middle of, like, 50 hours of not understanding anything, those moments were really exciting. And there’s a lot in the show, there’s a lot of moments when one of the characters exhibits that kind of feeling, like, “Oh! I think I have it!” For one second you think you have it, and then you immediately go the other way.
AVC: While you were doing the reading, were you engaging the people in your life in these kinds of discussions?
MS: Sometimes. I actually cold-called a philosophy professor at UCLA and said, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and you can explain this stuff to me?” and she was like, “Sure.” And it was great. I pitched her the show and she ran through, like, “Here’s what you want to read.” She gave me a reading list and hit on the big, giant thinkers and stuff that I had accidentally wandered into. And that was great. But, generally, I was alone in my office, just reading books and getting a headache because I couldn’t understand anything. [Laughs.]
AVC: How much room within the world of The Good Place is there for the characters to question those rules and to say, for example, “How can this person be a good person if they’re so condescending?”
MS: The system is the system and it is an omniscient system, like, “Sorry, this is the answer.” So there’s no questioning that system. The characters take it and the creator of the show takes it as a given that there is a system, there’s a point value to all these actions. So as Eleanor goes along in her desire to get better, she investigates different paths of thought that might lead to that system theoretically. You never get the true answer to what the system is, obviously. But it’s more about questioning—it’s not about, like, do you deserve—does [Jameela Jamil’s character] Tahani deserve to be here? Because she does. We’re saying that that’s the truth. The question is, given that she deserves to be here and given that she exhibits this little foible, what was it about the rest of her life that was so good that she overcame it? It’s not like the people who are there never did anything bad. They might have littered once. They might have done x, y, and z. It’s just like, Tehani, for example, worked for non-profit groups her whole life and she raised $60 billion for charity. So if you’ve raised $60 billion out of the kindness of your heart for charities, you’re allowed to be a little bit condescending at times. She lost some points for it, certainly, but then you look at the totality of her life and it’s like, okay, the big things, she had right.
AVC: In terms of the flashbacks, how will those be integrated into the show? Will they be single scenes? Will there be full flashback episodes?
MS: They’re not full flashback episodes. It’s very like Lost. It’s usually two- or three-beat mini-story, told in distinct beats throughout the episode. The story of that flashback is, like Lost, reflective of the larger question of the episode. There are no complete flashback episodes as of yet. Most of them are Eleanor, but you do see other characters as well.