Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The <i>Good Place </i>writers want you to keep trying until the very end

The Good Place writers want you to keep trying until the very end

Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)

The Jeremy Bearimy-like complexities of making The Good Place have always meant that when a new season of the afterlife comedy is ready to premiere, the writing and shooting of that season’s episodes have already wrapped. There’s an added poignancy to that this time around: The Good Place’s fourth and final season begins on NBC this Thursday, September 26, but for the cast and a lot of the crew, The Good Place is over. The feelings about that journey’s conclusion spilled over into the show’s session during the Television Critics Association summer press tour this past August, where the members of Team Cockroach dabbed away tears between questions about their high-stakes, philosophically rich, proudly silly attempt at addressing questions that have vexed humanity for, oh, its entire existence. (Questions like “How do you live a good life?” and “How many food puns can be crammed into a single frame of a network sitcom?”) After the panel, The A.V. Club sat down with creator Michael Schur and writer-producers Megan Amram and Jen Statsky to discuss the end of The Good Place, the ways the show’s messages have seeped into their lives, and whether or not they’re eager to get back to writing comedies that don’t involve reformed demons, Time Knives, and artificially intelligent nincompoops with wind-chime genitalia.

AVC: How does it feel to be finished with shooting the show?

Jen Statsky: It’s a lot of emotions, and feeling both tremendous pride about the show ending, but also trying to grasp at its ending. It makes me unable to be articulate about it. [All laugh.]

Megan Amram: We’re writers, we’re not used to expressing things.

Michael Schur: We don’t use language professionally.

JS: [To The A.V. Club.] I’ll text you later. [Statsky and Amram laugh.]

AVC: The TCA panel was pretty emotional. What does it mean to you to watch people have such a strong reaction to something you wrote and produced?

MS: It’s kind of the dream, honestly. I remember at some point, long ago, coming to the realization that the only thing you can ever really hope for is that the people that you’re working on a project with care about the project. If you write something, you will always care about it more than anybody else. Because it’s not reasonable to ask anyone to care as much as you do about something that isn’t theirs. It’s like asking someone to love a child as much as you love your child.

But you can hope that they care. That it matters. And part of the joy about this show in particular is that everyone cares about it. The people who work on it care about it, and it’s a lot of love and care and attention paid to it. The writing staff, as one example—over the last four years, almost every writer who’s worked on the show at one point has emailed me or texted me and said, “Hey, I just heard this really interesting thing on a podcast,” or “I read this interesting article,” or “I saw this thing on TV—I feel like it’s relevant, here’s a link to it.” And then those things have become part of the show. At least from a showrunner standpoint, that’s the absolute dream. That the writing staff is invested in the show enough to see something like that, think about how it applies to the show we’re all working on together. Nothing beats that.

Schur (second from left), Amram, and Statsky on a 2017 Good Place panel with Ted Danson
Schur (second from left), Amram, and Statsky on a 2017 Good Place panel with Ted Danson
Photo: Greg Doherty (Getty Images)

AVC: Jen and Megan, can you remember anything you might’ve pitched along those lines?

MA: As [Schur] was saying that, I was like, “The show is so important to the writers, too, because it’s about so many things. And it’s so easy to go through your day and continuously think about the show, because a lot of things that you might think about, whether it’s political or literally the meaning of life or death or how you interact on a small-scale level in your life—those are all applicable to the show. There are a lot of pop culture-y philosophy things that pop up on podcasts. I remember reading a New Yorker article about the morality of forgiving yourself, basically. Maybe we didn’t do an exact storyline about it, but those are the kinds of things that you’re like, “Oh, these are real philosophical applications in real life.”

MS: Was that the virtual Freud?

MA: I think that was.

MS: You put on virtual reality goggles and Sigmund Freud is sitting in a chair. And [the researchers say] “Tell Sigmund Freud what your problem is.” And [the article’s author] was having a lot of guilt because his mom was getting to the point where she needed to be in hospice care. And he was like, “Okay, here’s my problem: My mom is getting older, and I should put her in hospice care, but that makes me feel guilty because shouldn’t I take care of her? But also, I moved closer to her to take care of her, and the whole reason was so I could make decisions like this.” And he just poured out his heart to virtual Sigmund Freud. Then he exits, and then [the researchers] go, “Now, put on the goggles again.” And now he was Freud. And he was looking at an avatar of himself. And they played his speech back to him, through his own avatar. And then they’re like, “Now, give yourself advice.” And as Sigmund Freud, he was like, “Well, here’s what I would say to you. I would say the reason you did x, y, and z was…” And as he did it, he felt this tremendous sense of catharsis. Because how often do you get to talk to yourself? And disassociate like that?

I don’t know that we used any aspect of that in the show. But it was also the perfect thing to read about for the show, because it’s about being honest with yourself, and working your way through a difficult problem. There are so many things like that—that never made it into a script—and we would put them on a text thread and pass them around. And they became this rich soil that the show grew in.

AVC: It does sound like Chidi going through the simulated breakups with Simone, though.

JS: It could’ve been.

MA: Yes! I was useful!

MS: Now I’ll have to go back and carbon-date that to see if you sent that before that episode.

MA: This is going to be very helpful for us.

AVC: You’ve all worked on the last seasons of other shows. What’s been unique to this ending?

JS: [With] Parks and Broad City, you’re so wanting to end these characters’ journeys the right way. And that is the same thing for Good Place. But I think that there was an added element of dealing with a larger plot issue that you’re looking to wrap up. There’s never been something so plot-driven that I’ve worked on, so there were two things to think about it in terms of ending the show.

MS: It’s a much bigger, overarching story then anything I’ve ever worked on.

AVC: Would you ever want to work on something this narratively and thematically complicated again?

JS: I keep joking that I’m desperate to work on a show about dating now. I just can’t wait to talk about a Tinder date gone wrong.

It’s made all of us better writers. It’s been an incredible challenge—I’d never worked on anything like this. I came from late-night and then went into half-hour, and this is just so unique. It’s an incredible challenge, and I think it’s changed the way we think about breaking stories. It would have to be the right thing.

MA: I am a big genre fan, and I’m so happy to work on the show because it was as close as I was going to get, as a comedy writer, to work on something with so much plot and rules. I feel like I’ve been spoiled, where now I couldn’t work on a comedy show that was just about nothing, or didn’t have a plot—not that those are in any way inferior.

MS: Or you can. Or a funny idea will come along, and there’ll be funny actors and it’ll be really fun to spend a few years just making funny jokes and trying to entertain people. I feel like the only way you do this is you work with people you love—that’s the only way this is fun. And you pursue an idea you think is fun and good and interesting. And sometimes that fun and good and interesting idea can be completely off-the-map. [With The Good Place], I literally pitched NBC a show about dead people who read moral philosophy. That’s a terrible pitch. And sometimes it’s like a group of people who hang out in two apartments across from each other, and that ends up being one of the great sitcoms of all time. I don’t think you start from a place of anything but “Do I have a good idea that I think is worth pursuing.”

Look, some shows are better than other shows. Some shows are more vapid or interesting or whatever adjective you want to use. But that just comes from the instinct behind the show. If you set out to make a vapid show, you’ll make a vapid show. If you set out to make an interesting show, you’ll make an interesting show. But that show might not take the form of a show about dead people who read moral philosophy. It just has to have honesty and integrity behind the intention.

AVC: Have any of the moral philosophical concepts you’ve worked into the carried over into your daily lives? 

MS: Kristen [Bell] is a moral particularist. She became very entranced with the idea of moral particularism and has adopted that as her official philosophy.

JS: This isn’t one particular moral philosophy, but I think a lot about the flashback where Eleanor’s going to a coffee shop where the owner is a horrible sex monster, and is treating employees terribly, and she makes this very college freshman point of “Everything’s bad, why bother trying.” Especially in the time we’re living in, there’s a tendency to use that as a shield. You want to throw your hands up and say, “Fuck it, never mind.” And I think a lot about that point we made—which I think is central to the core philosophy of the show—which is “You’re here, you might as well try, rather than not.” So that is something that I have taken and think about, almost on a daily level, as I’m crying looking at Twitter.

MS: If you had to boil the show down to one thing, that’s the scene. “Just try where you can.” You might get it wrong, and you’re not going to be perfect—you’re going to make mistakes all the time. But if you just try, that’s 95 percent of the battle. And it continues to be the message, through the entire last season: trying where you can to make a slightly better decision than the one you made yesterday.

MA: To be deliberate and not to lose hope, not to go on autopilot. To take those moments when you can make a better choice.

MS: And don’t use the fact that there are a lot of potential bad choices you could make to excuse a bad choice. I’ve been having the Chik-Fil-A argument since [Chik-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy] came out and was like, “Gay people are bad and they’re going to hell.” I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to go there anymore.” And then there are other people who are like, “Who cares? All fast food is bad.” My argument has been, since that moment, “But you know this guy sucks. So don’t give that guy money. There’s a lot of chicken sandwiches. Get a chicken sandwich somewhere else.” And I get a surprising amount of resistance from people I love and admire and respect. Mostly it takes the form of “Yeah, but it’s so good. It’s got pickles.” Who cares that it has pickles? You know that this guy is morally repugnant, and he is evincing an opinion that is not okay to evince in the year 2019 in America. Don’t give that guy $3! And you might end up going down the street to another chicken sandwich place and someone might go, “Hey, you know that guy? He puts cats in garbage bags and swings them against chain link fences.” All right, then I’ll go to a third place.

JS: Perfect is the enemy of good. You can’t be perfect—that doesn’t mean you give up and don’t try at all.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club

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