At the end of its first season, The Good Place pulled off one of the most surprising and well-executed finale twists in recent memory. Based on Wednesday’s season premiere, it appears there will be more surprises in round two, for both the audience and the dead souls attempting to navigate the so-called “Good Place” within the show.
Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place, spoke to Vulture about where the second season is headed, the storytelling pressures that arise once you pull off a surprise twist, and exactly how the staff comes up with all those wonderful restaurant name puns that appear in the NBC comedy version of the afterlife.
If I’m not mistaken, you knew from the beginning of season one what the twist at the end was going to be.
I knew before I started writing the pilot, even. I liked the initial idea, but sometimes really cool premises make for bad TV shows because it’s not a sustainable thing. And then I came up with that idea for the ending, and I was like, “All right, I have at least two years in me.”
That was my next question. Did you also know what the arc would be for season two, or did you not piece that together until you finished season one?
I relied a lot on the writers to help me with that part. I knew the twist and I had a vague idea what would happen, but then we did double duty over the course of breaking the first season. We were breaking the episodes and stuff, but then we also sort of had one eye on the future. It was like, “Okay, we’re doing this crazy thing. We can’t commit to doing this crazy thing unless we know there’s a future for the show beyond that — unless that throws the show into some cool new arena.”
We had a separate board where we put up index cards for season-two ideas. By the time the year was over, we had a decent amount of stuff written down for what was going to happen. Then while we were writing the second season, we started to do the same thing with season three, which we won’t even know if we get to do for a while. But with a show like this, it makes sense to always be thinking about where the show would go because it’s always on the move, you know? It doesn’t sit still for very long.
So you already have a general arc in mind for season three?
Yeah, we do. The events of season two, it’s not the same kind of thing. We don’t do a thing at the end where it’s like, “Guess what? Hell is really heaven.” It’s not a double switchback reversal where we pull the rug out from under you again, but there are things that happen over the course of the second season that would suggest what would happen [in season three].
I thought you guys did such a great job with the first season. I really didn’t see that ending coming at all. Now that you’ve done a big twist, do you feel the pressure of people expecting more?
Yeah, I do. It’s a double-edged sword, right? I think the reason we pulled off the twist in the first season without a lot of people guessing is because nobody was expecting it. Now we’re in a situation where everyone’s expecting it and so the double-edged sword is, do you try to come up with one big twist that’s as shocking? Or do you not do that and risk betraying the DNA of the show?
The show threw everything up in the air and blew up the whole world at the end of the first season and that’s a little bit why people like it, I think. Or at least some people like it for that reason. So you want to honor that. You don’t want to suddenly make it a totally different show, but at the same time, part of the reason why they liked it is that they didn’t know it was going to happen. If you play right into their hands and do another big twist, that might be the least shocking thing you could do.
It’s very odd. A lot of this is very simple and straightforward and probably doesn’t need to be explained by me, but I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m in this brand-new world. People who work in this space, who work in science-fiction shows and genre shows and speculative fiction, they would listen to me talking right now and they would be so bored they could barely keep their eyes open. This is what they deal with all the time. For me, it’s all new and interesting and exciting. It’s like an interesting intellectual puzzle to try to work through.
I also feel like season two is more meta in terms of being a commentary on storytelling. Obviously, there’s Michael being named Michael, but you were just saying how this is a new world for you. There’s a line in the season premiere where Ted Danson says, “I know this kind of large-scale deception is not what you were trained to do.”
There’s a lot of stuff that speaks to the way we handle narratives as an audience and the way that you handle them as creators.
It’s very funny that you bring this up, for a number of reasons. Number one, I didn’t know what to name Ted’s character for a long time. For a long time, the drafts of the pilot I was writing, he was just Ted. Then my wife and I had our tenth anniversary. We went to Paris, which is where we had gone on our honeymoon and we hadn’t been back since. It was amazing. It’s Paris — it’s the best place in the world.
We took a tour of the Notre Dame cathedral and above the door is this high-relief stonework of an archangel, the angel who weighs people’s souls and decides whether their souls are good or bad. If they’re bad they go to hell, and if they’re good they get into heaven. To one side of him is these awful, miserable, straggling souls that are getting dragged down to hell by these demons, and to the other side are these happy effervescent souls who are floating up into the heavens. I was like, “What’s the name of that archangel?” And the tour guide said, “That’s archangel Michael.” And I was like, “Well, that’s the answer.” The answer is that he’s named Michael because in the world of the afterlife that makes perfect sense.
Immediately, everybody was like, “Oh this is an interesting meta-commentary on the creative process because the main character has the same name as the guy who created the show.” My initial response was, “Ha, ha, ha, you fools. No, there’s a much more complicated and intellectual, historical reason for the reason he’s named Michael.” And then after a while I was like, “Well, maybe they’re right.” Maybe in the world of literary criticism, the author’s intentions are often seen as irrelevant. Maybe subliminally somewhere, that was the reason I chose that name. I don’t know. It wasn’t conscious, if that was the situation.
Because we get more into this world in the second season where we’re seeing things from Michael’s point of view, it very much began to seem like a commentary on the creative process. Because he’s basically a writer. He’s basically writing this show. It’s not like we’re the first work of art or show or play or movie or something that has done this. We’re seeing things from his point of view, like Ed Harris in The Truman Show, where now you’re getting to see him pull the strings and stuff. As a result, there are a lot of aspects of the creative process [in the show]. He’s working with a troupe of actors and he’s working with a script and he’s improv-ing.
One of the aspects that we had a lot of fun with is that Vicki — who is the demon who plays real Eleanor in the first season – she has been given a smaller part in this new rebooted version and she’s not happy about it. There’s all these moments where she’s going up to Michael and she’s complaining about how she had more fun last year because she had a bigger part. That’s a situation that a lot of actors have been in that I’m sympathetic to. Michael’s in a situation that a lot of writers have been in that I’m also sympathetic to, where things just changed and we had to move some stuff around. We’re not making a commentary on actors; we’re not making a commentary on writers. But this show is weirdly about a guy who’s like a writer, and his frustrations to keep his vision of the perfect script together.
You mentioned Vicki, who despite her complaints is more important this season. There are also new characters like Angelique, who clearly is Chidi’s soul mate. I would imagine we’ll see more of Vicki, but are these other characters going to be part of the story throughout the season?
Without wanting to give too much away, some of them will and some of them won’t. Some of them pop up and you don’t see them again, some of them stick around a little bit longer. It was very fun to use some of the people from last year and also bring in new people, but it’s a crowded playing field already. And something happens at the end of the fourth episode that throws the point of view back into the world of Eleanor and her three human friends. For that reason, there’s less time to be spent with the other, call them what you will — demons, I guess — in episodes five and beyond.
Last season had a lot of flashbacks. In the episodes I’ve seen from season two, there’s only one so far. Will we see more flashbacks this season or will they be only occasional?
It’s pretty occasional. We used them in the first season because we knew that building to this big revelation that they were actually in, call it hell, it was very, very important to see what they were like on Earth. You got the sense pretty quickly of who Eleanor was on Earth, but when we did the reveal that actually everybody is in hell, I knew that there would be people who would rightly say, “Why is Chidi in hell? Come on, guys. He seems like a really good guy.” Same with Tahani. Tahani was put forward as this saintly person who, yeah, she had some personality problems, but she raised $60 billion for charity. Shouldn’t she be in the other place? It was important to flesh out who they were before they died, so that when that revelation came and it was explained, it wasn’t just out of nowhere. I didn’t want it to seem unfair.
There’s that phrase that I constantly quote and yet still don’t know the source of, which is, “The best surprises seem both unexpected and also inevitable.” That’s how I wanted it to feel. In order to get that “oh, of course that’s the situation” half of it, I needed to show everybody on Earth. But this season, it’s less important because we’re not doing that anymore.
Another thing I find consistently delightful are the names of the shops and the restaurants. How do you come up with those? Do you guys have some Google doc that’s 200 names long and you choose the best ones?
That master Google document is called Megan Amram’s brain. Megan is obviously a writer on the show. She was a writer on Parks and Rec. You probably know her from Twitter. I actually think, no joke, her brain is like the computer in Lost where if you didn’t enter the code and press enter every like 100 minutes or whatever else, the world would end. That’s Megan’s brain with puns. If Megan doesn’t make a pun every 37 minutes, her brain will overheat and her head will explode and she’ll die. That’s the only possible explanation for how many puns Megan makes out loud and on Twitter every day.
I gave her the third episode to write, which, part of it has a Groundhog Day element where Michael is trying over and over again to reboot everything. There’s a sequence where you see the restaurants go from pudding restaurants to sushi restaurants to Indian restaurants or whatever. This is not an exaggeration: Megan, in that section of the script, included a giant paragraph full of puns for different kind of names of different kinds of ethnic restaurants. I think it went on for six or seven pages. It just went on and on and on. Partially she was doing it to lean into her stereotype as a person who loves puns. But also, it was just straight-up impressive.
She’s not the only person on the staff who makes those jokes, but she’s certainly the Willie Mays of making those jokes. She’s the best one on the staff. Anytime you see something like that, the chances are pretty good that Megan is the one who came up with it. If she were in the X-Men, her superpower would be making puns.
I would see a movie about that.
Wouldn’t you? I was thinking, that sounds good.
From following you on Twitter, I know that you have strong feelings about politics and our president.
This is a show that’s about ethics: What is right, what is wrong, what behavior should be forgiven. Was that stuff in your brain at all when you were working on this?
It wasn’t, because I started working on the show before Trump was on the radar, really. The idea was to do a show about what makes a good person, and that led me to the world of ethics, which is a world that I knew very little about. I like to say I’m at a Wikipedia-entry level with a lot of the stuff I’m talking about. We have advisers who advise us. We have two professors, one of whom is a woman at UCLA and one of whom is a guy who works at Clemson. They give us hour-long lectures sometimes over Skype about different topics, which are super-fun and great. But ethics is intended to be completely abstract and divorced from whatever’s happening in the world. The whole point of ethics is that the minutiae of day-to-day changes in the world shouldn’t matter. These should be principles you can apply to your life regardless of what the rest of the world is experiencing.
So yeah, I certainly have very strong feelings about the country. I have strong feelings about the president and a number of members of Congress, good and bad. But the show is divorced from that because that’s the whole point of ethics. It doesn’t matter who the president is. It doesn’t matter if you like the president or don’t like the president. You should behave the same way and observe the same ethical principles no matter what.
Trump is like a blue-light bulb that you put into a room: As soon as you switch out the old light bulb for a blue-light bulb, everything in the room is affected by it. It has a different hue. The shadows are different. Everything’s colored differently, you look at everything differently, you feel different. You get nauseous. You might throw up. I don’t think it’s possible to utterly remove yourself [from him] — this is true whether you’re a sculptor or a painter or a novelist or a TV writer or a film writer or anything. He’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room. You are affected by his presence.
In my case, I’m a little bit lucky. I wasn’t writing a family show where suddenly I had to think, “Should these characters have responses or feelings toward this radical new world we’re living in?” I was already writing a show about how to behave in the universe and how to live your life, so we just stayed the course. We talked a lot in the room about, this is not a show about Donald Trump. These characters are dead. These characters don’t even know that Donald Trump is president. It’s irrelevant to them and it should be irrelevant in terms of how we write the show.
The only other thing I’d say is that it was very interesting to be writing a show that’s explicitly about ethics when the president of the United States is under a nearly constant ethics investigation. It is interesting to see that play out, even though nothing that we’re talking about is what they’re talking about. It’s like we’re living in these weird parallel universes that are running alongside each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed.