the good place

The Good Place Showrunner Michael Schur Knows the Meaning of Life

Ted Danson as Michael and D'Arcy Carden as Janet.
Ted Danson as Michael and D’Arcy Carden as Janet. Photo: NBC

After two seasons of The Good Place’s intricate world-building, viewers have a general idea of how the afterlife works for those who’ve been good, bad, or even medium humans. But when the NBC sitcom returns Thursday night for its third season, you might have some nuts-and-bolts questions, such as, does anyone in the afterlife actually need to sleep? Do they use money? Who actually ran that froyo shop?

Of course, The Good Place is primarily asking questions of morality: Can people can truly change for the better? Will an individual’s attempts to be kind, disciplined, and selfless even matter in the long run? What makes it delightful is that it’s not just witty but a little bit loopy, too — various story lines have featured flying shrimp, a recurring cocaine addict reachable only by an old-timey train, and if the show has a catchphrase, it’s “Bortles!” And through all the deep thoughts, big reveals and silly moments, the show leaves viewers with plenty of mysteries to ponder.

This year, big changes are coming to The Good Place. At the end of season two, Michael (Ted Danson) and Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) decided that Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell) would get to go back to Earth: They’d avoid dying — only just — but they’d have no memory of the afterlife in which they got to know each other and the works of Kant, Kierkegaard, Hume, and Aristotle. Even so, after talking to a friendly bartender (played by Danson’s Michael in disguise), Eleanor managed to find philosophy professor Chidi in his office in Australia. What’s next? No idea.

In an extended conversation about goodness, badness, friendship, extremism, and the need (or lack thereof) for sleep or money, The Good Place showrunner and creator Michael Schur doesn’t offer up any spoilers. But he does address the show’s big-picture questions, the books that the staff read in anticipation of season three, whether the Medium Place is a form of torture, and Janet’s gender identity, among many other topics. Read on for Good Place answers big and small.

I have so many questions about the afterlife. Do people actually need to sleep in the afterlife? Do they need to go to the bathroom?
From the very beginning, the feeling about all of the basic stuff of human life — sleeping, eating, drinking, exercise, going to the bathroom, whatever — is that in the immediate afterlife, removing all of that stuff would be so disorienting that there’s a transition period. We’ve never stated this, but the idea was that for 50 years, 100 years, however long you want, people would continue to stay on a 24-hour schedule, roughly speaking. We’ve always said they don’t have to. If you didn’t eat, your body wouldn’t decay.

If they want to eat, who grows the food?
In the first season, there’s a restaurant and the chef, Chef Patricia, makes the meal using magical ingredients provided for her by Janet. The answer to most things, in terms of where you get stuff, is probably going to be Janet. I think if you went to one of the frozen yogurt stores and you pulled the lever down and the frozen yogurt started coming out of the dispenser, and you just left it on, it would never stop coming out. It’s an infinite supply of everything.

Who works at the frozen yogurt places? Who are the servers in the restaurants? Is there an underclass of exploited workers?
This was a big question for us. For a long time, the second episode of the show was going to be about jobs, because we had the same question. Do you have a job? Do you have to work? My position was, being in the afterlife, especially for eternity, means you have to have purpose. If you don’t have purpose, you’re going to get real bored, real fast. The idea was that one of the ways that people find purpose is through work. That’s part of the way that people enjoy their existence.

Then there’s a second level to that. In the first season, Vicky had been playing Real Eleanor, and then when Michael rejiggered things in season two, she became a different character. He made her a pizza shop owner, and they were pretending that they had certain passions. Even though we didn’t get into this, in that backstory, Vicky had worked for Doctors Without Borders and she had spent all of her time traveling around the world helping people in need, and she had a dream that she would someday retire back to her hometown and open a pizza place.

But again, the answer to some of this is Janet. If you went into any of those stores and you wanted to hug a bear — there’s a store called Hugging Bears, a place to hug bears, which we almost never see — Janet would show up and she would help you pick out a bear and then hug it.

So money doesn’t exist either?
No, we had a joke that we cut in the first episode that Adam Scott was in. When he and Eleanor and Real Eleanor and Chidi go on a double date at a restaurant, the check came, but instead of a amount of money that you had to pay, it just contained one secret about something that happened in the universe. I think the joke was like, “Shirley Temple killed J.F.K.”

I find it a little hard to believe that people would be like, “You know what? Now that I’m dead, I’m going to get up in the morning, put on my clothes and go do a job.” I’d read books. You know what I mean?
But that’s fine. The idea would be, people could do that. That store wouldn’t be open. If Vicky decided that she wanted to go hiking and you wanted a piece of pizza, then Janet would show up and get you a piece of pizza.

Janet’s your fail-safe.
Yeah, she’s an omniscient repository for all the knowledge in the universe who can appear instantly.

Are there other Heavens? Other neighborhoods?
Yeah, the neighborhood system is real. But Michael being a Bad Place architect means he has no access to any actual [Good Place] neighborhood. He approximates, but he’s guessing. He doesn’t know.

Hell administration and heaven administration are completely separate?
Never the twain shall meet, yeah.

Is there an administrative staff for the Medium Place?
No, it’s a one-off. Mindy St. Claire’s Medium Place was a one-of-a-kind compromise. It’s autonomous. It’s the only neighborhood that doesn’t have a Janet in it, because if you had a Janet, it would be way less medium. So no Janet, and no access to other people of any kind except now Derek, who’s wandering around there somewhere.

In the view of some prison experts, making someone stay totally alone is a form of torture.
Yes, we read a lot of articles about that. In order for this to be truly medium, it can’t be too terrible or too good in any direction, right? And so, we began to be worried about how, essentially, eternal solitary confinement wouldn’t end up being torture. That actually helped us define Mindy’s character, because Mindy is the most selfish person in the universe. She hasn’t seen another person in 30 years and she’d still rather be by herself. It’s solitary confinement, but it’s solitary confinement for a person who likes being alone at all costs.

The bureaucracy of Hell is really extensive. Is torturing people for eternity really that demanding?
The way that we set up what our version of Heaven and Hell is, it’s extremely hard to get into Heaven. Business is booming down there, so they need a lot of people.

Michael’s original scheme to trick Eleanor and the others is elaborate. Was it a big project, as far as management was concerned, or was it just a blip on their radar? Because there are a lot of demons in on it.
There’s fewer than you think. Michael pitches it and Sean says, “Give it a shot.” And there’s no money, right? Certain resources, versions of what you would call capital, are limitless. There’s no shortage of land or time or demons. The idea is that Sean sees a chance to expand their options. If Michael can pull this off and get people to torture each other, well, that can be really fun. That can be a whole new wing of torture.

Multiple times, Janet has corrected people who call her a girl or a woman. She says she’s not those things. Is she technically a nonbinary entity? Everyone loves Janet, but I wonder if members of the LGBTQ audience might love her even more because she’s considered a part of their community.
I would say yes, she’s nonbinary. She happened, at a certain moment, to bond with Jason. She was re-uploading all the knowledge in the universe, and when she was a millionth of a percent along the path, she happened to cross paths with Jason, who was probably roughly the same intelligence level at that moment. And the two of them bonded over just being nice to each other. It’s probably fair to say that if instead of Jason, there had been a woman, for example, she could have just as easily developed the same strong feelings for that woman as she did for Jason. I’m not sure, exactly. I’d be loath to actually try to define that — what it means in terms of her orientation.

But I would certainly say that there’s nothing inherently heterosexual or homosexual or any kind of sexual about her, and that what happened [with Jason] was an accident that happened then for this particular set of reasons. Remember, there are infinite Janets, too. For this particular Janet, she happened to bond with a heterosexual man and that set her on a different developmental path than other Janets.

And that could change.
That could change.

Judge Gen and Michael debated whether to send back four humans to their timelines — where they wouldn’t die — and they decided that it wouldn’t change too much. But doesn’t 100 years of science fiction tell us that kind of thing usually changes the timelines a lot? 
Well, he says it’s only four people, and he also says that it’s clearly the best way to see if people can become good without knowing what’s going to happen to them in the afterlife. You have to assume, off camera, he made a compelling case to the judge that what has happened to these four people is a serious enough anomaly to warrant an investigation. He had to say something like, “Look, whatever your score is on Earth, it’s supposed to be a mathematically precise and perfect representation of how good or bad you are on the sliding scale of all of humanity.” Then, accidentally, he essentially pretended to be continuing their lives because they were not just in a pit being tortured, nor were they just in a Heaven enjoying Heaven. They were in a pretend Heaven being poked by an omniscient poker.

They’re in a place where actions can have consequences.
Exactly. They are where they are being deliberately tested, very specifically, based on their personalities. Michael’s point was, they got much better. They were far, far, far better and more kind, more generous, more other-directed than they had been. You have to assume that argument was compelling, and then you have to assume that the judge saw it’s going to screw some stuff up. There’s no question.

Part of season three is tracking what happens on Earth. Tahani had had some amount of notoriety, but Jason lived a fairly small, sheltered life in Jacksonville, Florida. Eleanor lived a fairly small, sheltered life in Phoenix, Arizona. Chidi was an academic, but usually hid in his house instead of going out for the day. So Judge Gen sees this as a contained burn. It’s a controlled experiment, as controlled as it could be. They aren’t people who have a wide-ranging effect on the world.

They haven’t put Hitler back on Earth. And Michael’s argument essentially consists of, “In my view, their lives continue, so we’re not done assessing them.”
Right. The case that’s being made is, “We know, based on our point system, what their scores were up until exactly the moment that they died. So now we’re going to send them back.” They’re going to un-die, but they’re going to un-die in a very specific way — Eleanor’s shoved out of the way of the shopping cart, Chidi’s going to be shoved out the way of the air conditioner falling on the ground. There’s going to be a moment of reckoning, and like Eleanor did in the finale, they do a gut check. “If I died, what would’ve my life been like? How would people have remembered me? Would I have been happy or satisfied with how I lived?” Maybe they’d go right back to being crappy. Maybe like Eleanor, they start off strong and then slowly, the hard work of being good every day grinds them down.

Whatever the situation is, you’re going to get a before and after. “Here’s what they were before the moment of that mortality, and here’s what happens after that happens.” That’s the experiment.

Ted Danson on why The Good Place is really about karma.

You’re giving the show a new framework all the time. How long can you sustain that? Do you feel like that there’s an end point in sight?
The experience of making this show has been unique, at least for me, because I knew what essentially the whole first season was before we started. So as we were creating a first season, we were talking about the second. And then as we were talking about the second, we were talking about the third. Then as we’ve been talking about the third, we were talking about the fourth. At a certain point, there will be a moment where we can’t do that anymore. There’s no more what’s next. And at that point, we’ll wrap it up.

I have a certain idea in my head [for the ending] that I’m trying not to commit to completely, for the simple reason that anytime you decide something definitively, you are closing yourself off to the possibility that some other better idea will happen. But to answer your question, I don’t think this is Law & Order: SVU in terms of its length. This show, from the beginning, has moved very quickly and chewed up ideas and not lingered. We took what I thought people would assume was going to be the end of season one and we moved it into the middle of season one. And then we’ve just pulled the shoelaces tighter and tighter and tighter.

It’s interesting that a comedy could have a static premise — and many good ones have — but your show is not resting in place.
But we have a comedy show with a dramatic premise. I don’t think that the show would be good if we were pacing ourselves. The whole point of this show in particular is that we’re trying to stay ahead of everybody. And the only way to stay ahead of everybody is to take things where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good season finale,” and say, “No, that’s the end of episode three.”

There’s something almost nostalgic about the desire for a Medium Place. If you look at income inequality and political polarization, we seem to be heading for extremes in every arena. Your characters are extreme, too: Eleanor was extremely selfish, Tahani was extremely fixated on outside validation, Chidi was extremely indecisive. To some extent, it seems like the show itself has a longing for a middle ground, but it’s also an examination of polarization and extremity.
Well, any show that is about how some people go up and some people go down is going to essentially be about extremes. Anytime there’s two options, you get extremes because there’s no nuance. When everything is set up around a binary choice, then you get extreme separation.

I didn’t like it when Netflix went to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for rating things. The range of stars felt more accurate.
That’s Eleanor’s argument, right? It’s hard to look at a person’s life and say “good” or “bad.” It’s profoundly unfair. It’s why she says there should be a Medium Place, like Cincinnati. And it’s absolutely part of the big picture of this show. The conception of the afterlife that split you into “Are you good or bad?” is essentially unfair. That’s going to be the argument of the show when all is said and done.

You know, the Greeks had it right. The Greeks were all about nothing in excess. Aristotle’s whole thing was, courage is a virtue, but if you’re overly courageous, you will see an army over the hill and you’ll just charge that army by yourself and you’ll be slaughtered. And if you’re not courageous enough, when the battle starts you’ll cower in fear and hide in the corner. Either extreme is bad and what you’re trying to do is find this happy medium in the middle, where you’re courageous enough to be a good soldier, but not so courageous that you’re reckless. And if you can do that in every aspect of your life, that’s what a good life is. It’s finding that happy medium where you possess these virtues and you express these virtues, but virtues can turn into pejoratives or negatives if you express them too severely.

That’s pretty right on the money. I mean, it’s hard to summarize the goal of human existence better than that. What you get with extremes is Chidi, who is a Kantian, and Kant was an extremist who basically said there are rules that you have to discern and live by. They’re not flexible and they have no exceptions. He said, for example, if a guy comes to your house and he says, “Where’s your brother? I want to murder him.” And your brother’s in the other room, Kant says you can’t lie to that guy because lying is bad, straight up, no exceptions. You’re not allowed to lie. That’s insane. That’s an insane position.

Extremism in philosophy is no different from extremism in anything else, I think, based on my extremely limited knowledge of it. The argument of the show is ultimately going to be — and I don’t know if it’s going to be explicit or implicit — that extremism is a bad look.

Another message seems to be, “Implicitly trusting authority because it’s authority is wrong.” I don’t think the show is saying authority is inherently always bad, but you shouldn’t trust someone just because they’re in power.
This is not really a spoiler, but we did something a little differently for season three. We started reading about psychology instead of just philosophy. We did a lot of psychology discussion. The Milgram experiments are the classic ones. Basically, the Milgram experiments proved that if you put a white lab coat on and you hold a clipboard and you say you’re from Yale, you can get anyone to do anything.

I bet the Stanford prison experiment came up too, even though recent studies dispute its findings.
Yeah, that one is more iffy, but the Milgram experiments were not. The reaction to the Milgram experiments was extremely negative — a lot of people thought and still think that it was essentially unfair, that it wasn’t good science. But Milgram wrote a response to them, which I personally loved. The response was basically, “You are angry because you don’t like what this experiment said about humanity. If my experiment had proven that humans have an innate ability to withstand pressure from authority figures and act virtuously and decently to their fellow humans, you would say this was a great experiment. You’re only upset because I proved something dark and unpleasant about the human soul.”

The heart of your show revolves around the idea that few people will get a good afterlife. It’s really quite dark.
One of the big things we have to grapple with is, “If the universe is mathematical and if you do Thing X, you get points total Y.” Well, is that true? Is that true for me, a 43-year-old white man who lives in Los Angeles, California, in America? There’s no outside oppressive force holding me down. Is it equally and exactly also true for a 11-year-old girl in rural Vietnam whose family is subsistence farming? How can it be true that I get the same amount of points for the same actions?

The novelist John Scalzi wrote an essay about this, based on the video-game concept of the “lowest difficulty setting.”
Right. This is very funny because we wrote and then discarded a monologue at a certain point in season three for Manny [Jacinto]. Jason Mendoza compares all of this stuff to playing Madden NFL on rookie level or on All-Madden level. What he says is, you should get more points for scoring a touchdown on All-Madden level because it’s harder. But you don’t. You get the same points for that touchdown and that’s not fair.

I think one of the most interesting dilemmas the show could bring about would involve putting Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani in a position of power, where they would be determining other people’s afterlives.
They have a lot of their own work they have to do before they would get to that position. But the story of the show is the four of them figuring out their own shit, realizing what they can improve about themselves, working hard to improve that, and then seeing where that gets them in this universal scheme. They’re going back to Earth with the knowledge that their time on Earth almost ended. And now the question is, “Okay, what do you now?” Knowing that this could have been it, that the rope could have been snipped.

And they have no memory of the afterlife.
No memory of the afterlife at all. They have absolutely no understanding that any of this stuff happened to them.

I can’t help but bring this all back to The Last Jedi, obviously. One of the things I love about that movie is that it’s about failure, but it’s also about the fact that there’s no one way to learn from setbacks and mistakes. There’s not a set of scrolls or texts or diagrams or oral traditions that will solve every problem every time. The answer isn’t that you stop trying or you imitate some other person’s way of succeeding. The answer is you just have to figure it out, day by day. And it’s hard.
I’d like you to write yourself a note to email me after you watch episode five of season three of The Good Place.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Good Place’s Michael Schur Knows the Meaning of Life