Sometimes, when driving around Los Angeles, Michael Schur sees things that are just objectively bad. Of course, calling something objectively bad can be a slippery slope to head down, but on some of those things we can all agree: cutting someone off in traffic, for one. In instances like these, Schur, the creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and longtime writer/producer of The Office, started docking people points.
That’s the genesis of NBC’s new series, The Good Place. As it begins, Kristen Bell’s Eleanor—just deceased—and Ted Danson’s Michael—an angel, of sorts—are sitting alone in a nice, clean, office, where the former Cheers headliner is trying to make clear to the Forgetting Sarah Marshall star what is going on. She’s in the afterlife, and a system has forever been in place where everything—every single thing—in life is given a positive or negative score. When it comes down to the moment of judgment, only the highest of high scores go to the titular ‘Good Place.’ All others are sent to eternal suffering in ‘The Bad Place.’
“Everyone’s been playing a video game, and it’s really hard,” Schur tells me when we chat over the phone. “Like, as hard as the original Donkey Kong. That level of hard, where, to get into the top ten scores, you just have to do incredibly well.” It’s a game so hard that, according to Schur, every single U.S. President—sans Lincoln—wasn’t quite good enough to crack those top scores. It’s what sets up the series’s first twist, and true hook: Eleanor’s made it to the good place, but she’s not really the cream of the crop. She’s not even in the top 50%. She gamed the system, and we don’t know how long it will last.
Having mastered the workplace comedy, Schur lacked experience in the fantasy and supernatural realms. So he went out and got help from people who did. He called Damon Lindelof— showrunner of Lost and The Leftovers—and asking a simple question: Can you listen to this idea and tell me if it’s insane? He also sought out one of Lindelof’s Lost colleagues, Drew Goddard, to serve as an executive producer and direct the pilot. “I was just like, That’s the guy I need,” Schur said. “The guy who’s funny, but also understands the rules of these crazy universes, and how to make them palatable, and how to make them work, and how to make them hold together.”
It’s not clear what makes the show work so well: That it is literally very bright? Is it Eleanor’s complete disdain for ‘doing the right thing,’ as shown in flashbacks during her time on Earth? Is it this juxtaposition? Or the fact that each episode begins with a card that reads “Chapter ___,” and often picks up directly where the previous left off—thereby making it very binge-watchable?
Coming off performances in the brilliant second season of Fargo and the less-exciting CSI franchise, it’s been a while since Danson has done comedy (not since HBO’s Bored To Death wrapped in 2011). But Schur knew that Danson was his guy. “His career is unparalleled in terms of the range of parts he’s played, and the quality with which he’s played them,” says Schur. Danson plays the bow-tied, silver-haired Michael with an inherent, undeniable sweetness. It would be a challenge to find a more enjoyable television moment in 2016 than seeing Michael’s face light up as he discloses his decision to wear suspenders with his dinner outfit.
Bell is less of a veteran, but gets a chance as the series’ unquestioned lead to just be funny, while playing a character who isn’t a particularly good person and is at times, an anti-hero. “You need an actor in that role who everyone likes, because if you don’t have an actor that everyone likes, you’re just going to watch the pilot and go “I don’t care if you get better. I hate you!”” That’s Bell,” the creator says.
Nothing else on TV is quite like The Good Place. With a lot of network comedy returning to uninspired roots, Schur’s series takes big swings, and early returns are extremely positive. It’s tough to talk about the afterlife. But The Good Place makes it fun. It takes something uncomfortable, and works toward making it something that we will talk about the next morning. But, again, Schur puts it best.“If you died, and you woke up in a room and Ted Danson were there, and he was the one who was telling you that everything was going to be OK? You would immediately believe him.” Even if that’s not true, with this messenger, it becomes a noble lie, and even a lie we might care about a little less, that brings us to a better place.
Photos courtesy of NBCUniversal