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Interview: Creator Mike Schur On The Rules Of 'The Good Place' & Blowing Up The Space/Time Continuum
*SPOILERS AHEAD for the current season of The Good Place, do not scroll down until you've seen the first four episodes of season two*
Last week on The Good Place, Michael (Ted Danson) went through over 800 reboots as he attempted to perfect his torture of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), essentially turning the show into a mini-Groundhog Day homage. This week, with his own immortal soul in danger, Michael realized that his only option was to team up with the four humans (and Janet) to outsmart Vicky and the disgruntled Bad Place workers. Which means that "Team Cockroach" now has to teach a demon how to be a decent person, or else they'll be "the main ingredient in a chowder of pain."
We talked to creator and showrunner Michael Schur once again about the latest twists of the show, why Michael decided to come clean with everyone, what it means now that they've blown up the rules of time/space, and where the show is headed next.
It's really fun trying to figure out which are the lies that Michael tells versus the truths that he uses to sell those lies, like with The Middle Place, which we learned this episode is real. But then are the soulmates real, or just part of the torture? And if The Middle Place is just a train ride away, does that mean The Good Place is also a train ride away from there?
[Laughs.] Yeah, these are all good questions. In the fourth episode, part of what we wanted to do is we collected every logic question that we felt had not been answered, or at least not satisfactorily answered. We treated it like Michael was a criminal who's been lying like crazy to everyone. He's gotten to the point where he has no reason for lie. Maybe for the first time, he's a reliable narrator. That's why it was like, alright, we're going to have them ask him every question they can think of.
It was probably a four or five page scene, where they just say, "Okay, is The Medium Place real? Are soulmates real?" Chidi says, "Why didn't you just lie about everything? Why did you tell us some stuff that was true, like The Medium Place? Why do you look like us if you're not human?" All of those questions that were dangling or unanswered. We could only include probably a third of them that were originally in the script.
The first question—I love the moment, it's such a great performance from Ted— is, "How can we trust you?" His answer is, "Oh, you can't. You have to, but you can't. It's a crazy thing to do, but you got to." [Laughs.] He even says, "I wouldn't if I were you, but you have no choice." The show is like chess, a game of imperfect information. Or I'm sorry, chess is a game of perfect information. It's like poker. Poker is a game of imperfect information where you don't know everything. You can't see the other person's cards. You can only make educated guesses. Humans can only make educated guesses about what's true and what isn't. That's part of the fun of it.
They don't know for sure whether Michael is lying to them, or telling the truth, or what. I mean, there's certain things that obviously are verifiable. Like they went to...[Laughs.] Actually, we always have these debates in the writer's room. They're not truly verifiable. It sure seems like The Medium Place is real, because they go to The Medium Place, and [Mindy St. Claire] remembers them, and is annoyed that they're there again, and she has all this information about all the other times they were there. It's hard to imagine how that could be part of Michael's plan. Allowing them to escape to a place, to a Medium Place where they get filled in on Michael's plan, and get a objective analysis of what's happening. It's very hard to imagine how that would be ever part of Michael's plan. For all intents and purposes, that's confirmation that The Medium Place is real, which is what he says.
You can triangulate in certain ways about what's real and what isn't, but it's like poker. It's imperfect information.
We finally got Tahani's backstory of how she died, which is another lingering thread from the first season.
Yes. Episode four is really about tying up loose ends, narrative loose ends. One of them was we had never learned how Tahani died last year. We had the idea for it last year, but we just never found the right moment to lay it in. This year, it became important. When Michael is trying to convince them to join his team, or to let him join their team, he uses that as a shortcut to like you were a bad person. Here's the quickest way for me to explain how you were a bad person.
It's always so exciting when there's a "getting the gang together" episode. The fact that we're finally seeing all six of our main characters working towards the same goal is immediately such a fun dynamic.
Yeah, and it feels new for the show, obviously. What you realize is that the entire first season, it was us versus them, they just didn't know it. Now it's like everybody, at least if you believe Michael, everybody's on the same team.
Getting the gang back together is one of my favorite TV tropes. It's just so exciting and fun...I know it's cheesy to have everybody put their hands into the middle and say team whatever, but I don't care. I just love it when that happens. It makes you feel so happy for the future, and so excited for the future of how they're going to survive their new surroundings.
Those were always my favorite episodes of like Mad Men, when everyone had to work together again, even though they all made each other a little miserable. Totally. Yeah, they have to outsmart a rival firm. On Cheers, it was always the Gary's Olde Town Tavern episodes when they had a rivalry with another bar. It's a tried and true story method. If you are invested in the lives of the characters, it makes you so happy that all the characters are working together.
Looking forward past episode four, are there a lot more aspects of the afterlife to explore still? Are we going to see more of the bureaucracy of the afterlife?
Well, I don't want to give too much away. But the new story that begins after episode four is now they are trying to teach a demon how to be a good person, which seems hard. In the first season, Eleanor and Jason were hiding from Michael. Now, everybody is hiding from Vicky and the others. We fall back into the original premise of the show, just with a different combination of people.
The show, and the writing staff, and the actors, are not particularly interested in standing still. Before too long, I would say—it doesn't happen right away, certainly—but before too long things will happen that make that premise also get thrown up in the air, and everybody will have to shift and change again.
Considering that the rules of time and space have been blown up at this point in the show's mythology, do you feel like this creates an endless possibility of story moves ahead? Or does this actually in some way limit it, where you now are like, well this can only run a certain number of seasons before we have to start going to parallel universes, or back in time, or whatever?
[Laughs.] Well, it's tricky. It's a good question, because when you blow up space-time the way that we've blow up space-time...In the fourth episode, they find out they've been rebooted 802 times, and the longest one was eleven months and the shortest one was like eight seconds. We did an analysis of like okay, let's say the average one was X number of weeks long or whatever. We calculated that they were in "attempt, attempt, attempt, reboot, reboot, reboot" mode for something like 250 or 300 years. [Laughs.]
Obviously, we're in completely unchartered waters now, but at the same time you don't want the audience to feel like there's no rules to the way that things operate. Part of the reason why in the world of the show they still go to sleep and there's still day and night, it's partly that our backstory for it was that in heaven—which is obviously not where they were—but in heaven they keep everything the same for a couple hundred years, because that's what people are used to, and it's what makes them feel safe and comfortable that there's passage of time or whatever.
The other meta reason was that I think the audience watching the show needs to feel that way. The audience watching the show needs to get the sense of night becomes day becomes night becomes day. People are living in houses, and they are eating food sometimes. They're doing the things that people do, because the world is so crazy and the rules are so crazy sometimes that without basic things being the same, it started to me that people would just be like, "Where the hell are we? When is any of this happening? Why is there a dinner party happening if there's no night time?"
You want it to feel, at least, like there are basic rules of the way the universe operates that are maintained just for a sense of normalcy. If you make people feel like there are these certain rules, and that things are grounded, and that the characters are tangible and have consistency in their personality profiles, then you can have a lava monster. [Laughs.] You can have a lava monster walk in and say something crazy, and then walk out. You don't feel like that the world has just gone completely bananas.