'The Good Place' show runner Michael Schur is 'eternally fascinated' by hope

If “The Good Place” was a frozen yogurt shop, there’d be some eager customers outside its door right now.

The NBC comedy, which follows newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) as she tries to justify her slot in the heavenly Good Place despite living a life that should have yielded a more hellish fate, returns Thursday from its holiday hiatus. There are just four episodes left in the season.

The first part of the 13-episode season found Eleanor trying to keep it a secret from Good Place gatekeeper Michael (Ted Danson), and everyone else, that her ascension to utopia was a case of mistaken identity, while also soliciting the help of her assigned soul mate to learn how to be a good person. But now her secret’s out and Eleanor must prove why she belongs in the Good Place vs. the Bad Place.

We spoke to creator Mike Schur, whose credits also include “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” to discuss what’s to come this season, his fascination with optimism, and what Leslie Knope might think of Eleanor.

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When we left off, we saw the fallout of Eleanor’s confession. What can we expect with the last four episodes?

Yeah, we saw Michael stand up for himself by kicking the Bad Place guys out from the Good Place and saying that Eleanor deserves to stay in utopia. So the main goal of Michael and Eleanor and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and everyone else is trying to prove that.

We’ll also see what comes from Tahani (Jameela Jamil) discovering Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto). Thursday’s episode picks up maybe three minutes later. Tahani is trying to figure out who he actually is. And she has to deal with whether she should tell Michael about it. It leads to all these internal questions.

With “Parks and Recreation” you were always sort of on the bubble, which I imagine made it hard to save stories for later because you didn’t know if there would be a later. How did knowing from the beginning that you’d have 13 episodes influence your approach to the pacing of the story? 

Yeah, we asked that to be the case. Before I even pitched the show, I had a pretty good sense of where it was going. We always knew where we were aiming. The question was just, what’s the best path to get there?

If you can have that, it’s such a gigantic benefit to the way that you pace things out. You can stand back and look at the entire season and go, OK, in order for us to get to point Z, we need to figure out point L. It was a constant discussion of which events should go where. But we never had to feel like we were treading water or that we were rushing to get something accomplished because we had the luxury of time to plan everything out.

And it also ensures you don’t paint yourself into a corner.

Yes, that’s always a concern.  I have this internal rule that I learned at “The Office” and have taken with me everywhere since: If you’re going to do a big giant story move of any kind, you should always be able to pitch at least a couple of things that can happen as a result of it. Like, when we got to the part where Eleanor needs to confess, we first had a dry, lengthy discussion: What are some ways this could play out? We wouldn’t commit to anything unless we had a few good paths it could lead to. 

You seem to gravitate toward telling stories with optimism or being good. It’s something people loved about “Parks and Recreation.” Why do you think that is?

I think all of the pieces of writing I’ve tended to gravitate toward have [that] in common. To me, the David Foster Wallace quote that I cite all the time, that was very meaningful to me, was from when he was reviewing a book that he didn’t much like. It was a sort nihilistic, dark, twisted nightmare book. Someone asked him why he didn’t like it. And he was like: Look, we all agree at some level that the world is big and scary and dark and full of pain and suffering and misery and unhappiness. Given that we all kind of agree on that, it doesn't seem, to me, to make sense to write a book, the point of which is that the world is big and scary and full of misery and unhappiness. What makes more sense is given that the world is big and dark and scary and full of misery and unhappiness, what’s our path through the world? How do we navigate a world that’s like that? What’s a prescription for how the world could be made into a slightly better place?

Obviously, this show is explicitly trying to answer that question.

The point of the show from the beginning, the way I pitched it to NBC, is it’s a show about what it means to be a good person, and the main character is a woman who wasn’t a very good person who is trying to figure out what it would take to become a good person and whether that’s even possible. That’s what interests me. That’s what “Parks and Rec” was on some level. People hate the government. They are so angry at the government all the time. They think that government is big and evil and awful. And that show was like, no, some government is just a group of people who have jobs and are trying to make their community better and they don’t succeed all the time. Sometimes those people are corrupt and awful, or racist and miserable and misogynistic and gross. But there are more of them that want to make their neighborhood better and put up stop signs and try to keep kids from getting hurt on playgrounds. It’s just sort of what I personally like. That doesn’t mean that it’s more or less legitimate as an art form or as a worldview than anyone else’s. It’s just what I am eternally fascinated by.

What was it like writing a show explicitly about ethics during this presidential election?

I will say it’s extremely interesting. So much of the national political discussion for months and months and months has been about ethics and ethical conundrums. Once “Parks and Rec” ended, I thought I was getting away from social or political relevance. It’s gone the other way for me.

How do you think Michael Scott and Leslie Knope would react to Eleanor?

Michael would probably fall deeply in love with Eleanor and she probably wouldn’t give him the time of day. And I would like to think Leslie would be able to see the inner core of Eleanor, the soul, and think that there was a good person in there. She’d think Eleanor just needs a good, steady friendship. Leslie would think Eleanor could be great.

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