‘The Good Place’ Writers on Worldbuilding, the Fanbase, and Planning the Ending

Eric Goldman
TV Sci-Fi
TV Sci-Fi

The Good Place is a comedy series, to be sure, but as fans know, it’s more than that. The original high concept — in which the recently deceased Eleanor (Kristen Bell) found herself in a heavenly afterlife that she realized she hadn’t earned — has evolved into a complex, highly involving, and very funny cross-dimensional saga that includes The Good Place of the title, The Bad Place, and even The Medium Place, as creator Michael Schur and the show’s writers continually explore more corners of the big universe they’ve created.

With the fourth and final season of the acclaimed series kicking off this Thursday on NBC, Fandom spoke to Schur and, in a separate conversation, two of The Good Place‘s writers, Megan Amram and Jen Statsky (all three of whom had previously collaborated on the Schur-created Parks & Recreation), about the worldbuilding they’ve done and how and why it’s resonated with viewers so strongly.


Kristen Bell as Eleanor in The Good Place

Asked how much thought was given to the introduction of each new facet of their afterlife and how the rules work for it on The Good Place, Schur replied, “A lot, simply put.”

Schur explained the writers had “six essential questions we had to ask about every episode” when the series began, including whether something was funny – it is a comedy after all! — and whether it conflicted with the long game the show was playing, especially in terms of the “This is the Bad Place!” reveal at the end of Season 1. As Schur put it, “They had to be consistent with that long game and then once the long game of that first season was revealed, we had to say well, now we have this whole world.”

Amram noted that once they’d begun to build out that world, “We would start every season off with what we would refer to as Blue Sky-ing. I feel like every year we began by asking, ‘What is everything we could talk about in this show?’ Or even in terms of plot, with the Good Place, Bad Place, Medium Place… Last year, in Season 3, you see the Mail Room outside of the Good Place. We really just wracked our brains for every single corner of this sci-fi world we’ve created. It’s like the whole show has this sort of fantastical aesthetic and everything sort of fits under that umbrella of weird and goofy and usually colorful.”

Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Claire in The Good Place

Schur stressed the importance of the writers room as collaborators, noting, “We had a lot of very smart people in our room, a lot of people who love science fiction, who love genre writing and they were very good at reminding us at certain points, ‘Well, you can’t get from the Good Place Mail Room directly to Mindy St. Claire‘s house. Or ‘You can’t do that because we’ve shown that the only way to get there is by train, so they have to take a portal to a bridge and then go to the Judge‘s house.’ That stuff is a pain in the ass sometimes. And I think there is a percentage of viewership who doesn’t care, but there’s a certain percentage of viewership who do care – they care very greatly.”

Statsky readily admits that, unlike Amram, she didn’t grow up a sci-fi fan but enjoyed getting to explore these elements on The Good Place. “The world-building aspect of it has been so fascinating and so cool. It’s just a different thing you don’t do with the other shows we’ve written. Obviously [Parks and Recreation’s] Pawnee was its own place that we created, but in terms of just other dimensions and whole other worlds you can go to, it’s been really great. It’s been a challenge as a writer to expand your brain that way, so it’s been unique and a very cool experience.”


Manny Jacinto as Jason and Jameela Jamil as Tahani in The Good Place

As much as they want the elements they introduce on The Good Place to be funny and interesting, Schur felt, “We didn’t take a lot of shortcuts. If we really wanted to do something, we would occasionally retro-engineer a way to do it. But we tried as much as we could to not short circuit whatever we’d already established. And the truth is, there’s usually a way to figure it out, whatever the thing is that you wanna do, there’s usually a way to jerry-rig it.”

Getting into specifics, Schur recalled, “The ultimate example of this, of course, is there was a real sort of dangling thread that we felt needed to be addressed, which was how does time work? They died on Earth, and they were up here for 300 years but somehow Blake Bortles is still the quarterback for the Jaguars. How does this work? What do we do? And we came up with a bunch of ideas and I pitched a thing that I thought maybe was cool, which is that the timeline in the afterlife moves perpendicular to the timeline on Earth. In other words, at the moment you die, you sort of go on a timeline that stretches directly at a 90-degree angle in some weird way so that you can travel up and down that timeline. But if you went back to Earth, you would be exactly at the moment you died. And we were going with that for a while, and then Josh Siegal giggled to himself and I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ And he said, ‘What if the explanation of the timeline on Earth is a straight line, but the timeline in the afterlife looks like the words ‘Jeremy Jeremy’ written in cursive?’ And we then changed it to ‘Jeremy Bearimy.’”

As Schur put it, “That’s the best show hack of all time because it’s absurd and funny, and it sort of lets us get away with anything we want to get away with. Any amount of time can go by anywhere and they can also reference things on Earth that have happened or will happen at any moment. And it all makes internal logic because the timeline that they’re on looks like Jeremy Bearimy.”


Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, and D'Arcy Carden as Janet in The Good Place

So why is The Good Place wrapping up after a relatively short four-season run? Schur says he really began to think about the ending when the show was renewed for Season 2, recalling thinking, “‘I gotta figure out how long I want this to go.’ I knew from the beginning, from the conception of it, that it wasn’t a 150-episode ideas. Because I just kind of want to blow through stuff and move really quickly. And it wasn’t ever designed to be a hangout show. I kind of very loosely mapped out in my head what I thought would be the case and that led me to about between 50 and 60 episodes. And if we’re doing 13 a year, that probably meant 4 years. So that was the suggestion in my head, that was the target, and I didn’t announce it to anyone, even internally, because I wanted to hold out for the possibility that I was wildly off, that we were going to be done after three years or that it would require six or whatever.”

Amram said that for the writers in general, “I feel like even as early as Season 2 we sort of were talking about it. Maybe not literally four seasons exactly, but that this was a show that we wanted to have a cohesive arc. We wanted to keep moving as fast as possible in terms of the plot, which sort of just by nature of that beast, it can’t go on for ten years. So we were all sad, but all agreed that this felt like the right length of a show.’”

Schur explained that once they finished Season 2 and the characters returned to Earth, “It became a lot clearer that four [seasons] was the right number because it was a basic calculation. Well, they’ve been in what they thought was heaven and then it turned out to be hell, and they lived in that hell secretly and teamed up with the devil for another year. And at the end of that year, he’s converted to their side and they go back to Earth and un-die. And there just aren’t that many more places for them to go, right? Well, they could die again and then what? So, I think, probably after Season 2, I knew that it was four definitely and then we told the studio and network as soon as Season 3 wrapped.”

Statsky stressed that everyone felt like they’d told all the stories they needed to, saying, ”I think the thing that’s nice is that Mike and we all kind of really did our due diligence in making sure there weren’t things left on the table that we didn’t explore or say. Of course we love these characters and I would love to write jokes for these actors to say for ten more years, but I do feel like we felt good about the fact there weren’t these major story errors, and exactly like Megan was saying, we moved at such a fast pace that we really churned through story pretty quickly. And so, by function of that, there wasn’t a lot of stuff left that we were like, ‘Oh no, but if we end now, we can’t do X, Y, Z!’ We kind of got to say it all, which is exciting.”


D'Arcy Carden with fans at San Diego Comic-Con

Viewers of The Good Place really, really love The Good Place, which was very clear when the series made its final appearance at San Diego Comic-Con this summer in front of a packed room of truly adoring and outright emotional fans. In fact, many represented that love with The Good Place cosplay, much of it centered around Janet (D’arcy Carden)

Asked why their fans love and connect to The Good Place so very much, Amram replied, “I think a lot of people, even just seeing people online talking about the show, have commented that it comforts them. We both worked on Parks and Rec too, which has a similar vibe of comfort and joy. But that is a responsibility that I think the writers felt and were happy about. It’s like people watch the show sometimes with their kids to feel better about the world. As someone who feels really bad about the world all the time, the idea that you might make someone feel a little better is a wonderful thought. People get very emotional when talking about the show because it’s about very heady issues.”

Said Statsky, “I think writing TV – I don’t want to sound hoity-toity or whatever – but it’s an incredible privilege, that you get to create something and words you write and endings you make get put into people’s homes. It’s in there with them and it’s the last thing they see before they go to bed sometimes. That matters. That’s really cool. So the fact that we get to do that, and that it connected with people that way and they cared so much about it and the way we care so much about it, it’s kind of best case scenario for any show. It’s a great privilege and an amazing experience.”

Mike Schur, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell at NBC's Television Critics Association panel

While Schur said he felt it was impossible to be sure why The Good Place resonated in the way it did, he did add, “I would like to think the subject we’re discussing is interesting, the question about how to be a good person on Earth is a big question and I would like to think that that discussion has resonated and struck people as a subject worth discussing. And I think the cast is phenomenal.”

As Schur noted, The Good Place is very much about trying to become a better person, which makes it very different from comedies centered around tearing people down. Said Amram, “Absolutely, it’s the ethos of our writers room. It’s easy to be cynical. And don’t get any misconceptions, we in the writers room can be so dark and so cynical all the time. But in general we all believe in the idea that it’s a harder thing to try to put something out in the world that is maybe more hopeful. And in terms of the actual comedy of it, it’s a fun game. Especially being on a network where you can’t swear or have adult situations, I think it’s a more creative game to find comedy that works within those parameters.”

Added Statsky, “Like Megan said, we can be very cynical but [the writing] also is just maybe a natural function of who Mike is and who we maybe are. It’s not like it’s something we set out to do. We don’t go into the writing of a script and go like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make sure this is positive!’ And it’s not to knock other shows that are harder or more cynical or biting. It’s kind of just the natural tone that we’ve written this show.”


Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, and Manny Jacinto as Jason in The Good Place

As for all that Janet cosplay, Schur said, “I think D’arcy Carden is a special performer and the character that she plays has become beloved largely because of her. It’s a part that could have been very boring and sort of disappeared into an uncanny valley between humanity and artificial intelligence and instead, she has turned it into something that’s wonderful and makes people happy and makes people want to dress up like her at Comic-Con. What higher compliment is there than someone would want to dress up like you for Halloween or for a fan festival? It’s the best it gets for an actor.”

Schur stressed how much costume designer Kirston Mann, along with other key members of the crew, contributed to The Good Place, noting, “Kirston dressed Janet like a 60s flight attendant because when she was a kid, she thought the flight attendant was the ultimate authority. They would take care of you, they knew everything, they were calm and confident and just cool. That was her vision for Janet. ‘I’m going to dress her like a 1960s flight attendant.’ What a masterstroke of art that is, to make that decision. That has gone such a long way in terms of why Janet resonates with people. It’s the same with Michael. Kirston was like, ‘He wears a bowtie.’ That’s the first thing she thought. ‘Look at this, you wear a bowtie. ‘And Ted [Danson] has talked a lot about how he didn’t fully understand what he was or what he was doing until he saw the bowtie.”

Schur added, “The reasons characters resonate with fans, it’s not one thing, it’s a combination of many, many factors. It’s a lot of very talented people doing their jobs very well. Writers and costumers and prop masters and actors and producers and DPs, it all contributes to creating a thing that appears on peoples’ TV screens and makes them happy and makes them want to engage.”

The Good Place: Season 4 premieres Thursday, September 26th on NBC. 

Eric Goldman
Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.