10 Forking Facts About The Good Place
By Garin Pirnia
On September 19, 2016, NBC started airing the comedy The Good Place, an unusual sitcom about dead people who have been sent to the heaven-like The Good Place. Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, who should be in The Bad Place (hell) but mistakenly got sent to the former. Michael (Ted Danson) is the architect of The Good Place, and his job is to pit (and torture) some of the members against one other, including the namedropping Tahani (Jameela Jamil), the at-first silent monk Jianyu, who’s later revealed to be a dimwitted DJ named Jason (Manny Jacinto), the indecisive ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and the Siri-esque Janet (D’Arcy Carden).
[Spoiler alert!] The season one finale dropped a bombshell on the audience—Eleanor and company had been living in The Bad Place all this time. Season two showed the characters grappling with the situation and trying to become better people so that they can eventually end up in the real Good Place. Showrunner Michael Schur—who co-created Parks and Recreation—told The Hollywood Reporter the show isn’t about one religion’s interpretation of the afterlife; he said it’s about ethics. “It is very flatly stated that this is not any one religion,” he said. “Spiritual and ethical is how I thought of it.” Academics Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi consult on the show, like on “The Trolley Problem” episode.
As you await the arrival of season three later this year, here are 10 forking facts about the enlightened sitcom.
1. MICHAEL SCHUR USED REAL-LIFE “ANNOYING BEHAVIOR” TO CREATE THE PREMISE.
In an interview with Marketplace, Schur said after Parks and Recreaction finished he found himself driving around L.A. and observing “a lot of annoying behavior, as you do.” He saw people rudely cutting others off in traffic and people littering. Disgusted, he created a game he’d play with himself, based on points. “Like if anyone was keeping score—‘What you did right there, sir, cutting me off in traffic, you just lost eight points,’” Schur said. “And I started thinking about a world where actions have actual point values that can be measured and analyzed and broken down, and that led me to the afterlife. And I thought what if it’s a game and the people with high scores get into the good place and people with the lowest scores get into the bad place.”
2. LOST AND THE LEFTOVERS INSPIRED THE SHOW.
Schur admitted The Leftovers impressed him so much that he coerced his agent to set up a meeting for him with Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Leftovers and Lost. Over breakfast, Schur asked Lindelof if his pitch for The Good Place was anything good. “Damon Lindelof saying, ‘This is something’ is the reason that show exists,” Schur told Vulture. “So thank him, if you like it.”
Schur told Lindelof about the season one twist, and Lindelof helped Schur with the scenarios. “I needed a person who is conversant in the language of science fiction or genre writing, which I am not, to say to me, ‘Here are some things that are gonna happen that are dangerous. Here’s what’s gonna happen, here’s how to avoid it.’ So that was a huge part of how I operated going forward.” Schur paid homage to Lindelof to the point that the show is littered with Easter eggs, including a photo labeled October 14, 1972—October 14th is the date of the departure in The Leftovers.
3. BECAUSE A 16-YEAR-OLD NAILED THE AUDITION, D’ARCY CARDEN DIDN’T THINK SHE’D GET THE ROLE.
D'Arcy Carden, a member of sketch comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade, had wanted to work for Schur. So when she got the email for the audition, she prepared. She didn’t think she’d get the part, though, and had even considered quitting acting. She was intimidated to audition in front of Schur and executive-producer Drew Goddard. “But for some reason, the second I walked in, they were calm and smiling and laughing and it felt very comfortable,” Carden told GQ. “It felt too comfortable, because I was expecting, I don’t know, snobby a**hole Hollywood dudes? But they were very cool. I walked out feeling, ‘Sh*t, that was actually the best.’”
A 16-year-old boy also auditioned for the part of Janet. “So they really didn’t know what they wanted,” Carden said. “A 16-year-old boy! Who, by the way, is a genius. When I saw him, I remember texting a friend who had done a movie with him and I was like, ‘I’m auditioning after him. Why am I even here? He’s of course going to get it.’” But Carden got cast as Janet, a role she said is “shocking to me that it was so difficult” to play, because Carden doesn’t have emotions or much to react to.
4. SCHUR NAMED MICHAEL AFTER AN ARCHANGEL.
When Schur wrote the pilot he didn’t know what to name Ted Danson’s character, so he wrote in “Ted.” However, while taking a tour of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, he discovered the archangel Michael, “the angel who weighs people’s souls and decides whether their souls are good or bad,” Schur told Vulture. “I was like, ‘What’s the name of that archangel?’ And the tour guide said, ‘That’s archangel Michael.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s the answer.’ The answer is that he’s named Michael because in the world of the afterlife that makes perfect sense.” Schur said people commented on how the character is also his name. “Immediately, everybody was like, ‘Oh this is an interesting meta-commentary on the creative process because the main character has the same name as the guy who created the show,’” Schur said. At first he thought it was a silly assumption but later realized “maybe they’re right.”
5. MANNY JACINTO BELIEVES HIS CHARACTER SUBVERTS ASIAN TV STEREOTYPES.
Vulture asked Manny Jacinto if he thought “Jason subverts stereotypes” and Jacinto said he thought so. “I think when they were coming up with Jason/Jianyu, they were trying to figure out something different and one of the things that popped up was that you don’t really see a lot of dumb Asian guys on mainstream television,” he said. “He’s usually intelligent or the model minority. I’m not saying playing Jason is pioneering, but it’s so great for me to do because it’s not a stereotype.” Jacinto liked the fact his characters weren’t just the IT guy. “And I’ve had my fair share of those, so I guess you just have to go through the ranks before you get to be Jason Mendoza.”
6. KRISTEN BELL NOW USES ETHICS WHEN DEBATING WITH PEOPLE.
“The subject matter is ethics, all the things we need to fix,” Bell told the Los Angeles Times. “Earth’s current bad mood—it’s all in this show.” She explained she takes lessons taught in The Good Place and adapts them in her conversations. “Everyone is debating something nowadays, and now, I can actually say at a dinner party: ‘Well, I disagree with that because, you know in moral particularism, cited by [British philosopher] Jonathan Dancy’—like, I actually have a sound argument as to why I believe certain things.”
7. TED DANSON IS "THE BIGGEST CHILD" OF ALL ON THE SET.
Manny Jacinto told Vulture an on-set story of a time Danson ate Swedish Fish in an unconventional manner. “I don’t know if this was a party trick or if it just came to him on the spot, but he was able to eat the Swedish Fish through his mouth, take a piece of it, and then snort it through his nose like a booger,” Jacinto said. “Witnessing that moment right there was like, ‘Oh my goodness, if anything, Ted Danson is Jason Mendoza. He’s just the biggest child out of all of us.’ I just remember that, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, Ted Danson taking a booger out of his nose.”
8. IT TOOK A WHILE FOR JAMEELA JAMIL TO WARM TO TAHANI.
Jamil—a TV host in England who hadn’t acted much before she landed The Good Place—told Vulture she didn’t think Tahani deserved to be in The Bad Place, but instead maybe “a Passive Aggressive Narcissistic Place.” She described Tahani as “a nightmare. I could never be friends with someone like Tahani, but that makes her all the more fun to try and love. I’ve grown to love her over season two. I couldn’t stand her in season one—I love playing her, but couldn’t stand her. But in season two, I’m warming to her, and that’s the power of Mike and the writers.”
9. WRITER/PRODUCER MEGAN AMRAM CREATED SEVERAL PAGES OF PUNS FOR AN EPISODE.
In the season two episode “Dance Dance Resolution,” which aired in September 2017, Michael tried to reboot The Bad Place hundreds of times, so restaurant names kept changing. The pun-loving Amram conceived restaurants like From Schmear to Eternity, Biscotti Pippen, Sushi and the Banshees, and Hot Dog on a Stick on a Stick. Schur told Vulture the script contained six to seven pages of puns. “Partially she was doing it to lean into her stereotype as a person who loves puns,” he said. “But also, it was just straight-up impressive.” On Twitter, Amram shared her abridged list of eatery puns, including Miso-Gyny and Polenta to Go Around.
10. DANSON FELT “GUILTY” BECAUSE HE KNEW ABOUT THE TWIST.
From the beginning of the series, the only actors who knew about the season one twist were Danson and Bell. Danson explained to Entertainment Weekly that when he told his friends the plot of the show—“it’s about the afterlife and I play a middle management person there, and someone gets in there on a clerical error and everything goes nutty”—he could see their eyes glaze over with boredom. “And I could just see that flicker in their eyes and it pissed me off, so I immediately told them the twist ending and they were totally impressed,” he said. “But to tell you the truth, I was wracked with guilt, but luckily the people I told, I called them and said, ‘Please, dear God, [don’t tell anyone],’ but all of my friends are so self-obsessed that they’d probably forgotten already what I had told them.”