One of the fall’s most anticipated new comedies, The Good Place, premieres tonight on NBC. Kristen Bell, who stars as a selfish soul misplaced in an otherwise heavenly afterlife, will tell you it combines her two favorite things: “Laughter and discovering what it means to be a good person.”
It combines three of ours: Bell, whose character, Eleanor, must learn that lesson before her bad behavior literally destroys the idyllic neighborhood; Ted Danson, who co-stars as the first-time Good Place architect who made the clerical error that welcomed Eleanor into the fold; and creator Mike Schur, who proved with Parks and Recreation that comedy that makes you feel good can still be damn funny.
Here are five things to know.
1. Schur looks at Lost as a very loose model for the show. “Obviously it’s not a direct analog, but Lost was about a group of people thrust into a kind of extreme circumstance. Eleanor is in this place where everyone around her is a wonderful and amazing and a good person, and she has this gigantic secret that the audience knows [that she should have been sent to the Bad Place],” he says. “You think you know certain people, and then when you get their backstories through flashbacks to what they were like on Earth, you’ll have a different view of what kind of people they were.”
Schur, in fact, ran the concept of the show by Lost’s Damon Lindelof. “The reason I asked him to go to lunch with me is because I felt like he would have a kind of gut instinct for whether I was onto something,” Schur says. “Just him sort of expressing confidence in the idea and liking the idea was a huge confidence booster for me, because it’s very different from anything I’ve ever written.”
2. Bell and Danson both signed on for the show, pilot script unseen. “I would have signed on to bring Mike Schur coffee every day if that was his request,” Bell says. “I was paralyzed from flattery when I received a phone call from Mike asking to sit down and talk about a project. I’d been a longtime fan of his, and he’s really proven himself as one of the most competent, funniest showrunners and creators out there. When he called he said, ‘I haven’t really flushed this idea out, but here’s what I want to do. I just keep thinking of you. Are you open to it?’ He proceeded to tell me the most bizarre, brilliant story I had ever heard. That was a year ago, when there was no script. I signed on because of Mike, basically.”
As Danson remembers it, he’d been taking meetings looking for his next role when Schur came in with one of his writing partners pitching another project. “After he’d left, I was so impressed with just how bright he was and everything he said that we asked him if he had anything else. He came back and started talking about this idea he had that takes place in the afterlife,” Danson says. “He spoke about an hour telling me all about Kristen Bell and her character and the process. I actually didn’t even hear that much about my character. I sweetly waited until the end and then said, ‘I’ll be playing Michael?‘”
Then they started talking about what kind of funny Michael could be. “What kind of developed was that Michael was so excited to finally get his chance at designing a neighborhood — he had had to wait for 200 years as an apprentice. He’s just crazy about human beings having not been one ever,” Danson says. “He literally designed every single blade of grass, just perfect for these beautiful people coming up for their first day in the afterlife. It’s christened with his clerical error for Kristen’s character, and all hell breaks lose. You see the middle management, Michael, the guy who tilts a little bit too far forward to please, all of a sudden just fall apart. That is the funny place to play to — somebody who’s just over his head no matter what. And another thing that helped [build] the character was when I went into wardrobe and the costume designer said, ‘Well, I did bring these bow ties. What do you think of these bow ties?’ The bow ties are just funny. They say something about a person who wears them. That to me was, ‘I now understand my character: He tried really hard, and he wears a bow tie.'”
As fate would have it, Danson and Bell, who became friends while working together on the 2012 film Big Miracle, had been looking to reunite on screen so they’d get to see each other more often than on the occasional double date nights with their spouses, Mary Steenburgen and Dax Shepard. “They are so joyful and so smart and so stimulating and so lovely and warm to be around,” Bell says of Danson and Steenburgen. “I took Ted and Mary to their first escape room. It was like a jail cell scenario, and I was trying to explain the concept and they were very excited about it, but I think it became slightly overwhelming and Ted just sat down on the bed and watched.” (Correct. “I took a little bit of a nap while everyone else was running around trying to figure it out,” Danson says. “They’re very alpha. I do enjoy my naps.”)
3. Schur has thoroughly thought out the Good Place. Let’s start with the look of it. The neighborhood is full of cleverly-titled shops and restaurants. “There’s one store called PB&J because that’s my ideal restaurant — it’s a restaurant that only serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Schur says. “There’s a restaurant called Luncheons & Dragons. Drew Goddard, who directed the pilot, is a big Dungeons & Dragons fan, so he made that one. It is pretty revealing when you ask people to design heaven, and the good news is that a lot of the writers who came here were writers from Parks and Rec, so I knew them pretty well already.”
As for how the Good Place works, admittance is based on a point system. The most fun he had writing the pilot script was coming up with all the acts — and their point values — listed as examples of what humans are judged upon in a welcome video Michael shows new arrivals. “Yeah, there was some amount of debate at various points [in the writers room],” Schur admits, “because when you tell a bunch of writers to imagine everything that annoys you in life, and now you’re going to assign a point system to it and say, ‘This is worth this many negative points or positive points,’ everyone has his or her own ax to grind. So there was a lot of, ‘That’s way too low.’ ‘That’s way too high.’ ‘But what about this thing?’ What made it fun is trying to make it all seem like it was logically consistent somehow.”
Everyone’s soulmate is in the Good Place as well, which should prove interesting for Eleanor and her poor alleged one, Chidi (William Jackson Harper). “The way the world is designed, it’s like there’s some kind of omniscient formula that has determined definitively this is your soulmate, that’s it, end of story,” Schur says. “Everywhere Eleanor looks, she is surrounded by 150 or so of the happiest, most perfectly created couples of all time, and obviously she’s not supposed to be there, so her soulmate isn’t her soulmate, which causes problems for her and him. That element gets more and more complicated as the show goes along.”
If you find yourself shipping Eleanor and Chidi for real, that’s OK. “I do want people to root for them because underneath all of their turbulence and disagreements there is a spark,” Bell says. “William is very easy to have chemistry with because he’s so charismatic and he’s such an incredible actor that when I’m playing Eleanor, I want Eleanor to get her s–t together and be a good person because she has an opportunity to spend the afterlife with Chidi.”
Eleanor will turn to Chidi to teach her what she needs to know. “The main thrust, really of the whole first half of the season, is if she doesn’t become a better person and very quickly, she’s at risk of making the universe go crazy and being found out,” Schur says. “And then halfway through, some things happen that sort of set the show on a different course.”
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4. Each episode will end on a big note to keep you coming back. “There’s so many twists and cliffhangers. I just can’t understand how the writers in Mike’s room come up with all of this gold,” Bell says. “What I feel like every time I read [a script] is, ‘There’s got to be an average episode. There’s just got to be. You can’t ace every test.’ And we do!” It all leads to a season finale that will be no different. How does Bell hope the audience feels when it’s over? “I have three priorities. First, I hope people will enjoy it and laugh a lot,” she says. “Second, I hope people will go, ‘Where on Earth do we go now?’ Third, I hope that they catch themselves and go, ‘But it’s Mike Schur. He’ll make it interesting.'”
5. Both Danson and Bell are in this for the long haul. “I know I’m supposed to be cool and reserved, because we’re selling the show and I don’t want to be overly in love with something — you’re supposed to let people discover it,” Danson says. “But I swear to God it’s like Alice in Wonderland — we take so many little left-hand turns and go down these rabbit holes. It’s just extraordinary. … With luck, we’ll be back [for a second season].”
Bell’s hoping for Season 8. “I’m just incredibly proud of the show. There’s so many reasons — not just that it’s going to be fun to watch,” she says. “It actually has a positive commentary on cooperation versus domination. I think that’s a really positive vibe to be a part of.”
The Good Place premieres with back-to-back episodes Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. on NBC, before moving to its regular time slot, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m, Sept. 22.