Behold, a TV miracle. Last year, Mike Schur rolled out his heavenly freshman hit, The Good Place, and by the time the season concluded in January, it appeared to have become two shows, as if a cell had divided.
The first 12 episodes follow a group of new arrivals in the afterlife, in quirky high-concept sitcom fashion. The 13th episode, however, casts everything that came before it in an entirely new light, making a second viewing practically mandatory. Fair warning: It’s impossible to describe how Schur and his team of writers and actors accomplished this feat without the most major, klaxon-like spoiler alert imaginable.
The original poster for The Good Place, whose second season airs Thursdays at 8:30 pm on NBC, features Ted Danson and Kristen Bell sitting together on a couch. Danson has what could politely be called a poop-eating grin, while Bell looks completely floored. This image fits squarely in the context of the initial premise: that Bell’s character, the well-acquainted-with-sins Eleanor, has made it to the Good Place by mistake, while the angel Michael (Danson) is blithely unaware that she’s in the wrong afterlife. Like the show itself, however, this poster takes on a second meaning with the revelation that Michael (cue dramatic music) is actually a demon, Eleanor and the three other main characters are in hell, and Michael is grinning because that’s what demons do when they torture sinners.
The most impressive part of this narrative flip is that the show already distinguishes itself as a worthwhile gem of the Peak TV era during its first 12 episodes. The twist just elevates the series even higher. Many TV shows have applied plot-upending rug-pulls near the end of their run–think Dallas, Roseanne, and St. Elsewhere–but The Good Place is the rare series to embed a major twist in its very premise. Designing a season of television to work on two levels, though, is a much more complicated process than designing a poster that does the same.
“The explicit idea was to have the [season 1] ending be something that completely changes everything you’ve seen so far,” says Schur, who also co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
When he first conceived The Good Place, Schur was worried that the premise would burn out too quickly. There were only so many times the audience would tolerate watching Eleanor almost get found out to be in the wrong afterlife. The show needed more possibilities, and the twist provided a seemingly infinite supply. Inspired by films like The Usual Suspects and Memento, Schur set out to execute a tricky high-wire act.
“A huge part of the day-to-day work in the writers room was just making sure we weren’t doing anything that would contradict this giant world-changing twist near the end,” Schur says. “And that carried over on set, too.”
Although he had all the major beats of the second season planned out by the time he pitched the series to NBC, Schur couldn’t let everyone in on the secret. The writers, many of them Parks and Rec alumni, had to be told, but the only actors who knew were Bell and Danson. (Bell filmed the other cast members eventually finding out, and their stunned reaction is priceless.) Schur also kept the secret from the directors who popped in to helm individual episodes. This arrangement put Danson in a precarious position, where he had to confer with Schur–and Schur alone–about how to play certain scenes, rather than bounce ideas off other actors. Everything had to be just so, and only a select few could weigh in.
In the writers room, Schur kept a list of six things each episode had to accomplish. It had to be funny, of course. It also had to make use of the world the show depicts. (“This is the afterlife,” he says. “If you don’t have anything that couldn’t happen on Earth, what’s the point?”) The most challenging requirement was that each episode could not contradict the idea that Michael is secretly torturing Eleanor and her fellow recently departed. For instance, there couldn’t be any scenes depicting Michael alone. He had to be seen with one of the four humans anytime he was onscreen; otherwise, hypothetically, he would just be off somewhere, cackling about how well his fiendish plan was working.
Every script was thoroughly vetted to make sure the writers never telegraphed the twist.
“In the original pilot, when Michael introduces Tahani [Jameela Jamil] and Jianyu [Manny Jacinto] to Eleanor and Chidi [William Jackson Harper], Michael says, ‘The thought of the four of you spending eternity next to each other just fills me with an incredible sense of joy,'” Schur recalls. “And there was something about it, and I was maybe just being paranoid, but I thought it was a little tippy. Anything where our Spidey sense went off that we were maybe tipping our hand, we got rid of it.”
The show isn’t totally devoid of hints, however. Far from it. This is what makes The Good Place so satisfying to watch a second time. For one thing, you might notice that the Siri-like celestial concierge, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), mentions that the only thing she isn’t allowed to talk about is the Bad Place. It’s a tidbit that might soar, halo-like, over viewers’ heads the first go-round, but on closer look reveals how well Michael has his bases covered. Also, all the on-set discussions between Danson and Schur produced some acting moments that play quite differently on a rewatch. Just as Danson’s grin on the poster has a double meaning, so does the look on his face when [spoiler alert!] Eleanor confesses, midseason, that she’s not actually supposed to be in the Good Place. It’s a look that communicates either concerned disbelief or annoyance that the jig is up, depending what you know. Moments like these abound throughout season 1.
“The old axiom about twists is that they have to feel at once both surprising and inevitable,” Schur says. “We felt like if we could pull it off without anyone guessing it or it leaking out, the surprising part would take care of itself, but the inevitable part—that’s the hard part. We felt like we had to layer in these clues. We had to do things so that when you saw the twist, you would think back and realize, Oh, of course, Michael’s a demon.”
Schur and his writers wanted Michael to do something in the second episode that would look like the product of anxiety and fear, but that would also ultimately prove he’s an evil monster: kick a dog into the sun. The team so successfully set this moment up, it’s likely that most viewers didn’t so much as bat an eye when Ted Danson jettisons the hound. It’s such a clever play, it’s almost sinister.
Now that we’re on to Michael’s true identity, we go into the second season sitting comfortably in an even better place than we initially thought.