'The Good Place' Creator Opens Up About Bringing Peace to Its Universe in Series Finale

THE GOOD PLACE -- Whenever You're Ready - Episode 413- 414 - Publicity-H 2020
Colleen Hayes/NBC

[This story contains spoilers for the series finale of The Good Place, "Whenever You're Ready."]

The Good Place creator Mike Schur isn't talking about his show's series finale.

For one thing, Schur says that by the end of a season, he's discussed the show so much that "I'm genuinely and thoroughly sick of the sound of my own voice." 

More importantly, though, he doesn't want to rush in and explain every story beat to viewers the moment the episode ends.

"The show has always taken these big swings in finales, and unlike other shows I've worked on, I just like ending the season and putting out whatever the big idea was … and letting it be for a little while," Schur told The Hollywood Reporter Thursday morning, a few hours before the episode aired (NBC did not send the finale to critics and reporters in advance). "I would rather it go out in the world and rattle around a little bit before I jump in and start yelling and screaming about why we did what we did."

As for the finale, the hilariously vague logline for "Whenever You're Ready" — "Various conversations occur, between various groups of people" — actually turns out to be true. The four dumdums, Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D'Arcy Carden) fixed the afterlife in the previous episodes, meaning all that was left was for them to figure out was when it would be time to end their existence. 

That idea — that paradise is only paradise if it doesn't last forever — has been central to the final episodes and to religious writings for eons before that, Schur noted. "It's sort of an inescapable conclusion," he said. "It doesn't matter how great things are, if they go on forever they will get boring."

Thus each character discovers on their own time when their time to walk through the final door comes, leaving lots of room for extended grace notes for all of them. Jason (Manny Jacinto) goes first — except he doesn't, really, waiting around to give Janet a necklace he thought he had lost and essentially becoming the contemplative Jianyu he was pretending to be at the outset of the series. 

Tahani (Jameela Jamil) goes next, having mastered everything from landing a triple axel to woodworking (with an assist from Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman). Rather than passing on into nothingness, though, she goes into training to become the first human afterlife architect. 

That leaves Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who look as though they're falling into the eternal rut they both feared in the run-up to the finale. It's really, though, that Chidi is ready to go before Eleanor is ready to let him. She schemes ways to keep him around, whisking him to Athens and Paris — shot on location, Bell noted in an aftershow, with the scene on the Pont des Arts in Paris the final one of the series to be filmed — before confronting the fact that it would be selfish to make him stay. Per her wish, he leaves before she wakes up. 

The biggest twist in the finale comes with Michael, who is at loose ends now that the new system is working seamlessly — yet since he's a demon, nothing happens when he walks through the last door. Eleanor and Janet, however, have one last fix: Michael gets to become human, living out a life on Earth, making mistakes and trying to do the best he can. (Danson's real-life wife, Mary Steenburgen, has a cameo as a guitar teacher who finally helps Michael learn a particularly frustrating chord.) 

The last we see of Eleanor is her walking through the door and, seemingly, disintegrating into orbs of light, one of which lands near a neighbor of Michael's, who brings him some mis-delivered mail — a rewards card to Eleanor's favorite Phoenix watering hole. Danson gets the show's final line. He tells the guy who brought him the mail, "I'll say this to you, my friend, with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: Take it sleazy."

What happens when someone goes through the final door? Will Janet get lonely? Will Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe), nudged by Eleanor to at last leave her Medium Place, pass the test?  Schur is not answering any of those big questions yet.

He did, however, speak with THR about how he and his fellow writers arrived at the ending and how much the show changed over its four-season run from his original conception. The former Parks and Recreation showrunner, who has a rich overall deal at Universal TV, also touched on "facilitating" other writers' projects and how soon he plans to jump back into actively running a series — and how the Houston Astros' cheating scandal would look in the eyes of the Good Place.

Did the finale end up pretty much where you thought it would?

I don't know that I had any real idea of where we were going to end things [at the beginning]. It would have been extremely presumptuous of me to write a pilot and say, "When this ends four years from now, this would be a good idea." We started talking about the ending in a meaningful way probably in season three. In a very general way, we started imagining where we were heading and extrapolating a little bit. I think by the time season three ended, we had a pretty good idea of what would happen. We went into season four with that idea, and it didn't deviate too much. A lot of things on this show unfolded pretty organically, and the ending is one of them. We had the idea and then built on it, instead of junking it for some other idea.

So you didn't have a four-season plan at the outset?

No. I had a one-year plan, and then going into season two we had another one-year plan and did it that way. We were always kind of a year ahead. By the end of season three, we had a pretty good idea of where we were going to end up.

Was there anything that came up during the writing or production of this last season that changed the initial plan?

We did alter some stuff in the way we led into the finale. Mostly it was about timing. We knew we had to parse out a certain number of ideas over the last four or five episodes, and we went back and forth a lot on how much or how little to be doing in any one episode. [Starting with] the ninth episode where Chidi wakes up, and they have to redesign the afterlife and test the theory they built in the Bad Place, then they get to the Good Place — the timing of that shifted a little bit over the course of the year, but it wasn't the order of events. It was how much do we say about what's going on in each episode, and how quickly or slowly do we [reveal or] hold stuff back.

But I'm happy to say that there was never, in four years, a panic about anything. There was never a moment where we were like, "Oh no, we have to cram all this stuff in really quickly," or "We have to slow everything way down." We did a pretty good job, I think, of planning and plotting and laying things out in a way that the show had a lot of momentum but never felt rushed.

What would you hope viewers take away from the finale?

A complete sense of contentment and satisfaction about the nature of being alive on Earth. [Laughs] If we get that, we're fine.

No — there's really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that's to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it's a good ending. That's really the only goal. Anything other than that is uncontrollable and unknowable. This show has made a lot of arguments about various aspects of the human experience and about what matters and what doesn't, and about how we ought to live and behave. All of that stuff, if any of that stuff resonates, that's gravy. But my primary hope is that people who have been watching the show and like it feel like it's a good ending. That's all.

The notion of the Good Place becoming terrible after you see and do everything is a striking one. How did you and the writers approach that?

It's a pretty constant theme in any religious writing or fiction writing about the afterlife. That idea comes up again and again. It's sort of an inescapable conclusion: It doesn't matter how great things are, if they go on forever they will get boring.

When I was starting the show, before I got into the moral philosophy stuff, I got really into reading about different religions' conception of the afterlife. They're fascinating and wonderful, and I didn't know anything about them. There's the thing in Hinduism — everybody knows the basics of karma. You live a life on Earth, and you shed some of your ignorance and are a good person, when you're reborn you're a higher-level person. You're moving up the ladder. You get better and better and reborn and reborn, and eventually you kind of nail it, and when you're reborn you become a god.

But the thing is, you're not a god forever. You're a god and you're hanging out with the other gods, but you slowly use up your karma. You burn off those karmic chits that got you there, and when you're out, you start over. That sort of weirdly makes sense to me. The process can't just be that you get to god status and then you're just there forever. That's not a reward; it's a punishment. Being anywhere forever, no matter how great it is, ends up being a punishment. So it made total sense to me that at some point, you'd be like, "All right, back in the pool."

That's just one example. There are hundreds of examples in religious conceptions and literary conceptions, and they all amount to the same thing, which is it doesn't matter how you design the paradise, if you're in the paradise forever you are bored eventually. We're hardly the first people to come up with that idea, but it's a very moving idea. The characters have been in search of this land of Oz for a really long time, and we were like, when they get there they're going to find it's not great. If it's eternal, then everybody's going to be a little miserable.

Did you learn anything from making the series finale of Parks and Rec that you could apply here?

Probably — I don't know if I ever tried to articulate what I learned. Parks had such an enormous, sprawling cast of characters who floated in and out that it was sort of impossible to see everyone. We ended up seeing Jean-Ralphio [Ben Schwartz] and Shauna Malwae-Tweep [Alison Becker] and a couple other people who had been important to the show in the early going. They got a little moment to shine. But we had 10 full-time castmembers who we had to take care of and tell their stories. In this case it was important — and The Good Place has a decent number of characters too, but it was very important to me that everyone we had invested in got resolution of some kind. It was more achievable with this show. But I remember having that same impulse of wishing you could see everybody one more time. On Parks and Rec that was impossible, because we had something like 150 recurring characters.

Going back to the genesis of this show, you kind of had carte blanche to do whatever you wanted at NBC after Parks and Rec ended. Did you get any pushback or raised eyebrows from the network when you said, "I want to do a comedy about ethics and moral philosophy"?

[Laughs] I have to say that to their credit, they were really on board. They certainly had questions for me and wanted to know how I would execute it, but they didn't really blink an eye. Part of it was that I didn't go in with a half-baked idea. I didn't pitch it until I had an idea for an entire season. I didn't pitch NBC the big twist at the end of season one right away, but I pitched the premise and the pilot and the first couple episodes, and I pitched them the moment Eleanor confesses, and when the Bad Place shows up, and I pitched that Jianyu was really Jason Mendoza, an idiot DJ from Florida. It was more of a whole-world kind of pitch than "Here's the basic idea," which I think helped them understand the idea better but also [show] that I had thought this out a lot.

They wanted to make sure that it didn't ever feel like I was lecturing anyone, which I was very much on board with. So I just tried to reassure them that the primary goal is entertainment and comedy. But they were like, "Great, sounds good. Go do it." Then I got Ted and Kristen on board. If anyone's nerves were frayed, they were quickly soothed by getting Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.

With this now behind you, are you looking to actively create and run shows or be more of a facilitator and executive?

Facilitating is very fun, and it's been really nice because so many people who worked on Parks and Rec and to some extent, Brooklyn [Nine-Nine] and The Good Place, they're all chomping at the bit to have their own shows, and if I can help them do that, it's really great. I'm producing Jen Statsky's pilot she's doing with Paul Downs and Lucia Aniello at HBO Max; and Sierra Ornelas, who worked on Brooklyn, is actively running Rutherford Falls, which I developed with Ed Helms at Peacock. That part of it is great, although I feel like if you don't actively write all the time and showrun all the time, you do get rusty. It's sort of like riding a bike, but if you take too much time off you're going to be way worse at riding a bike, and the bike is going to have a broken chain. It will take a long time to get it moving again.

I'm taking a little break from being a sole showrunner for the time being, and more helping to produce and facilitate other projects. But I don't want to take too long, because I think if you do wait too long, you might just be tempted to never do it again, because it's hard. [Laughs] I do want to get back on that bike as soon as I can.

Will you keep making shows for NBC, or are you looking more to streaming and cable outlets?

I honestly think the only way to do this is to develop the idea organically and then figure out where it should be. The show that Jen Statsky is doing, there's no possible way to do it at a broadcast network. It's about a woman who uses harsh language and to not have her be able to say whatever she wants would not be executing the idea properly. So we went to streamers with that. If I have an idea that belongs on a network, I'll take it to a network. I don't think it's smart to start with the delivery mechanism and work backwards into the idea. I think you come up with the idea and then figure out where it should live.

Hypothetically, how many points would Mike Fiers get for blowing the whistle on the Houston Astros' cheating, and how many does Pedro Martinez lose for calling him out?

[Laughs] I think in general, the points system would be incredibly generous to whistleblowers of all kinds. It's a huge personal risk, and you're putting your career and in some cases physical safety in jeopardy. The whistleblower who first brought the Ukraine scandal to light has literally had the president of the United States and half the Senate gunning for him or her at all times and threatening to release his or her name publicly. That's a very brave thing to do, to stand up and say a wrong is being committed, knowing it might blow back on you. So I think Mike Fiers would probably get a lot of points.

Pedro's act of calling out Mike Fiers for being a bad teammate, he would certainly lose a chunk of points, but it's such a ridiculous thing to say and it's such a transparently bad stance — I guess the question is how much do you lose for a really bad hot take? That's the umbrella category. I don't think it's going to devastate Pedro's chances to get into the Good Place, ultimately, but it's not going to help. He's going to take a little hit there.