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The Good Place‘s time clock is ticking down to an endgame.
The series from prolific showrunner/producer Mike Schur will end with its previously announced fourth season on NBC. Schur (Parks and Recreation) previously told The Hollywood Reporter that his otherworldly comedy, starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, was never designed to be a long-running effort.
“Obviously because of that DNA, where status quos get blown up so frequently, this is not a show that is destined to be on for nine years,” he told THR in December. “It’s not a 200-episode, Friends kind of a deal. It’s not a hangout show. So, yeah, we’ve given it a lot of thought, and we have a certain plan, which I think you’ll get the sense of in the fairly near future.”
The final season news, announced Friday night at the show’s For Your Consideration Emmy panel, arrives after Schur solidified his future with The Good Place producers Universal Television, inking a massive five-year, nine-figure deal said to be worth $25 million annually to remain with the studio.
The show was a dependable, if modest, performer for NBC in its third season (which wrapped in January). The serialized fantasy ranked as the network’s top comedy among the all-important adults 18-49 demographic. What’s more, The Good Place has been a rare awards season player at a time when few broadcast shows are able to cut through amid a glut of premium and streaming fare. It earned the prestigious Peabody Award this year and Emmy nominations for lead Danson and guest star Maya Rudolph, among best comedy mentions (and for Bell) at the Golden Globes, among others.
Schur, who also executive produces the Fox-turned-NBC favorite Brooklyn Nine-Nine alongside showrunner Dan Goor, has also become a prolific developer. This season, he launched the big-swing outdoor-set multicamera comedy Abby’s (which was recently canceled) and his pilot — Sunnyside, starring Kal Penn — was ordered to series at NBC. The latter single-camera entry, about an ex-New York councilman who helps immigrants in search of the American Dream, is written by Penn and Parks and Recreation grad Matt Murray.
With the final season news, there’s additional pressure on NBC to launch a new comedy hit to air alongside the fading Will & Grace revival, the modest performer but critical favorite Superstore and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, especially as The Good Place is a short-order series and runs 13 episodes per season.
The Good Place joins ABC’s Modern Family; CBS’ Criminal Minds and Madam Secretary; NBC’s Blindspot; Fox’s Empire; and The CW’s Supernatural and Arrow as broadcast series that will end their runs during the 2019-20 season.
Below, Schur opens up in an exclusive and extensive interview with The Hollywood Reporter about his thought process behind ending the show; the network, studio and cast’s response to its endgame; and what he ultimately hopes viewers take away from their time with The Good Place.
Why end with season four?
After season one ended and aired and it seemed like the show was going to survive the gauntlet of being a TV show in the modern era, I was like, “Well, this show isn’t a typical show where the goal is to do it as long as we can and as many episodes as we can.” It was never designed that way — we do 13 episodes per year from the beginning. I knew I needed to map this out in the same way that I mapped out the first season, I needed to map out the whole show. I didn’t feel like it needed to be definitive but I needed to have a sense of how long I thought the idea could sustain itself. I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that it was four seasons. There were times early on where I felt like maybe five and maybe it’s three. (Laughs.) Once I settled on four seasons, I didn’t tell anyone — except the writers. I didn’t tell the studio or network because I wanted to make sure that I was right and I wanted to leave open the possibility that as we as a team developed the show, I wanted to allow the possibility that something could change and there was more I wanted to do. But it was pretty much always four from early on as a general map. We spent all of season three checking in and making sure that we were pacing things correctly and there was going to be enough time to do what we wanted but not too much time so that we were running in place. Toward the end of us shooting season three, I told the studio and then we told the network soon after that. It was completely dictated by the idea and how much juice I thought the idea contained and the pace at which we were letting story unfold and stuff like that. The nice thing about TV shows nowadays is it’s not a forced marathon. You can let the idea dictate the number of episodes that you actually do, which is great for creativity.
When you cast Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, was this part of your original pitch to them? That this isn’t a show that will run for 100 episodes? Like, ‘Ted, this isn’t CSI, in terms of episode longevity’?
I didn’t talk about that to them because it seemed premature because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I wanted to allow for the possibility that things would go in an unexpected way. I didn’t want to curtail the good ideas by saying, “No, it has to be this many episodes or this many seasons.” I didn’t tell them until we were pretty deep into season three and I made this definitive decision in association with the writers. It was a group conversation to say, “Are we missing something? What else could we do? Where else could we go?” I didn’t tell them until I was sure because I didn’t want to tell them something and have to backtrack. I wanted until I was 100 percent sure, which was toward the end of shooting season three. I called Ted and Kristen and said this was the plan. The other thing was that I wanted to be fair to actors. They want to work and I wanted them to know a year out that we would be winding things down here and if they wanted to plan their lives, they would have enough time. It’s only fair to actors to keep them included in those conversations because if you spring it on them a week before, they may have turned down some other offers they didn’t do because they thought it would conflict with their home-base TV schedule. That was also a consideration for me and I wanted everyone to know so they could plan their lives a little better than if I had waited until the last second.
That’s a very classy move.
That’s what happens when you do a show about ethics, you start thinking all the time about everybody else’s lives in a really good way. It would maybe benefit me, personally, to do things this way but it will hurt everybody else. It’s a very simple utilitarian calculation that there are other people involved here and they have every right to know what their futures are.
Is part of you bummed that this news is out now considering the highly secretive nature of the show? I go back to the season one finale that came as such a massive surprise for everyone — especially since it didn’t leak. And you’ve protected all your biggest secrets so well for the past three seasons. Was there a part of you that wanted to surprise viewers with a series finale that nobody knew was coming?
(Laughing) No. This isn’t a creative surprise. The creative surprises we guard very zealously and carefully because to me, there is no greater experience as a viewer of something than watching something and being genuinely surprised. I said this after the season one finale. I still feel that way about the creative stuff. But I don’t feel that way about the show ending because it’s a creative decision but it’s the situation. We’ll wrap things up and if you’ve been following the show, it’s only fair that they know what our plan is for how long the show is on the air. There is something tempting about the idea of Beyonce-ing the ending of the show, where you do an episode and say goodbye and run away! That’s a fun idea in theory but the way we’ve planned out the final season, I don’t think people would not know. You’re going to get the sense as you watch the final season — about halfway through you’re going to see there’s no way that this isn’t the endgame. It didn’t strike me as having the same importance to keep this secret as the internal plot.
The larger goal with most broadcast shows is to have a long run to get to the 100-episode marker for syndication. And you guys are ending at half of that run — and when the show is at the top of its game. How much did NBC and Universal TV want this to keep going — or ask what the spinoff is?
They are very supportive of me and the show and they were a little bummed because I think they like it (laughs). I had hinted a little bit to the studio at the end of season one that I didn’t see this as being a 10-season deal. The show just moves too fast and at a certain point, there aren’t that many more moves we can make that are interesting and we’d be repeating ourselves and we didn’t want to run in place. In part of my earliest conversations with Damon Lindelof about the show, he talked about how Lost in its second and third season it got fuzzy for them and as soon as they set an end date, things clicked into place and they found their footing again. He talked a lot about needing to know where you’re going. If you’re going to try to serialize a show as heavily as we’re going to serialize it and you have the twists and turns that we’re planning, he said you just need to know where you’re going all the time. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise to the studio, but it was more of a surprise to the network — and they were a bit bummed out.
But we’re living in a different time now. The white whale for every studio and network is The Big Bang Theory and a show that goes for 12 years and 300 episodes. But there aren’t that many Big Bang Theorys out there. It’s also not the only way to make money anymore. It was the only white whale for decades because that was the only way the studios could make their money back on shows they were deficit spending on. But that’s not the case anymore. Our show was sold to Netflix after one season and season three is launching there in a couple months. And there’s Hulu and NBC.com. Our overnight rating when the show airs on NBC is 4 million or something. By the time a couple weeks have gone by, it’s up to 9 million or 10 million. They’re figuring out a way to make money on TV shows that don’t have to last, go into syndication or get a cable sale. It’s still important and still a better money-making operation for any studio if a show lasts for 10 years and makes 200 episodes, but they can make money on every show now. So they were bummed because they like the show, but also I didn’t get any pushback at all. They were completely creatively supportive and understood 100 percent why we were doing it this way.
What was the cast’s reaction to the show’s abbreviated lifespan?
They were surprised and saddened, but then quickly not surprised or saddened because it’s been really fun to make this show. They get along really well and have all become really good friends. They’ve have this special journey that they’ve been on and their careers are all exploding. Ted and Kristen came with pre-exploded careers, but Manny [Jacinto] is in Top Gun and Will [Jackson Harper] is writing plays and appearing in movies and Jameela [Jamil] is the queen of the internet right now. And D’Arcy [Carden] is everywhere and in every magazine. This has been a very special, highly concentrated thing that we’ve gotten to do for 53 episodes — because we’re doing 14 episodes this season and doing an hourlong series finale. We’re just chewing up story at an incredibly fast rate and it immediately makes sense that we would want to get out on our own terms and not feel like we were throttling back and moving more slowly or deliberately than we have to this point. That just wouldn’t seem like the same show. So we’re going full tilt until the end. Everybody at the end of the day is happy that we’re going to end it the way we started it — at a breakneck speed, with a lot of crazy, wild twists and turns.
Is there a theme for the final season?
Not that’s different from the themes of first three seasons. When you wrap up a show, there’s a certain amount of tying up loose ends that goes into it that’s a little different than what we’ve done so far. The way that the third season ended was that they’re going to repeat this grand experiment of Michael (Danson)’s neighborhood with new people and see what happens when it’s new people. Their wager is that any group of people, if given a certain amount of love, support, empathy and help, can become better. That essentially no one is beyond rehabilitation. That’s the first chunk of episodes: repeating this experiment with these new people and having our crew now shift from students to teachers a bit. That’s the plot experiment that’s happening. The aftermath is the aftermath, and I won’t get into that too much. The themes are the same and the way the stories unfold is a bit different. Instead of our group being the guinea pigs, they’re now the scientists.
The Good Place is part of a philosophical wave of shows that includes Westworld, Russian Doll and After Life that explore what it means to be human. What kind of message do you hope to send in general with the show as you think about the feeling that comes with writing “end of series”?
I hope one of the takeaways is that ethics is a really important discipline. Ethics and living an ethical life or trying to live an ethical life is incredibly important to me and I hope it’s important to other people. … I hope the main lesson of the show, in terms of ethics, is that the important thing is that you try and you’re aware that ethics matter and are factoring them in to your decision making at all times as best you can. We’re trying to say at some level that trying is as important as doing because trying means you’re thinking about it and you’re making the effort.
Too many people don’t make any effort or deliberately make the wrong effort in order to make their own lives better at the expense of other people. This show is trying to say that this is a thing that matters and it should be a factor in every moment of your life. And there’s a downside — if you think about it too much, you become Chidi (Jackson Harper) and you don’t do anything. So putting a filter on your life that when you have to make decisions, you do a quick check at the end with your ethical compass and say, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? And could I be doing something better?” It’s not that hard. This show is taking a very simple and obvious position that it’s better to live that way than to not live that way. That’s one of the main messages of the show.
The other one comes from that book, What We Owe to Each Other, the actual philosophy of that book is complicated and it involves a lot of hard to untangle social theory stuff. It basically says if you’re setting up a society, you should do it through a system where everyone has a vote and anybody can veto anybody else’s idea. And if someone proposes an idea and you’re a reasonable person and you don’t reject that idea and no one objects, that’s a good idea. That’s the basic distillation of that book. But the larger sense of that book, to me, is that we owe things to each other. That you start from a position of owing things to other people and that your life should be led with that in mind all the time. That this is not an everyman or -woman for him or herself situation. That we have obligations to each other and it’s up to us to take care of each other; and that no one can really live a full and happy life without the support of other people. So, it’s incumbent upon each person to provide that help, love and support for other people to the best of his or her ability. Those are the basics. It’s ironic to say this, but we’re trying not to be moralistic about it in this show about moral philosophy. (Laughs.) Those are basic ideas; those shouldn’t be controversial ideas — you should always try to live your life as ethically as possible and that you have obligations to other people. If we can’t agree on those two principles, then we’re doomed. (Laughs.)
You just signed a five-year deal to remain with Universal TV. You are executive producing NBC’s Kal Penn comedy, Sunnyside, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Master of None, none of which you’re writing. What do you hope to do next, especially with the upcoming Comcast streaming platform?
I’m not 100 percent sure. There are a bunch of projects I’m either exec producing or co-creating/shepherding in various stage of development. What interests me the most is there’s a bunch of people that I’ve worked with at various shows who are now champing at the bit to have their own shows and to be captains of their own ships. It’s very exciting to me to think about trying to help them. Either by co-creating or exec producing or advising, because there are a lot of voices that are worth hearing and being on TV. So, my focus is helping other people right now.
That feels appropriate after the messaging in The Good Place.
Exactly. I’ve been running my own show in some form or another continuously since 2008, and it’s been really fun. Parks and Rec was amazing, and the first two seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine that Dan Goor and I were running together were great, and The Good Place has been great. But I feel like there’s been enough of my particular voice for the time being. I’m eager to help other people put theirs on TV.
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