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At first glance, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking NBC’s The Good Place is a show with a religious undercurrent, maybe even a comedic send-up of religious themes and beliefs.
That viewer would be mistaken, executive producer and creator Michael Schur hastens to note. Schur (Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NBC’s gone but not forgotten Parks and Recreation and Netflix breakout Master of None) understands the confusion. But he stresses The Good Place, premiering Monday on NBC, is a comedy set in the afterlife but that doesn’t make it a religious show.
“It is very important to make clear in the first 30 seconds of the pilot, this is not one religion’s concept of the afterlife,” Schur tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I did a lot of research.”
After perusing various theological studies and treatises on holy documents, “I stopped doing research because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation,” he says. “The show isn’t taking a side, the people who are there are from every country and religion.”
In fact, the pilot goes out of its way to demonstrate a United Nations of characters and belief systems. The idea, Schur says, is that “not only Christians from Europe can make it to heaven.”
He makes the point early on, in dialogue between Kristen Bell (House of Lies, Veronica Mars) and Ted Danson (Fargo, Cheers) as Eleanor Shellstrop and Michael (no last name, just Michael, like the archangel), respectively.
“It is very flatly stated that this is not any one religion,” Schur says. “There’s a line when Kristen says to Ted, ‘Who was right about all this, the Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims?’ And he says every religion got it about five percent right. Now, in 1986 that line would have gotten strong pushback … [today] no one ever said a word about that line.”
A tip: Don’t use the R-word in discussing the show with its creator, and don’t ascribe even quasi-religious underpinnings to its premise. “Spiritual and ethical is how I thought of it,” Schur says.
The premise is that Eleanor is not a kind or virtuous person; she’s mean, selfish and has been sent to “the Good Place” by mistake. Her assigned soulmate will endeavor to teach her to be a better person.
“When Eleanor is working hard to become better, she’s reading more philosophy than religion,” Schur says.
Not that Schur himself hasn’t read and absorbed both philosophy and religion. He’s glad to chat about the individual sects he’s specifically not writing a comedy about. “Jews have a lot of rules for behavior, but you don’t start out in a hole. In Hinduism, with karma, you’re slowly working your way up a chain,” he explains. “That’s all in the background.”
In the first couple of episodes, he said, viewers will see people from every continent and every tradition represented in the afterlife, which is divided into neighborhoods. “A Sikh, Hispanic Christians … Ted is in charge of this neighborhood. There will be some investigation of the power structure [and] you’ll get to see a sense of where he fits in his own hierarchy.”
The pilot was shot in Pasadena’s Huntington Gardens, which, Schur says, already had the feeling of a pastiche of different cultures.
The Good Place amounts to a colorful neighborhood, with all types of people representing all manner of creeds, faiths and opinions. They have different belief systems, and the show finds humor in all and none of them. Just don’t call these neighbors “religious.”
The Good Place premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC before moving to its regular time slot on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. starting Sept. 22.
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