From Script to Screen: How 'The Good Place' Gets Away With Constant Reinvention (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
The scenes you remember from your favorite television shows don’t often start out that way. From conception to the page to the small screen, changes are made for creative, budgetary and/or time constraints that you’re often not aware of. In the From Script to Screen series, we break down a pivotal scene from the current TV season with the people who put pen to paper, to give us an exclusive inside look at how an original idea transforms into a memorable TV moment.
The Good Place continues to redefine what it means to be a TV comedy. What started out as a sardonically upbeat show about a woman, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who wakes up in the afterlife, discovers she was placed in a heaven-like utopia called "The Good Place" by mistake, and is forced to her to hide her morally corrupt behavior by attempting to become a better person, has turned into the ultimate case study in reinvention. Since the first season, the beloved NBC series has cycled through twist upon twist upon twist, some more spectacular and unbelievable than others, posing creative quandaries about what lies ahead. In a time when surprises are few and far between, as audiences become attuned to seeking out plot points and story clues, The Good Place remains a lone outlier in getting away with the near impossible: pulling off the greatest TV reset.
Created by Michael Schur (brainchild behind Parks and Recreation and half the creative team on Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the half-hour series has consistently revamped itself as it has gone along, with literal worlds left behind and initial ideas abandoned. Just consider The Good Place's freshman finale, which produced one of the best world-upending twists in recent TV memory that radically shifted the show's course.Up until that point, Eleanor and friends believed they were inhabitants of The Good Place and were thoroughly shocked (much like viewers were) when the architect of the neighborhood, Michael (Ted Danson), wickedly revealed that they weren't in "heaven" at all but the dreaded Bad Place this entire time. Psych!
The finale revelation reset The Good Place for all intents and purposes; whatever ideas that were had about the endgame now was completely thrown out the window. As a result, the sophomore season's early episodes were spent regurgitating, to a degree, the new normal for Eleanor and Co. It wasn't until the third episode, the Groundhog Day-inspired installment titled "Dance Dance Resolution," that propelled the story forward in a wholly unexpected direction.
“We, as the writers, are constantly trying to surprise our audience, which hopefully has been happening throughout the show so far. And sometimes, that means playing a long game," supervising producer and writer Megan Amram tells ET. "I think a lot of people saw the first episode of the season, which was an hour-long two-parter, and thought, 'Oh, so they're going to kind of do season one again? They've rebooted it and now we're going to see how they react to their new environment.' Then my episode comes along and immediately, we blow up everything and say no, that's not what this season is going to be about. The season is going to be about something that, hopefully, you did not see coming and totally out of left field. We love [making people think] that we're going to do something predictable and then doing something completely different."
The nine-minute opening of episode three, the season's creative pivot point, shows Michael's attempts to successfully create a faux-"Good Place" for Eleanor and her motley crew reach astronomical levels thanks to Eleanor solving The Bad Place riddle nearly every time. On Michael's 802nd reboot, they confront him about his ruse, leaving him to present them with a game-changing proposal: Bring me into your group and I'll take you to the real Good Place. Ding. The reboot-heavy sequence was an idea that was more than a year in the making -- the origins of it stemming from the end of season one. "We thought it would be so much fun if Michael gets progressively more and more frustrated with them as they start figuring out what's going on," explains Amram, who wrote the episode.
While some of the reboots were joint collaborations in the writers' room, Amram -- who half-jokingly calls herself one of the show's "crazier" writers and is known for the memorable storefront food puns (see: The Pesto's Yet to Come, Biscotti Pippen, Beignet and the Jets) -- estimates about half of them were "weird versions" she thought of herself. "The first [attempt] that you see is one where we wanted to mimic the entire season one journey. You have a lot of similar beats in it, as what you saw over the entire course of season one because that would be the clearest way to start off the episode," Amram says. "Obviously, the more and more you go on, the shorter the cuts become, the crazier the stories appear to be."
See Amram's annotated script pages below.
Examples of standout kooky moments from the sequence featured a brief but strange snapshot of a creepy clown appearing to stalk the main foursome as they hid behind a glass door ("You're like, 'What did Michael do? How did this happen that there's a clown seemingly stalking our main characters?'" Amram says) and when Michael presents a glowing obelisk to the group ("At one point, we were going to have the obelisk have lines or there was going to be backstory that the obelisk was pregnant," she recalls, "which is absolutely insane").
Another attempt saw Michael dressed in sweats, drinking away his sorrows as he laments his inability to successfully fool Eleanor, who happened to be sitting in his office listening to his inadvertent confession. "That one, in particular, is very near and dear to my heart," Amram says with a chuckle. "I gave Michael a lot of lines that I feel like I say when I’ve had a couple of drinks: ‘Ugh, my thighs and my problem area…’" Initially, the Groundhog Day sequence was twice as long as what made it to air; Amram revealed that there was much more meat to that specific scene. "After he sees Eleanor there, he ended up getting up and doing Lady Gaga karaoke in the corner. If we could have an entire episode with drunk Michael crying and singing karaoke, I would’ve loved that, but there wasn’t enough time.”
Part of the puzzle of The Good Place is balancing the zany, absurdist comedy ("There is nothing too crazy anymore," Amram notes) with surprising developments, the latter of which may seem effortless to the casual viewer but is extremely difficult to execute on a consistent level. So how do The Good Place writers achieve this on a week-to-week basis?
"In the writers’ room when we brainstorm, especially when we’re plotting out an overarching plan for the season, we like to say, ‘If I were just a viewer watching, what are the first 10 things that I would think was going to happen?' and we list out what seems obvious," Amram reveals. "Then you can go, ‘OK, so we’re not going to do any of those. We’re going to keep moving the plot as quickly as possible,’ something that is a very difficult part of writing the show but also very satisfying. We burn through plot very quickly, so we’re constantly thinking of new ways to mess with the worlds and new ways to surprise people. I think a lot of people thought that it was going to take a whole season for Eleanor to admit to Michael that she was a mistake. Then we did that in episode seven. And then, 'Oh my god, where do we go from here?' We’ll keep going at this pace until we run out of ideas in two weeks.”
Amram acknowledges that the show is extremely serialized and can get "weird" at times, but at the end of the day, it's equally important to dole out key pieces of intel every episode -- even if it doesn't seem like the payoff will be immediate. "We try to make sure that every episode feels like you're learning a very exciting piece of information by the end of it," Amram sums up, declining to tease what the finale entails. "I really cannot say anything, but I think it will be more fun that way," pausing for a moment as if debating whether or not to offer up a nugget. "It's definitely not random. We think through every little thing very long and hard, but it just keeps going at a fast pace. I promise you it will be more fun if I don't tell you anything."
The season finale of The Good Place airs Thursday, Feb. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.