How Mike Schur’s 'The Good Place' Is Revolutionizing the Sitcom

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NBC

Nestled between NBC’s workplace comedy Superstore and the Will & Grace revival sits a little revolution called The Good Place. The fantasy sitcom, created by Parks and Recreation’s Mike Schur, stars Kristen Bell as Eleanor, who has died and gone to a non-denominational heaven. The driving conflict? She’s a terrible person sent there by mistake. The first season was sharp and witty but it moved along in classic sitcom fashion—until the final episode, with its 180 twist (major spoiler here): Eleanor figures out that her new home is not, in fact, the good place, it’s the bad place. Furthermore, Michael, the ethereal architect played by Ted Danson, is a torture demon testing out a new idea. No one saw that coming, which was precisely the creator’s intention.

“A story with a surprise is the best gift for a viewer,” says Schur, who offers one of his favorite films, The Usual Suspects, as evidence. Season 2 of The Good Place, which premiered last month, might not be as mind-bending as that 1995 movie, but it’s much more ambitious than your average network sitcom. Most comedies “reset” at the end of every episode, returning things to the status quo. The Good Place—while still sticking to solid sitcom tropes (quippy lines, running gags, will-they-won’t-they romantic tension)—is an ever-changing, plot-driven adventure. Like, for example, an episode this season where years pass in minutes. “We are now so deep into the history of TV—80 years into sitcoms!—that everyone has seen everything before,” Schur says. “The goal was to tell a new, meaningful 20-minute story.”

GettyImages-153544316 'Parks and Recreation' creator Mike Schur is changing the game of the sitcom with 'The Good Place.' Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Schur has had a storied TV comedy career: He wrote for Saturday Night Live, then Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant and underappreciatedThe Comeback, thenThe Office—a show often credited with popularizing the single-camera, no-laugh-track sitcom in America (following the model of the the UK Office). After Parks and Recreation, he co-created Fox’s popular Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So he knows the sitcom rules and how to break them.

The challenges of The Good Place began with the unique concept: a philosophical, morality-driven sitcom about the after-life. “There’s a real risk when you’re dealing with a show that’s about philosophy and ethics of sounding like a blowhard,” says Schur. “I’m walking a really fine line here. Is this going to be interesting, or are we going to sound like a bunch of college sophomores smoking clove cigarettes?”

And that’s where the 21-minute time limit of the traditional sitcom works its magic. “You’ve got to hone your story and make sure there’s not any extra crap,” he says.

This week’s episode, “The Trolley Problem,” sidesteps the extra crap with a bit of gore. Chidi, an anxious ethics professor (William Jackson Harper), is once again trying to teach Eleanor and Michael how to be good, this time with the trolley problem (a thought experiment used extensively in empirical research on moral psychology). Chidi's ethics quickly break down when Michael makes the experiment real: He must choose between intentionally killing one person, or do nothing and kill five. 

10-19-the-good-place-02 Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper and Ted Danson of "The Good Place." Colleen Hayes/NBC

“It’s weird because the characters themselves are all dead,” says Schur of the show’s darker-than-average humor. In season 1, for example, Michael drop kicked a dog into the sun. “It’s not okay to kick a dog! But when he kicks a dog, you’re like ‘Oh, it’s not a real dog.' It's a weird holodeck universe," Schur adds, "so you’re more willing to roll with cruelty.” (For astute viewers, the dog provided a hint of Michael’s true self.)

Schur says there will be more twists and turns throughout season 2, though nothing quite like the season 1 finale. “The only reason we got away with that twist was because nobody was looking for it,” he says with a laugh. “But now they are.” He does offer one tantalizing hint at plot development: Pay attention to the budding relationship between Michael and Eleanor. “In some weird way, they are kindred spirits,” says Schur. 

Watch The Good Place Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.