Tapestry @25: Michael Schur

Michael Schur, creator of NBC comedy The Good Place, gambled that viewers were hungry for discussions about ethics and philosophy, even if they didn't know it at the time. His gamble paid off, making The Good Place a hit show.
Michael Schur, centre, accepts the Outstanding Achievement in Comedy Award at the 34th annual Television Critics Association Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Aug. 4, 2018. He was accompanied by cast members, from left: Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

Originally published in 2019.

The Good Place is probably the only mainstream TV show that explores moral philosophy while regularly name-dropping the likes of Immanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Michael Schur, co-creator of hit shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks & Recreation, gambled that viewers needed a show that was equal parts escapism and ethics lesson.

"I think that possibly the reason that people maybe didn't even know how hungry they were for those discussions is because this stuff is really hard to understand," Schur told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

"When you lay out just the basic thorny problems that different philosophers have tried to untangle and you get away from the incredibly dense and forbidding language that they've used to describe them, the basic issues are very interesting and fun."

Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) in an episode of NBC's The Good Place. (Justin Lubin/2016 NBC Universal Media, LLC)

The show focuses on four characters who have died and found themselves in The Good Place, a sort of non-denominational heaven for those who have lived a virtuous life, run by its immortal architect Michael (Ted Danson).

One of those four, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), discovers that she has actually made it to The Good Place by accident. A selfish and capricious person in her previous life, she enlists Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor, to help teach her how to be a more ethical person.

Through the lens of Chidi's lessons, The Good Place has dedicated entire episodes to concepts like existentialism, deontology and The Trolley Problem, with consultation from philosophy professors Todd May and Pamela Heironymi to make sure their treatment is both accurate and entertaining.

Chidi and Eleanor find themselves in a 'hands-on' version of The Trolley Problem. (NBC/YouTube)

"I mean honestly, we're in no danger of ever getting too deep in the weeds because I don't really understand this stuff at a deep fundamental level. I understand it at the level of an amateur enthusiast," Schur said.

For fans who do want a deeper dive, the show's YouTube page features an explainer series called Mother Forkin' Morals hosted by May.

Optimism beats pessimism

For all the talk of salvation and damnation in the afterlife, The Good Place exudes an unrelenting tone of optimism.

The sunny outlook of its characters — reflected in the bright colours of the show's costume and set design — stand in stark contrast to the most successful sitcoms of the 1990s, like Seinfeld, whose characters were fuelled by cynicism and a wry outlook on life.

Chidi, for example, remains staunchly dedicated to teaching Eleanor despite her predilection to selfishness. With time, he believes, anyone is redeemable.

Michael (Ted Danson) explains how people's actions in their lifetime are given a positive or negative points value, the total of which determines whether they make it into The Good Place upon their deaths. (NBC/YouTube)

"In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness," wrote the late author David Foster Wallace.

Schur frequently points to this quote as a road map for his creative output.

"We can all agree that the world is sort of dark and scary and miserable and unpleasant, but ... what makes a lot more sense [Foster Wallace] said is to make art that says: 'OK, given that the world is dark and miserable and sad and unpleasant, what's a path through for us as people?' Like, how do we navigate it?"

Trump and The Bad Place

That outlook was put to an unusual test near the end of The Good Place's first season, thanks to a real-world tie-in.

In a pivotal scene, Frank Sinatra's My Way plays over the speakers in a grocery store, as Eleanor recalls the moments leading up to her death.

The night after the episode aired, Donald Trump danced his first dance with his wife Melania at his presidential inauguration to My Way.

I would happily trade whatever benefit the show has gotten from [Trump's] unethical behaviour for a more ethical president.- Michael Schur

"I couldn't believe it. It was shocking," said Schur, who described the song as "the ultimate paean to selfish behaviour."

He called it "the definition of a coincidence," since the season was filmed months before Trump was elected president.

"It's a weird dovetail that I think has heightened the show's issues a little bit and made them a little more prescient, or seem a little more relevant."

The comparisons became more pointed after the shocking twist, where Eleanor deduces that she and her compatriots were in The Bad Place all along.

(Back row left to right) Actors D'Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto (front row) executive producer Michael Schur, actors Kristen Bell and Ted Danson and executive producer Drew Goddard speak onstage at The Good Place panel discussion during the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour on Aug. 2, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Michael wasn't an angelic architect, but instead a demonic trickster subjecting them to a cruel social experiment.

Some fans likened Trump's inauguration to realizing they had been in The Bad Place as well.

Schur dismissed the suggestion, however, that he secretly enjoyed the show's newfound relevancy.

"I would happily trade whatever benefit the show has gotten from [Trump's] unethical behaviour for a more ethical president."

The Good Place wrapped up at the end of January 2020.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Arman Aghbali, Rosie Fernandez and Mary Hynes. This episode of Tapestry was a finalist at the New York Festivals Radio Awards.