LOS ANGELES | Before Michael Schur pitched his latest series to NBC, he took “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof to lunch and asked to play a game called “Is This Anything?”
A “Lost” fan, Schur wanted to set a comedy in the afterworld and give it the same kind of dramatic cliffhangers. Lindelof, he figured, would know if the concept could fly.
“He gave me a lot of wonderful advice,” Schur says.
The result? “The Good Place,” a look at one woman’s time in what some might consider heaven. After she’s shown the very exclusive resting place, she realizes someone made a mistake – she’s not the Eleanor Shellstop they were seeking.
Kristen Bell plays the odd woman out; Ted Danson is the site’s “architect.” Like “Lost,” the new NBC will shift repeatedly, giving viewers a sense of Eleanor’s bumpy afterlife.
Among the conceits: swearing. In “The Good Place,” characters may say a four-letter word, but it comes out in PG form.
“In the fourth episode, Kristen calls someone ‘shirt for brains,’” Schur says. “It’s very fun to do and we had to kind of put the clamps on because if you give a writers’ room a game like that they tend to lose their minds and do it like a million times.”
Additionally, “good” and “bad” deeds are ranked on a point system.
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In the pilot, Danson lists the point values in a “welcome” video. The system got its start while Schur, the executive producer of "Parks and Recreation," was driving around Los Angeles. “Someone cuts you off or does something annoying and the thought I would have all the time is, ‘That’s negative eight points, man.’ My sort of secret hope was that there is an omniscient system that we’re all being judged by. It’s impartial and definitive and absolute and you don’t have to worry about judging bias.”
Bell’s character questions why her neighbor lives in an elaborate house, has more amenities and seems to be living a better life when she’s stuck in a small home with clown paintings.
“The lesson for Eleanor is you have to see the bigger picture,” Schur says. “When you get the full profile of the person, something like being a little bit condescending is far outweighed by these incredibly wonderful good deeds that she did on Earth. Once you’ve established that, you get to have (the neighbor) be condescending to her for the next 10 episodes.”
Neighborhoods are different, too. “It’s like every neighborhood is specific to the 322 people who live in that neighborhood,” Schur says. “It’s paradise for them specifically.”
Bell was intrigued by some of the businesses in those neighborhoods – a clothing store called Everything Fits. Or a store called Warm Blankets. “Who can make the argument that a warm blanket isn’t awesome?” she says.
Through flashbacks, audiences will get to see what Eleanor was like before she died. “What I love most about Eleanor is the fact that she just lets her tongue loose,” Bell says. “She has no edit button or tact. She just says what she’s feeling at all times. The great thing about it is it’s usually also inarguable, but it’s just not necessarily the right and kindest thing to say in the moment.”
To make sure the concept flies – with someone other than Lindelof – Schur plotted the whole season. “And I didn’t feel like I knew what the whole season was going to be until I could literally imagine where Season Two would at least start.”
Now, before the first episode even airs, most of them have been shot.
Ultimately, Schur says, “The Good Place” will address what it means to be a good person.
“When I started doing research for the show, I was reading a lot of books about religious conceptions of the afterlife. After I did that, I realized that it was utterly irrelevant and I didn’t need to do any of it because the show wasn’t a religious show. It’s really about ethics: Your actions don’t just end when you turn away or close your eyes or leave the place.” There’s a ripple effect.