Mike Schur is in a good place. Make that “The Good Place.” The prolific producer’s latest effort — a high-concept comedy starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson — last summer earned a straight-to-series pickup from NBC and now has scored a Thursday-night slot at 8:30, as announced during the network’s upfront presentation.
It’s a testament to Schur’s track record at Universal Television, where his successes include “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
But this time around, he wanted to do something different.
“It’s really intimidating when every idea you have is being done eight times over at eight different networks,” says Schur. “In my case, I had been working on ensemble office comedies pretty much continuously for 10 years.”
That theme is jettisoned with “The Good Place,” in which the only office in sight is the one in which Eleanor (Bell) wakes up to learn that she’s dead. But she’s in “the good place,” some idyllic version of the afterlife. Danson plays its architect, Michael, who explains that only the best people end up there, as opposed to that other place.
But there’s a twist: Eleanor learns that a clerical mistake has been made, and she’s not supposed to be in the good place. She can’t let this be known, given the alternative. So she has to hide in plain sight — and somehow try to be a better person.
There are twists baked into every half hour, with a beginning, middle, and end story arc that will unfold over the course of the 13-episode season. NBC bought it in the room — and agreed to take it straight to series.
|“It’s not necessarily about quantity purely; first and foremost, it’s about making the best show, which is very obviously a better way to do it.”|
“We wouldn’t do that with just anyone,” concedes Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president. “We revere Mike at this company, and he had a really great pitch that immediately pulled us in. He was building a world that wouldn’t look like anything else on television. We’d never heard anything like it before. Mike had us at hello.”
Naturally, Schur was relieved to be able to skip the pilot process. “There’s an old statement that says, ‘Trying to sneak a fastball by Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster,’ ” says Schur. “That’s how it feels sometimes in TV — especially in network TV. The gauntlet that you have to go through is extremely long and difficult and tricky.”
He points to the “clumsy dialogue” of pilots, in which writers have to overexplain characters and their relationships with one another, and the “incredible pressure” to cram it all into 21 minutes. “It’s impossible,” he says bluntly. Freed from that constraint, “The Good Place” will unfold far more deliberately. “There’s a lot more room to be funny, hopefully, and tell a more interesting story,” he says.
Schur sees a sea change among networks, which are increasingly letting the concept drive the length of a show, “instead of telling every painter to paint on the exact-same-sized canvas.”
For Salke, the 13-episode strategy was actually a selling point: She’s actively looking for the flexibility in scheduling that short-run series provide. When series have 10 to 13 episodes, she argues, she can run them straight through without breaks.
Also making short seasons attractive is the ever-evolving TV business model: The emergence of SVOD paying to stream shows in their first seasons has eased up the pressure for the push to that 100th episode for syndication.
“That was the old way of working, where you’re just trying desperately to claw your way into syndication,” says Schur. “I think you’re seeing the result of that — that it’s not necessarily about quantity purely; first and foremost, it’s about making the best show, which is very obviously a better way to do it.”
Naturally, the shorter run can hold appeal for the talent as well. Coming off the more traditional run of “CSI,” Danson wasn’t interested in doing 22 episodes.
Neither was Bell. “It’s just as important for me to be on a show that allows me to be a present mother as it is to be on a show,” she says. “I want to do good, fun, exciting work, but being a mom is more important to me, to be honest.”
|Kristen Bell’s character Eleanor can’t escape the clown car. Cody Pickens for Variety|
Another benefit: a short run can allow for more creative, direct storytelling. “Since it’s the afterlife, there are endless possibilities,” Bell says. “Sometimes a show that relies on reveals and mystery can seem a bit cattywampus, like we’re drawing ideas out of a hat in the writers room.”
No cattywampus here: Schur’s delivering something of a message, says Bell. “It’s a comedy, and it’s going to make people laugh. But it’s also saying something about human beings and about morality and about social responsibilities and challenging ethics and the idea of right and wrong. It’s stimulating stuff.”
While Danson drew raves for his perfor-mance in Noah Hawley’s black comedy “Fargo,” “The Good Place” marks the actor’s return to his traditional sitcom roots. Comedy is harder than drama, he says. “It’s more in your hands. As long as you show up and are basically real in the moment, the drama works. With comedy, you really have to have that right energy. You either are or aren’t funny. It’s hard, but boy, that giggle at the end of the day is seductive, and something I’ve missed.”
That’s what drew him to Schur’s pitch for “The Good Place,” even though there was no script. “I grew up with [‘Cheers’ executive producers] Les and Glen Charles. I’ve been so blessed in both drama and comedy to be around such wonderful writers,” he says. “I think you recognize that mind. And that’s what I recognized with Mike.”
Schur says he had Danson in his mind when he was writing the pilot. “I literally learned the concept of comedic timing from him,” he says. “I didn’t understand what timing was until I watched ‘Cheers.’ I think he has the greatest comedic timing of any comic actor who’s ever worked — certainly in TV.”
Similarly, he envisioned Bell, who he’s known since 2001, for the role of Eleanor.
“She just kept popping into my head as the model for who the character should be, because she’s so winning and charming and funny. But also she has a little bit of an edge to her,” he says. “She has a little twinkle in her eye that makes you feel like she could get up to no good in a way that would be still kind of appealing.”
Plus, he adds with a laugh, “she’s actually a person who would end up in the good place. She’s the only person I know, I think, who actually is headed there, if it does actually exist the way we laid it out.”
Yet Schur didn’t think Bell would be able to come on board because of her commitment to Showtime’s “House of Lies.” He approached her anyway, and a deal was struck that allowed her to juggle “The Good Place” with a potential sixth season of “House of Lies.”
“The pitch was bizarre, brilliant, and like nothing I’d ever heard before,” says Bell, who also signed on sans script. “It looked like it was not only going to be challenging intellectually, but also comedically.”
|Cody Pickens for Variety|
Asked to compare “The Good Place” to another show on TV, she says, “I’d say it’s like a super-comedic version of ‘The Americans,’ because there are a lot of secrets. It’s the most lighthearted version of ‘The Americans’ you can get.”
What sealed the deal for her was the pairing with Danson, which she calls a “no-brainer.” They’ve been friends ever since they worked together on Ken Kwapis’ 2012 movie “Big Miracle” and frequently go on double dates with their spouses.
Their off-set friendship has translated to the screen. “Ted’s a dreamboat. He’s such a goofball,” she reports. “He’s like a human light bulb. He’s just effervescent.”
Danson, meanwhile, raves about Bell’s intelligence. “She’s really smart,” he says. “I hire 49 people to help cram the words into my head. She looks at a page and has almost a photographic memory. She’s embarrassed when I tell people this.”
“The Good Place” set depicts a folksy version of heaven, a town filled with stores called “Everything Fits” and “Warm Blankets” and “Infinite Light” and “All the Books.” There’s no shortage of dessert shops — the running joke, Bell says, is that “human beings just love frozen yogurt.”
Then there’s Eleanor’s home, which has been decorated for her ultimate happiness — except, as we know, it wasn’t really meant for her. So our Eleanor has to grin and bear the maddening number of clowns that stare at her from every available surface.
“I’ve been lucky to work on shows where I was genuinely interested in the plot line, but I don’t know whether I’ve ever laughed out loud as much as I have reading these scripts,” says Bell.
It’s all but impossible to pin anyone down on specifics of the plot — Schur’s adamant about preserving surprises for the viewer. Teases Salke, “It’s the afterlife, so anyone can show up.”
The sneak attacks occur in nearly every episode. “Mike is so committed to making every end-of-show feel like an end-of-series, to build that momentum every episode, to try to really pull the rug out from underneath the audience,” says Bell.
The surprises are especially effective given Schur’s confident approach, Danson notes. “You know when you start to watch a movie, you can tell right away whether you’re in secure, assured hands?” he says. “This film has been crafted well. It has told you in the first 30 seconds, ‘Relax, enjoy the ride.’ You will not quite know where it’s going, but I think you’ll be hooked.”