SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Janet(s),” the Season 3 midseason finale of “The Good Place.”
“The Good Place” creator Michael Schur and his team of writers and producers first got the idea for an episode that would feature star D’Arcy Carden in multiple roles all interacting with each other in the same scene at the end of the second season of the NBC afterlife comedy. It started with wanting to see Carden’s character, Janet, taking “everyone into her void and they’re all versions of her,” Schur says, but over time evolved a bit so that the series could tie some of the bigger philosophical points for which it has become known to the unique visuals. And it was BBC America’s “Orphan Black” that gave Schur confidence they could pull off such a complicated technical feat.
“‘Orphan Black’ did it like 1000 times,” Schur says. “That’s what I kept thinking of — that scene in ‘Orphan Black’ where the clones finally meet each other and Tatiana [Maslany] was just handing herself things and talking to herself and had her arm around herself.”
“The Good Place” matched “Orphan Black” for its creative shot style and number of versions of Janet in the aptly titled “Janet(s),” the Season 3 midseason finale episode. Carden had to perform six versions of Janet, including “original” Janet, a “neutral” version encountered at the accounting office and one version that was each of the four human characters in Janet form. The majority of the episode, therefore, was Carden acting against a pole or a stand-in in a wig, with the visual effects team, led by David Niednagel, digitally inserting a different version of her into the scene during post production. Everything had to be choreographed “to the millimeter,” says Schur.
But since Schur and his team had the idea for the episode so early on, they were able to flesh out the script, with a little help from philosophical advisors Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi, early, as well.
“This episode is a perfect use of them because we had this idea that we liked, which was six Janets basically…but we were sort of like, ‘To what end?’ If it’s just that, then it’s sort of gimmicky and it doesn’t feel that interesting and will wear thin,” Schur says, noting they asked for help with “philosophical perceptions of the self,” which is what helped spur the idea that Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) “sense of self would crumble” in the episode, ultimately threatening the integrity of Janet.
They then shot the episode in early July, first asking the whole cast to do a traditional table read, as well as running it through for cameras. Those tapes — both audio and visual — became aids for Carden, who studied them to learn the mannerisms of her fellow cast members so she could adopt some of them as her own without falling too deep into a parody.
“I didn’t listen to music for, like, a month. I only listened to that,” Carden says of the table read audio. “It is hard to play five really well-established characters that I know for years now — it’s a different thing than making up five new ones. We were really kind of figuring out if we wanted to do impressions of them or just a hint of them. We didn’t want it to be like ‘SNL’ sketch characters — we didn’t want it to be over the top. It was a really fine line.”
Carden notes that nailing Bell’s Eleanor and William Jackson Harper’s Chidi were the hardest characters to embody, but the most complicated overall scene was the one in which she ultimately had to kiss a version of herself.
“There was a pole with a literal pair of lips. It was exactly at my lip height, and it was on, like, a Lazy Susan that was controlled by some dude. But it was a pole, it wasn’t a body, so I had to hug air and kiss these lips, and start spinning. I couldn’t smile or laugh,” she says. “The kissing was one of the funniest, wildest parts because then I had to kiss Kristen, and it had to match exactly — the head tilt and every inch of us.”
Production for “Janet(s)” was only five and a half days long, with Carden spending a lot of time in an “all white room.”
“There was a lot of trust needed and a lot of shorthand,” Carden says of the process and working with director Morgan Sackett.
But the B-storyline took them to an abandoned office building in Simi Valley for the accounting department scenes. “You’re in one of the two weirdest places on Earth the entire time,” Schur notes.
The combination of complicated visual effects needed to layer multiple versions of Carden into a scene, as well as the digital expansion of that office “to go in every direction” lengthened the post-production process by months, with the final touches being put on at the end of November. Niednagel did the majority of the effects in-house, Schur says, including digitally altering the “Existence’s Best Boss” lettering on the accountant’s (Stephen Merchant) mug so that they were cheated to the camera, a nod to the U.K. version of “The Office.” But the effects needs were so expansive compared to what they usually do week in and out that they hired Zoic Studios to work on the piece at the end of the episode in which the void is breaking up.
“Janet(s)” wasn’t just an opportunity for “The Good Place” to show off complex effects, but also a chance to shove the story into a new direction. After Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet visited the accountant and learned that no one had made it to the titular good place in 521 years, Michael’s suspicions that someone from the bad place had hacked the system seemed to have more weight.
“We chose roughly 500 years because we figured once the world was sort of closed as a loop — once exploration moved from Western Europe across the ocean — that basically after that moment it was essentially impossible for anyone to live a life to get in by the criteria we’ve set up,” Schur says, noting that the writers’ room kicked around names like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Jonas Salk early on (the latter two made it into the final cut of the episode), but people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were dismissed. “What gave us wind in our sails for this idea, which is like go try to find the incontrovertibly great person in history who never did anything [bad]. Anyone antebellum is screwed in America, pretty much.”
While Michael doesn’t have the whole story yet but “will shortly,” according to Schur, he does have more information now than he ever has. And more importantly, he has a plan — to find the good place committee and get to the bottom of things. “The question of why no one has gotten in in 521 years will be answered in the next episode,” Schur confirms.
Meanwhile, rooting around in Janet’s void gave Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) the knowledge that in one of the good place tests Jason and Janet were actually married and she was still in love with him. And in an attempt to help Eleanor regain her confidence, Chidi finally made a decision, took charge and kissed her. These more personal elements will also drive the story when the series returns with the back half of the season in 2019.
“They’re holding hands and gazing into each others’ eyes,” Schur says of Eleanor and Chidi. “What happens at the end of this episode is big and it’s real, and this wasn’t intentional — at least it wasn’t one of the original objectives — but for a while we’ve been trying to think of what would make Chidi get over his internal essential Chidi-ness when it comes to romance. And when we figured this out, it was like, ‘Oh this is the thing.’ He’s going to worry about a lot of things; he’s not going to worry about her or how he feels about her or how she feels like that. This is a sort of watershed for him, so picking up almost immediately in the next episode, it’s pretty gooey.”