A scene from the season 3 episode, “Janet.”
Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)

It wasn’t just the characters who needed to learn what it meant to be good on NBC’s The Good Place, it was the show itself. The creator of the moral philosophy series recently explained how the show went through its own metamorphosis—coming to the conclusion that being good isn’t so much about doing, but trying.

“At the beginning, I pitched what it means to be a good person. And at the end, I would describe this as a show that makes the argument that we all ought to try harder than we are,” creator Mike Schur said. “As long as you’re trying, you’re on the right path.”

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Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour (via Entertainment Weekly), Schur explained how the moral message of The Good Place has changed over the seasons, just as the characters have. At first, he intended for the show to explore what it meant to be a good person, only to realize the true complexity behind the question. No surprise, considering it’s a question that’s at the heart of moral philosophy debate, which has gone on for thousands of years, that The Good Place dives into on a weekly basis:

I pitched the show as an investigation of what it meant to be a good person, and found over the course of working on it with the writers, and the actors, and the entire crew that that’s even a more complicated question than I think I thought it was. I thought at the beginning that the show could, if given the chance, describe what it meant to be a good person. That was my hope. And that didn’t mean “Do this and not that.” It meant “Here’s what a good person looked like in the world. Here’s how a person can feel like he or she led a good life.” At the end of the day, that objective kind of shifted.

The series started with Eleanor (Kristen Bell) on a path to learn how to become a better person, eventually helping everyone else in her life do the same thing, including Michael (Ted Danson). Over the course of three seasons, the characters have gone through a series of ups and downs—including the season one shocker that they were all in the Bad Place—but the most fascinating one may have been the season three revelation that, for thousands of years, no one was making it into the Good Place. Moral absolutism had shut the door.

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This is where things started to shift for the characters...and the show’s fundamental philosophy. Schur eventually came to realize his own philosophical truth: It can’t be about doing good. That’s a subjective experience, which varies greatly depending on people and circumstances, and success is nigh-impossible to determine. Instead, he believes it’s about trying to do good. The effort, no matter its success or failure, is what counts in the end. Because that’s where you find someone’s heart, and their intentions:

That was my internal shift over the course of making the show: The newfound belief that the important thing wasn’t actually—and it’s counterintuitive to say this—being good. The important thing was that you’re trying.

It feels like a huge part of the problem, from my point of view, is that not enough people are just trying. And trying means failing. Everybody fails, all the time. Even people with the best of intentions will fail. It doesn’t matter whether you follow this theory or that theory, or this belief or whatever. You’re going to fail a lot. We all fail all the time at this.

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The Good Place returns with its fourth and final season on September 24.


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