Brow Beat

Unlike the Sitcom, the Good Place Podcast Might Give You Genuinely Useful Moral Advice

The official companion to the NBC series offers so much more than behind-the-scenes trivia.

In a scene from The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, looks dazed as she gets to her feet in a parking lot. A man in a blue polo helps her up, and a truck can be seen in the background.
Kristen Bell in The Good Place.
NBCUniversal

It’s rare that you get viable advice for life from a TV sitcom, let alone a promotional appendage to a TV sitcom. But The Good Place: The Podcast isn’t just any promotional appendage. The format is simple enough: Host Marc Evan Jackson takes us through the show’s first two seasons one episode at a time, with guests drawn from the cast and crew. (The run through the first two seasons finishes this week, and the podcast will run in tandem with the third season beginning next week.)

Jackson, who plays The Good Place’s head demon in charge, Shawn, is a sharp and genuinely curious interviewer, combining a veteran’s knowledge with a comedic improviser’s knack for seizing the moment, and when he talks to the series’s creator, Michael Schur, their back-and-forth has the familiar ease of a conversation between old friends. (Jackson also played recurring roles on Schur’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation.) But as they talk over the show’s pilot in the podcast’s first episode, the conversation starts to seem a little too familiar: If you’re enough of a fan of The Good Place to have read a single interview with Schur—and the chances that you’re dipping into a 50-minute podcast episode if you aren’t seem slim—you’ll have heard or read much of what he has to say. Given the hundreds of times Schur must have answered similar questions, it’s not surprising he’s settled into a rhythm, but it still makes for inessential if unfailingly pleasant listening.

Schur’s presence hangs over many of the podcast’s subsequent episodes, in a manner emulating the cheery sound bites of red-carpet interviews or the time-coded backslapping of DVD commentaries. The cast and crew of The Good Place can’t stop gushing about how great it is to work on The Good Place and how much they wanted to be on a Mike Schur show (if they hadn’t) or how great it is to work with him again (if they had). Given that these are conversations being had in a public forum about their boss, you might be inclined to take this all with a grain of salt, or to politely excuse yourself the way you might when a couple at a party can’t stop talking about how wonderful their relationship is. But the more the perspectives proliferate, the more you might become convinced that the way The Good Place is run is as generous and ethics-minded as the show itself.

The podcast itself might be the best expression of that generosity. From the second episode, which features casting directors Allison Jones and Ben Harris alongside writer Alan Yang (of Master of None and the very Good Place-y Forever), it moves beyond the people we’re used to hearing and shines a light on crucial but often overlooked aspects of the process. Actors often treat discussing roles that they lost or passed on as an unbreakable taboo, but Jones casually mentions that one of the finalists for the role of Jason Mendoza, which ended up going to Manny Jacinto, was Rene Gube, who plays Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Father Brah. It’s one thing to repeat the old saw that TV is a collaborative medium, another to spend as much time with the head of the props department or the visual effects supervisor as with some of the show’s stars.

The Good Place podcast is a treat for fans of the show, yielding details that even close viewers might not spot, like a brief appearance by a “magic panda” previously mentioned as a throwaway joke. (The podcast also extends the show’s gag of replacing curse words with forking and shirt, and the second season features end credits read by D’Arcy Carden’s surly Bad Janet.) But like Julia Turner’s interview with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna—and here is the part where I say nice things about my boss—it’s also a portrait of a sane and harmonious workplace in an industry that often treats those qualities as incidental and even inimical to the creation of art. Writer Jen Statsky talks about how they keep “good for something” files on actors who audition unsuccessfully but have qualities that might be useful for a later role, which feels like an idea that ought to be written into management textbooks. And while the cast speaks in dutifully reverential terms about working with Ted Danson—whom Jackson makes a running gag of calling “Emmy winner Ted Danson”—they also talk about his determination not to let others treat him like an untouchable legend. Jameela Jamil, who had never acted before, recounts how Danson greeted her on the set by repeatedly pretending to fart on her, effectively making it impossible to hold him in any kind of awe. Visual effects supervisor David Niednagel talks about using his young daughters as models for VFX tests so they’ll feel involved in his work and about how they’re greeted as minor celebrities when they visit the set.

In an episode that also features William Jackson Harper, who plays the literally tortured moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye, Todd May, the show’s philosophy adviser, talks about how moral theorists often flounder when faced with putting their ideas into action; it’s one thing to solve the trolley problem by killing one person to save five, and another to find yourself driving the trolley with the first person’s entrails splattered all over your face. But while the characters on The Good Place are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to be good, the show is putting moral principles into action behind the scenes. Set in an environment far removed from our own, The Good Place can only offer guidance by analogy, but the podcast might genuinely guide you toward leading a better life.