The 1944 Existentialist Play That Inspired The Good Place

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is the key to unlocking NBC sitcom The Good Place for creator Michael Schur.

The following contains spoilers for The Good Place…and No Exit we suppose.

One at a time, an enigmatic valet welcomes three people—a man and two women—to a room. They’re in the afterlife, and each arrives expecting punishment and torture but finds the room free of hot pokers and medieval racks. As the trio talk, they realise that their personalities and environment have been designed to make them feel wretched. They confess their wrongdoings on Earth, but nothing changes. They can’t kill each other or themselves and either can’t or don’t leave the room. They’re there together, forever. The last thing we hear one of them resignedly say is ‘well, let’s get on with it then’.

Hell is Other People

That’s the premise of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (most often translated as No Exit), the 1944 play most famous for the line that “l’enfer, c’est les autres” or “hell is other people”. It’s a much-debated line, adopted both as a pithy mantra for misanthropists, and as a statement on how other people’s perception of us constrains our personal freedom and conception of self.

No Exit however, isn’t just an acclaimed piece of existentialist theatre written by one of the most renowned philosophers of the twentieth century, it’s much, much more significant than that: it brought us The Good Place.

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NBC comedy The Good Place is the boldest and most inventive around, and due to air its third season this September. It’s the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a woman who dies and goes to the afterlife, ending up (unexpectedly after living a selfish, unethical life) in ‘the good place’, where she continually fears her imposter status being discovered. Helped by the avuncular supernatural being Michael (Ted Danson) and his “not a robot” assistant Janet, who run the joint, Eleanor is surrounded by saintly people who spent their lives selflessly giving to others. She’s a crow among angels.

If you’ve not seen at least the first season, please step away now. Major plot-spoilers follow.

Holy Motherforking Shirtballs

In The Good Place’s outrageously bold season one finale, Eleanor makes a reality-changing realization. She’s not a crow among angels; she’s a crow among other a bunch of other stinking, cawing crows. The people she’s with aren’t saints, they all deserve to end up in the bad place and in truth, that’s where they’ve been all season. See her make the connection here. It’s a moment of TV history.

The revelation was that rare thing in television: a well-kept secret. Only the writers, producers, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson were in on it, and despite Danson telling “around seventy people” while sworn to secrecy (he was frustrated that people didn’t understand the true genius of the show), somehow news of the glorious twist didn’t leak.

Moneyball Heaven

Speaking to Marc Evan Jackson on the excellent official The Good Place Podcast, creator Michael Schur (The Office, Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) explained his initial concept for the sitcom. The first idea was “Moneyball heaven”, he says in reference to Michael Lewis’ 2004 baseball analytics book and the 2011 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt. The initial idea had life as “a videogame, where you’re going around, you’re winning or losing points in every action.” At the end of a life, the points are calculated and those with high scores go to heaven, and low scores go to hell.

“That’s a very Moneyball universe,” explains Schur, “it’s a universe that’s very ‘it’s not personal’, it’s stats.”

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The next thought for Schur was that “the premise of the pilot is that a woman gets put in to the upstairs when she belongs in the downstairs and she’s like ‘uh-oh, I’m in trouble’. And I thought that’s good, that’s something, a woman who wasn’t great hiding amongst all people who were amazing. But premises in TV especially burn off real quick […] where could it go?”

The Puppet Master

If the show was simply about Eleanor being an interloper in heaven almost getting caught then wriggling free, the audience would quickly tire of it, said Schur. The solution came with his idea, “what if the whole point is, she’s not wriggling free, there’s a guy who’s a puppet master who’s letting her wriggle free because it’s torture?”

That, he says, laid out the whole trajectory for him. “At the beginning it was just like an accidental trip to heaven, then I was like oh no, it’s No Exit, it’s a really advanced No Exit—the Sartre play about the three people who are trapped in hell forever. In No Exit they all have very specific personality traits that drive one of the other ones insane and are miserable…”

Hence Eleanor, someone whose major annoyance in life is feeling looked down on by other people, being paired with educated, connected socialite do-gooder Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a woman so tall she can literally look down on Bell’s character while judging her in every other way too. And Tahani, who’s all about taste, sophistication and class, being paired with intellectually challenged scumbag Florida DJ Jason Mendoza.

“As soon as it became No Exit in my head, it was like, oh now it all makes sense, because now I fool the audience into thinking that they understand what’s happening, I make the audience think ‘oh, I get it, she’s just going to constantly wriggle free and then at the end it’s like ‘oh no, you were being tricked by the puppet master.”

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Mike Schur, puppet master supreme, we salute you.

The Good Place Season 3 arrives on September 27th on NBC.

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