Writing for Television: Tips From “The Good Place”

By December 6, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By Britton Perelman

Spoilers ahead. Binge “The Good Place” before reading!

There’s so much that’s good about “the Good Place.” The Kristen Bell/Ted Danson-starring comedy series has a lot going for it — it’s tackles both deeply philosophical and light-hearted subject matter, its characters are flawed, likable, and terrible at the same time, and its main premise is wholly original.

It’s unlike anything else on television right now.

And there’s a very good reason for that (pun definitely intended).

“The Good Place” started with a unique premise: after she dies, Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in “the Good Place,” but must deal with the fact that she knows she doesn’t deserve to be there.

That alone would arguably have been enough to sustain an entire television series, but the writers of the show didn’t stick to that premise for very long. Therein lies the reason “The Good Place” succeeds.

Because the writers decided to stray from the show’s original premise, they cracked open an entire realm of possibilities for what their show could be.

For the most part, TV shows stick to the premise that is set up in the pilot episode. The premise is what allows the show to succeed, appeals to audience members, and provides the storylines.

Take, for example, the six seasons of “Lost.” Every single episode of that series is a direct result of the original premise — the survivors of a plane crash must work together in order to survive on a mysterious island.

Both serials and procedurals depend on their premises — and the resulting storylines — to continue into multiple seasons.

“The Good Place,” on the other hand, completely disregarded its original premise at the end of the first season. When Eleanor figured out that she and her companions weren’t, in fact, in the Good Place at all, it turned the show on its head.

This move may have left viewers wondering how on earth the show would continue, but the writers knew exactly what they were doing. Season two of the show has featured an abundance of clever, unique storylines that wouldn’t have been possible unless the original premise was thrown out.

The writers continue to spin the overarching narrative in unpredictable ways. It happened when it was revealed that Jianyu was actually Jason. Then again when Eleanor figured out they were actually in the Bad Place, when Michael’s experiment failed over 800 times, and when the five main characters joined forces. In the latest episode, the show is once again turned on its head in the last minute when Shawn discovers that Michael has been lying to him.

Instead of drawing storylines from the premise, “The Good Place” finds new narratives in the quirky, malleable setting or the characters themselves. While this isn’t at all unique to “The Good Place,” the show’s writers do so in a way that disregards traditional format. Every time you tune in to watch a new episode, you’re never really sure of what’s going to happen, or how.

Whereas the format of our earlier example, “Lost,” became fairly standard (flashbacks, flash-forwards, or flash-sideways’ intermixed with present action), “The Good Place” refuses to conform to any traditional format.

This rebellious quality combined with a fresh concept, original characters and setting, and a willingness to take the show in completely new directions allows the writers to succeed in making a show unlike any other.

Now if we could only figure out what’s going to happen next …


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