How do you take the most complicated episode of one of the most intricate and celebrated network sitcoms in recent history and boil it down into a story simple enough that even a child can keep up?
That was the challenge Dylan Morgan and Josh Siegal faced as they went to work on “Janet(s),” the tenth episode of the third season of NBC’s “The Good Place,” in which the pair needed to navigate an inter-dimensional void, explain the universe’s accounting department, save the show’s central couple, and do it all in 23 minutes or less. For their efforts, Morgan and Siegal earned an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy nomination and the distinction of crafting one of the most memorable episodes of the 2018-19 television season.
For those unfamiliar, “The Good Place” — which launches its fourth and final season in September — centers around a group of humans who met their untimely ends on Earth and found themselves in the afterlife, trying gambit after gambit to reach their eponymous destination and live out the rest of eternity in peace. Throughout their journey, the group is faced with philosophical conundrums, infinite timelines, and the realization that it’s never too late to try to be a better person.
It’s with that in mind that Morgan and Siegal needed to create their story, in which the gang discovers that the system serving as the grand arbiter of good and bad in the universe is seriously borked and that no one in the history of the world had made it into the Good Place in more than 500 years.
If that weren’t tricky enough, the humans also need to be hidden from the universe by Janet (D’Arcy Carden) — a humanoid being that contains all the knowledge and wisdom of the universe, who also happens to have her very own limitless void to exist in. But introducing the humans destabilizes Janet’s little world, so much so that while in the void, the humans maintain their own personalities and wardrobes, but all share Carden’s face.
Before attempting to untangle that narrative knot, let’s look at how the series at large ties its tales together. Overarching stories for “The Good Place” are laid out in the writers’ room, steered by showrunner Michael Schur, and are then broken down into episodes and, eventually, act breaks.
Schur told IndieWire that the plot for “Janet(s)” was “extra-broken, because of how precise the actual plot had to be,” explaining that the episode was conceived of months in advance and broken within an inch of its life.
At that point a writer or writing team would break off and create a Goldilocks document, their attempt to streamline the story to the simplicity of a storybook to make sure that everything tracks.
“It was hard to make it a children’s book,” Morgan told IndieWire. “There’s a lot going on. We even had funny problems that we didn’t anticipate going in, like, ‘What do you call these characters?’ We had to ultimately invent a new name, which would be whatever the character’s name and then adding Janet onto it. So we’d have conversations between ChidiJanet and EleanorJanet.”
“I was just on the edge of wondering if this was a bad idea,” Siegal joked, “but I guess it wasn’t totally.”
With that challenge accomplished, the script is then taken back to the room for further thoughts and discussions — and jokes if necessary, though plenty of jokes come from the original scribes themselves. Specifically, JasonJanet (as Eleanor) proclaiming that he’s “Arizona shrimp horny!” in an attempt to convince ChidiJanet of his identity.
Siegal is convinced that it was Morgan who originally penned the line, and eventually the latter agrees.
“If I’m remembering right, it was a lot longer,” he mused.
“What I remember is that in our draft it was a sort of hollow point bullet type version of that. Jason came in and said it and then Dylan was like, ‘Let’s just get right to the heart of the matter and say it in this order,'” Siegal said. “Again, you’ve got to give credit to D’Arcy. In that moment, she is Jason (Manny Jacinto) doing his very best to be Eleanor in a way that is also not super good at it. You know D’Arcy’s in control of all of that, so yeah, we got lucky.”
As difficult as their task was, the pair acknowledge time and again that their efforts would have been for naught if not for a powerhouse performance from Carden.
“I’m so glad we’re nominated for writing,” Morgan said, “but there’s that cliché of ‘The writer is the only part of the process where you start with a blank page and then after that it’s the easy part.’ But here was an actress that had to play every single role in the thing in a blank white room and has a kissing scene with a broomstick that she has to pretend is the most important part of her life.”
“She is alone for every moment in that, in the whole thing. Obviously the cast was there when they were on call, to help her inch her way towards the best performances, but she was alone on stage by herself.”
“She knocked it out of the park and gave it any heart that it has,” Siegal continued. “I hope she understands that this nomination is her nomination, too, whether her name is on it or not. She’s just an unbelievable person and incredible actor.”
In reality, Carden’s performance wasn’t the only emotional core to the episode, that leaned heavily on the fragile relationship between Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell). And the delicate balance that “Janet(s)” needed to strike was a big part of how Morgan and Siegal landed the assignment.
“They really like the real genre/sci-fi stuff on the show,” Schur explained, adding that the pair are also extremely attuned to the emotional beats of the show’s stories, making them a particularly good fit for this entry.
“One reason that we felt really lucky to get this episode is because up to this point, we haven’t seen Chidi pushed so far out of his comfort zone that he’s willing to say the things that he says here,” Siegal admitted. “One of our favorite parts of the entire episode was that scene and the things that are happening in their relationship in those moments.”
And while Morgan shies away from “shipping” circles on the internet, he does personally root for Chidi and Eleanor to find their way to a happy ending.
“I do ship Chidi and Eleanor, as someone who would watch the show if I wasn’t a part of it,” he shared. “And that was such a nice gesture for us to be given guidance to see them through this moment.”
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.