(Spoiler warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday’s midseason finale of “The Good Place.”)
According to series creator Michael Schur, Thursday’s midseason finale of “The Good Place” was more than a year in the making, which comes as no surprise seeing as the half-hour is one of the most ambitious episodes of any broadcast comedy in recent memory.
At the end of last week’s episode, Janet (D’Arcy Carden) zapped the show’s four human characters into her “void,” setting the stage for a series of knockout performances by Carden. It also set up an impressive technical showcase for the NBC sitcom with this week’s episode, titled “Janet,” which sees all four humans trapped in Janet bodies.
Much of “Janet” — including at least one of the series’ most emotional moments to date — takes place in a stark white room decorated with just a few pieces of furniture (and, at one point, some puppies). As many as five versions of Janet appear on screen at a time, including Carden’s regular afterlife digital assistant character and the Janet-versions of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil).
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The idea that the characters would, at some point, all take Janet form came while the show’s writers were still working on Season 2, Schur told reporters ahead of Thursday’s episode. That meant more than a year of planning to work out the story and technical details, but also months of lead time for Carden to prepare to inhabit almost all of the characters that fans have become so familiar with over the last two-and-a-half seasons.
“It’s not necessarily hard to play five different characters, but it is really hard to play five established characters we’ve known for years now,” Carden said. “We didn’t want it to be like ‘SNL’ sketch characters. We didn’t want it to be over the top.”
“It was a constant sort of modulation because you don’t want it to be cartoonish or caricature-ish, but it has to really feel like those people are the people in those different Janets,” added Schur.
As a framework for her performances, Carden studied audio and video recordings of her castmates doing the scenes at rehearsals and the table read. “I didn’t listen to music for like a month, I only listened to that,” she said.
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“Jason and Tahani are easier to play because they sort of have more specific [characteristics],” Carden said. “But Kristen was very hard. It’s so subtle … [And] Will I found hard because he has such a distinct voice that I can hear so clearly in my head, but, again, I didn’t want to do too much of an impression. It was hard. I lost my mind. I went crazy.”
“I’m most impressed with it when you’re Kristen,” Schur said. “There’s two things you do. One is you put your hands in your back pockets, which is classic Kristen Bell. The other is the way you say, ‘No, no I get it.’ She’s from Michigan and one out of every thousand words has a Michigan accent.”
The other actors were “like doctors on call” for the five days of filming, “in case I panicked and needed a scene partner,” Carden said, but she never ended up bringing them in.
For the most part, Carden filmed the episode with a variety of stand-ins or floating tennis balls in the middle of an empty white room. Even the episode’s climactic final moments when Janet-Chidi and Janet-Eleanor finally share an epic, sweeping Old Hollywood-style kiss, Carden’s scene partner was “a stick with a pair of lips on it.”
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A set of computer renderings and scale models were created to help plan and execute each shot, with the final version stitched together during a months-long post-production stage that ran until just a few weeks before air.
“It was great. It was one of the best weeks of my life, in a way. It was stressful, but it was with the best people,” Carden said of the time spent filming the episode, which was directed by executive producer Morgan Sackett. “Everybody was on board to do the same big job.”
“Everybody brought their major, major A-game. Nobody was, like, chilling out,” she said. “Except for the other goddamn actors. Just kidding, love them.”