The NBC sitcom The Good Place is far from the sort of show you’d expect to see on broadcast network television.
For one thing, it’s highly serialized, crammed full of story beats and jokes that work best if you’ve seen every episode. For another, it’s explicitly conceived as a 13-episodes-per-season show, where most network shows try to go at least 22. And finally, it’s incredibly dense, with sight gags in the background of almost every scene and literate scripts that talk at length about theories of ethics. It’s not a show you can pay half attention to while doing other things, which is where network TV too often thrives.
Many showrunners would take such a series to Netflix or Hulu — or at least to cable. But Michael Schur, who created The Good Place, said at a press conference on Friday that when it was time to pitch the project, he explicitly wanted to start with NBC.
Yes, he’s worked at the network since 1998, first on Saturday Night Live and then on The Office and Parks & Recreation. But in explaining his decision, he also noted that he appreciates the way writing for broadcast TV forces him to work within certain limits and structures, which he believes leads to a tighter and better show.
As the show emerged, it's extremely highly structured. And I think there are many benefits creatively to being on a streaming service, depending on what kind of show you're doing. But a show that's extremely structured I think benefits from the network structure because it forces you, as a writer, to think about act breaks and to think about things that every writer back to the Greeks did, which was what's the main character going through, what are the obstacles, what's the arc of this thing.
It's not that people don't do those on streaming services, but if you watch certain shows on streaming services, it's like the fish bowl. The fish expands to the size of the fish bowl. And I've watched certain shows on certain streaming services where I thought, man, give me, like, two hours with an editor, and I will knock 15 minutes out of this sucker, and it'll probably be better.
It's a little bit of a trap. You have to be extremely self‑regulating to maintain the sense of structure that I was taught by [Office developer] Greg Daniels and that I've grown up with. I actually fear a little bit what would happen if I took a show like this to a different medium, because I might go, “Ohhh, this works really well at 39 minutes,” or something, and it might not. I might be wrong.
Commercials are a pain in the butt, and the snipes [ads] that come up at the bottom of the screen for other shows are a pain in the butt. And there is not a single episode of this show that I think was absolutely the best it could possibly be at 21 minutes and 30 seconds.
But goddamn it, it makes you hone the story, and it makes you hone the way you write, and it's a good feeling to me to leave moments and jokes and pieces of a story on the cutting room floor, because if I'm cutting things I like, it means everything that's in is something I liked even more.
In thinking more about what Schur said, I realized that most of Netflix’s best comedy seasons are part of shows whose formats highly encourage more tightly structured standalone episodes (like the two animated series BoJack Horseman and F Is for Family, as well as the live studio audience sitcom One Day at a Time), or that were originally developed for broadcast TV to begin with (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which began its life as an NBC title).
Comedy doesn’t need tight structure to survive, especially if it skews more toward being a dramedy, but considering the whole basis of a joke is a setup followed by a punchline, there’s a certain pleasure to tightly wound comedies that unfurl with the precision of perfect machinery.
Of course, not every comedy must follow the same approach in order to succeed; as Schur would later admit during the press conference, there are some comedies that probably do fit best on Netflix or Amazon. But his reasoning is the best summation I’ve heard for why the tight limits of broadcast television can still, against all odds, produce shows as good as The Good Place. Sometimes, what creative people need most is to know they have to be creative within specific restrictions.