William Jackson Harper as Chidi on NBC's "The Good Place" (Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Once more into "The Good Place": William Jackson Harper on Chidi and the final season

Salon talks to the actor behind Chidi about what he hopes we'll take from the show as it heads toward the afterlife


Melanie McFarland
September 26, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)

Humanity is doomed.

Maybe you’ve gotten the message. Maybe you have, and you just don’t want to believe it. Just as likely, given the events we’re currently living through, maybe believe that so fully that you’re ready to throw in the towel entirely.

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Fortunately, this week also brings the fourth season premiere of NBC’s  “The Good Place” on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. The agnostic yet spiritually skewed comedy is reliably soothing in these turbulent days largely due to the pragmatism of Chidi Anagonye, the moral philosophy and ethics professor played by William Jackson Harper.

Chidi himself is no ocean of calm. He’s crippled by his anxiety and inability to make the right choices, and gets stomach aches when confronted by an unfamiliar situation or a new task.

He’s also the heart of the series and the great love of recently converted solipsist Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell). His wisdom is as beneficial to the audience’s understanding of the world as “The Good Place” is essential to maintaining whatever positivity we have left..

For three seasons the Soul Squad — Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) —have helped one another evolve into better people even as their place in the universe grows more perilous. They’ve strained to stay one step ahead of an eternity of demonic torture and submitted to tests measuring whether they actually have become better people.

“Good Place” creator Michael Schur is fond of throwing game-changing pivots at the audience with each new season, effectively hitting the reset button on the show each time.

The last major wrench revealed that the rules informing the points system determining whether human souls get into The Good Place or are condemned to The Bad Place had not kept up with societal and technological changes on Earth, making it impossible for even the most virtuous to achieve paradise.

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Now, Season 4 presents the most strenuous challenge of their afterlives, where the stakes are the universe's final referendum on the salvageability of humankind. Guided by the immortal architect Michael (Ted Danson) and informational source Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the team must prove that even the worst people are capable of improving. Regrettably, Schur and the writers threw in one last twist in the form of erasing Chidi’s memory of his friends and his love for Eleanor.

This essentially makes the fourth season a reset for Chidi more than the other characters, which means he and Eleanor may never, ever get back together again.

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We can’t say much about what’s in store for Chidi and Eleanor or the rest of the group without risking some surprising moment and well-earned thrills. But after “The Good Place,” Harper has a full plate of options. Besides having recently starred in the thriller “Midsommar,” he’s also a playwright whose work “Travisville” played off-Broadway in 2018.

And to hear him talk about what’s coming — as much as he can, that is—the Soul Squad has a decent chance of triumphing.

“Every episode has a WTF moment,” he told Salon in a recent interview about the new season…which, unfortunately for us, is the show’s last one.

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Relax, we still have 14 episodes to enjoy, including an hour-long finale. And unlike other series revolving around philosophical theories and spiritual themes, Harper assures “The Good Place” fans that pretty much every question will be answered. 

“It's a really satisfying conclusion, he said. “And thankfully because it's so highly serialized and also very short – it's a very short [season] order for a sitcom – we didn't fan out into too many weird directions and have too many threads that don't go anywhere.”

What can’t be fully appreciated by those of us looking at “The Good Place” from the outside is how genuine the bond is for this cast onstage and off, making the approach to the end of the show a tearful affair for just about everyone involved. A recent press event NBC that held for the Television Critics Association became an emotional affair, as Bell and Danson each choked up while discussing the experience of working together.

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Harper was happy to share with Salon what he hopes the lasting legacy of “The Good Place” will be, what aspects of Chidi he plans to take with him, and the example set by working on the set of “The Good Place,” which has a reputation for being a tremendous working environment. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A lot of people are never going to see firsthand the kind of emotional connection that the cast has.

Yeah.

It must be interesting to step closer to the end each day you’re on set. I've been talking to people, and they said Kristen's been getting very emotional at each of these press appearances. What's it been like for you as you to go through these final appearances for the series? I notice you didn't cry.

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Look, I have a very hard heart. (Laughs.) No... for me, this has been the gig of a lifetime. Having this job, and meeting these people on this job, and having that writers' room and that creator [Schur], that is a dream come true. I could not have asked for anything better professionally. What I've been fortunate enough to be a part of was my dream... So it's really tough to say goodbye. I think maybe there's a part of me that's just refusing to actually do it.

I just wanna enjoy how much I love these people and just laugh and joke and goof off and um, you know, and try to make Kristen cry as much as I can by showering her with well-deserved compliments. The tears are going to be something that I do alone, but when I'm with this group I really wanna just play, I just want to hang out.

We've spoken before about how Chidi is not only the moral backbone of the Soul Squad, just in terms of leading this group down this path, but also has been kind of translating moral philosophy a bit for the folks at home as he takes them on this journey. How much of that is going to continue in this final season since you've had the reset?

Well, shepherding people through the vagaries of moral philosophy is just at the core of who Chidi is. And that won't change. The memories that were erased were from a very specific time. And even though I think that Chidi's growth in his understanding of moral philosophy and morals in general has grown, at his core nothing gives him more pleasure than to sort of crack open someone's mind and have these ideas actually take root some way. So that's all still there. But it's a very different dynamic when the entire context and history that he has with his best friends is all gone. So it'll take on a different sort of tone, obviously.

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What are you hoping that people will take away from this show, and from what Chidi brought to it,  after "The Good Place" is gone?

I hope people still think about it afterwards. I mean, it feels wrong for me to assume that anything that I'm a part of is ever going to last beyond a day.

Uh, I'm pretty sure this one will.

I hope so! But I mean, should we be so lucky to have people think about this show, somewhere down the line, I really hope that it sparks a conversation about what we're putting into the world, and how we're behaving to each other, and why we're doing what we're doing. Asking ourselves those hard questions of why are we opting to not do the thing that puts as much good in the world as possible, and really sort of causing a serious self-examination, while laughing at as many fart jokes as we can throw at them. I guess also I hope maybe that this would be something that further proves that it's best to assume the best of your audience.

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I think that this show assumes that everyone's gonna get this or at least try. And even if they don't, they're willing to do a little bit of a deep dive and see where we're coming from. Viewers are really discerning and, and when we write for a smart audience, which we have, it's a lot more fun for creators to create for them.

I would love to see that trend continue, you know. To get things that you really need to pay attention to, and that assume that you're paying attention, that you're really intellectually engaged. I feel that's something that Mike has been very much one of the driving forces behind – assuming the best of your audience.

As a viewer, one of the things I'm really going to miss is just that little glimpse every week at reminders of how we can be better at seeing that through each of these characters. That's a really rare thing on television. Not just on television, in general. I can't think of a whole love of entertainment theaters or even on stage where that's the main message.

It's also kind of a magical thing that he's done, to take a lot of people who are looking out for each other and care for each other, and make it interesting. Because it's not always about the conflict between this set of main characters that are always on one side of an issue, and these other main characters are always on the other side. We are a group of merry ding-dongs who love each other.

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And I think that to have all of your regular characters on the same side and have it really hold up is really difficult. That's amazing that Mike's been able to pull that off. I mean, he's a genius and our writers are geniuses, and that's why they were able to do it.

And there's also so much about personal growth, you know. Really, where the conflicts arise with all of us is the fact that we have shortcomings and we complete each other in different ways. And finding the ways in which we complete each other is really heartwarming and wonderful and also kind of painful at times. And that's okay.

I know that we are still fresh in this season and it hasn't come to an end yet. But I'm wondering if you're getting a sense of how this experience might change your expectations of productions going forward, just in terms of the kinds of projects you'll go out for or even like the work environment you'll tolerate. I hear the work environment is wonderful on this show.

It is...the environment that we had on that set, it can always be that way. It can be warm and kind and collaborative. And, you know, we as scene partners, we're always looking out for each other, trying to set each other up for the best rendering of a joke or a line or a moment.

For me, that's the best environment to create. I think that when I'm afraid and when I feel stressed, I shut down and I'm afraid to try anything. On this set I never was. And I just hope that going forward that I can find projects that allow for that sort of environment to blossom, you know, in the midst of whatever script is being made. That's what I hope for. I don't know if I expect it all the time, but I definitely want to do my part to make sure that that's the environment that created going forward.

That's an important view to put out there. Because even in this environment where people want to change the behavioral tenor on sets, there's still this idea that in order to accommodate genius one must tolerate a certain amount of explosive behavior or worse.

 I don't think that's right. There's nothing in art that is just objective truth, or "this is good, and this is bad." Everything is subjective. And so someone can be thinking they're creating something beautiful and brilliant and great and it can be received as trash. And so I think that it's just best to just not be a dick, you know? Just don't be a dick! It's so much easier, for me at least, to just not be a dick.

That way everyone around you feels empowered to do their best, to contribute, to collaborate, to give you ideas that you didn't think of. And if everyone's afraid, that doesn't happen. Or it might happen, [but] people will know that they're going to have a fight or they're going to be belittled or something like that.

...I want to be engaged in what I'm creating. It's much more conducive to my process and I would hope to a lot of people's processes to be kind to each other, to be gentle and to push each other in ways that are constructive, rather than tolerating any sort of bad behavior.

What are the qualities or traits about Chidi that you're going to take with you?

Well, I brought a lot with me to Chidi. Until I figure this out, I'm always going to be a nervous guy. I'm always gonna be a little neurotic. One thing that Chidi does well is he expresses his state of being to people a little more clearly than I do. And at his core, he really wants to do the right thing all the time.

And that's something I'm working on. I mean, I want to do the right thing, but I definitely don't choose it all the time. So I really want to sort of lean more into those ideas and just consider, what am I doing that's putting good into the world? What is the right thing to do, and why am I not doing that? Especially when it's something that I have a second to actually ponder. I really want to make sure that after that, after all that pondering, I make the choice that very clearly is the right one.

But, yeah, that's pretty much it. I definitely want to leave behind the sweater vests and the brogues. I'll leave those alone.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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