The Good Place Visualized the Unimaginable

As the NBC sitcom comes to an end, the art director, Adam Rowe, discusses how it imagined heaven, hell, and what’s in between.

Promotional photo for The Good Place.
While the show’s heady themes and jokes have been much dissected, its striking visuals have been almost underrated. (NBC)

This article contains spoilers through Season 4, Episode 12 of  The Good Place.

When The Good Place airs its final episode tonight, it will be the end of one of the most daring thought experiments in TV history. Over four seasons of the NBC sitcom, in which Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) navigates the topsy-turvy afterlife, viewers have had their brains teased with philosophical dilemmas, metaphysical mysteries, and a Ph.D. thesis’s worth of fake gossip about real-world celebrities.

But while the show’s heady themes and jokes have been much dissected, its striking visuals have been almost underrated. The creator, Mike Shur, and his team imagined hell, heaven, and the various spaces in between as a brightly lit, graphically bold remix of our own world. Again and again, they faced the task of visualizing the abstract and unthinkable: A crossroad in space-time became a pancake hole; the “void” that housed the all-knowing being Janet (D’Arcy Carden) resembled an Apple commercial.

To learn about the creative process behind The Good Place’s kookily memorable look, I spoke with Adam Rowe, the show’s art director. His job is to implement the ideas of the showrunners, directors, and production designer by working with set decorators, costume managers, props masters, visual-effects producers, and others. He joined the series in Season 3, when the show’s original “Good Place” collapsed and the heroes were reincarnated on Earth. And then he worked on the fourth and final season, in which those heroes attempt to design a new and improved afterlife for humankind. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: This is a show in which characters repeatedly get their memories wiped, environments get “rebooted,” and the action rarely stays put in one plane of existence for long. With all that constant change, it must be a challenge to keep the audience grounded with the visuals.

Adam Rowe: Season 3 was so adventurous and fun and was moving around a lot. And Season 4 was interesting and beautiful, but it’s a totally different show, because [the characters] are not moving like they were in 3. This season we were doing a lot of things that were established in Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3: It was like a greatest hits. We were pulling out a lot of things from storage, or reaching around to find the thing that was lost in Season 2, or we were like, “Oh, okay, we gotta remake this.”

The backlot at Universal is our Good Place, or our Good Place–slash–Medium Place depending on how specific a viewer wants to be. We loved that backlot [whose look was originally conceived by Schur and the production designer Dan Bishop]. When you’re designing the world where the show could live infinitely, it’s a really wonderful, exciting feeling, but also: What kind of commitments are you making? The other thing is that because it got rebooted all the time, if there was something that never worked or that [the show’s team] didn’t use, they could always dump it and start a new thing.

“Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.”  — Adam Rowe (NBC)

So in Season 3, I don’t think they ever thought the backlot was going to come back. When [Michael’s neighborhood] got destroyed, we all thought that was it. And in between Season 2 and Season 3, there was a commercial that filmed back there that redid that area. In Season 3 [for the finale], when they said we were going to the backlot, we said, “How are we gonna put this back together?” Thankfully we were able to. But we also changed some things that are fun for audience members. If they look at the area that would be to the left of Yogurt Yoghurt Yogurté, there’s several restaurants, and they changed all the time. They were yogurt, and they were Mediterranean, then changed to Italian—like Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow.

Kornhaber: A joke like “Lasagne Come Out Tomorrow” is exactly what people love about the show. I think back to when one of the show’s writers, Megan Amram, tweeted out the list of food puns she came up with for one episode. Are you trying to just literally translate such jokes visually? Do you have to worry about not distracting from the punch line?

Rowe: I would say 85 to 90 percent of the text jokes, we get from the writing department, and then we enhance them. The best one was Cowboy Skyscraper. That was in Season 3, when we were making an Outback Steakhouse–style restaurant, but it would be an Australia-looking-at-America restaurant as opposed to an America-looking-at-Australia restaurant. So that title gave us a lot to go off of.

Cowboy Skyscraper was an “Australia-looking-at-America” version of Outback Steakhouse. (NBC)

We knew we wanted to do some kind of diorama or vignette. Mike Schur was like, “Okay, let’s make a Mount Rushmore with Judge Judy’s and David Hasselhoff’s faces on it.” I really wanted Kermit to be on there, but I don’t think Kermit made it. You had props making ultimate Bloody Marys out of an entire roast chicken balancing on top of a glass. We had to make all the menus, and a very large compliment to the graphic artist is that we make this menu—which we barely have time to see [on camera]—and then Kristen Bell’s putting it on her Instagram and people are loving it.

Kornhaber: Stepping back, how would you describe the aesthetic of the show? What makes it distinct?

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

Kornhaber: Are there any rules about color usage that you followed on the show?

Rowe: We were not supposed to use red. Even our flowers, I remember day after day telling the greensman: Gardenias and things that are red—“no no no.” We got to use red in Season 3 because [the characters] were alive in certain parts, but we didn’t ever use it in the afterlife. No one ever said, “This is the reason why there’s no red”—red was maybe the devil?

It kind of loosened up in Season 4. The new character who’s a golfer and a jerk is teeing off with Michael—and for whatever reason Mike Schur picked a red golf cart. We all were in the office and were plotting, “Where is this show going? Is he a demon?” And then Mike used red in something else, and it was like: Gasp! “What is happening?” For a while we thought it was some clue.

Similarly to color, we tried to keep everything clean and neat. There’s not a lot of outlets because you didn’t need electricity for the afterlife. And then those things started to shift in Season 4 because we knew that Derek or Janet [the mystical administrative beings in charge of running the afterlife] wasn’t doing the best job keeping the community the way it looks the whole time. They were taxed, and they say that often. Awnings are dirtier in Season 4, because we just didn’t clean them as much, because we knew that this world was deteriorating.

Kornhaber: For the series’s second-to-last episode, you had to figure out what heaven actually looked like, at long last, after so many seasons of depicting a sham Good Place. How did that go?

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

What does heaven look like? The show landed on the modern aesthetic of the Getty Center. (NBC)

The decision to go to the Getty was [also] driven by Where is something we’ve not already seen before? The show has already developed that if you go to the Bad Place it looks like this; if you go to the Medium Place it looks like this; if you go to the Good Place that Michael designed it looks like this. If you take all of those things out of the equation, modern architecture was something that the show hadn’t really dabbled with.

We were so so happy that the Getty played along. And that they are heaven.

Kornhaber: Tell me about Janet’s void.

Rowe: Oh man. I just love Janet. We’re nominated for an Art Directors Guild award this year, and I was heavily considering dressing as a Janet to go to the awards. In 25 years, when it’s a new generation of people who don’t even know what the Good Place is, Janet’s costume is gonna be the thing that continues forward. It’s like a Star Trek uniform. People will wear it anywhere and you’ll know who it is.

So Janet’s void, it’s just a big white room. The fun part was when we recently did all of the different Janets’ voids, and the Judge [the Godlike figure played by Maya Rudolph] is going through looking for the clicker/humanity-destroyer thing. We got excited about Disco Janet. From the moment she made an appearance, the writers talked about: Is she a version of something that would be in the Good Place? In the accountant’s world? No, no, no, they had decided that she was a part of the Bad Place. That somehow, somebody had decided to make a Disco Janet because it would make people insane in the bad place.

When we made her void, basically we wanted to just have a big dance floor. And it was a surprise to see that the visual-effects team—it was basically just one guy, David Niednagel—repeated it in all these ways.

Kornhaber: CGI is a big part of the show. How do you work with it?

Rowe: I did Parks and Recreation, and I did this show Forever with Amazon Prime, and we had a [visual-effects] team on both of those shows, but they were kind of in and out because we weren’t always doing visual effects. On Season 1 [of The Good Place], they went to David Niednagel occasionally. Season 2, they used him more. But Season 3, he was full-time, and by Season 4 he was on even more. So they relied heavily on what his genius would bring to the show. He is such a big part of the show that Mike Shur wrote a creature that is the Niednagel.

So many things are surprises. For instance, when they do the Pictionary episode [depicted in the clip above] and Chidi draws Simone’s donkey/horse/whatever, we had an easel, and the effects team made it knock over. So that part was real. Then David Niednagel takes it from there and he animates the horse. He’s a great caricature artist, so he’ll draw things up on the whiteboard in his office or quickly on a piece of paper. But the show shoots really fast. We don’t really have a lot of time to sit down and manufacture the shot.

So that was a fun surprise, where the donkey eats the butterfly, because we didn’t know that was happening. It was Mariah Carey’s tattoo, so that’s just funny to begin with, and you have a nightmare horse eating Mariah Carey’s tattoo. You just turn it to David Niednagel and he makes it. The Good Place—these were people who take funny very seriously.