After two seasons of comedy and philosophy, The Good Place remains a great joy. It’s the best science fiction show on television, with twists and intricate, earned reveals that hint at a watchmakers’ dream of a writers’ room.
The show’s third season doesn’t start until late September, but in the hiatus, NBC and its creators and performers have something new: a podcast. Not that podcasts about TV shows are new, but this one—hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays the demon bureaucrat Shawn on the show, and guested by its performers and creatives—is a little odd. It’s at once an ad, red meat for the show’s base, and a further sign that binge-y, long-arc shows need to engage with viewers in new ways. Oh, also, it’s … good.
For a couple years now, NBC has been experimenting with digital engagement. Remember social-media clips of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer? We were so young! Those kind of clips publicize a show, but they also goose delayed viewing. Here’s what you missed last night; maybe you wanna go back and check it out?
Podcasts are a little different. Fans have been making them about TV for ages, and shows that dive into the making of TV and movies are one of the treasures of the podcast era. So why does the company making the shows get into the business? “We saw this active digital audience, and then the conversations were like, ‘Do we do a fan show where we get superfans to chat about individual episodes? Do we work with an entertainment journalist who’s going to do a deep dive?'” says Steven Hein, senior vice president at NBC Entertainment Digital Content. Eventually they hit upon something new. “We wanted to have it be a host-driven show, and have the host be somebody who’s directly connected to the series.”
For American Ninja Warrior, the hosts of the show also host the podcast. For Good Place, they had an unsecret weapon: Jackson.
You’ve seen Jackson in—well, kind of everything, actually. Trained as an improv performer, he has been playing movie and television authority figures of varying levels of superciliousness for the better part of a decade—like in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Good Place creator Michael Schur’s other shows Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (He’ll always be Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars to me.) Also: In the 1990s Jackson was a host on National Public Radio stations in Michigan, and he has a dreamy radio voice, a gravel-meets-gravity combination of Wolfman Jack and Edward R. Murrow.
“I’m 100 percent a child of National Public Radio, and I definitely have that sort of music in my ear of an NPR conversation. But it’s also a podcast,” Jackson says. “At first I thought, oh, this’ll be fun, I’ll watch TV and talk about it. But I do want to represent the audience and ask deeper and interesting questions.” That, combined with how much Jackson clearly loves the show and being on it, make the podcast work. In fact, it might be at its best when Jackson is fanboying out. After seven episodes of delightful-but-earnest consideration of The Good Place‘s creation, philosophy, and approach, Jackson finally had Ted Danson as a guest. Justifiably legendary among actors and TV watchers, Danson actually made Jackson giggle. A Marc Evan Jackson giggle is good audio. Are there audio GIFs? They should make a GIF.
‘We are doing very ambitious things. It’s happening right this moment on Season 3. Right this moment, as a matter of fact. We’re attempting crazy stuff. People should be concerned. But they’re all so confident and good that there’s no panic.’
Marc Evan Jackson
What a listener ends up with is, absent actual new Good Place episodes, what seems to be a genuine look inside The Good Place. An actual philosopher consults with the writers. The actors grapple with what it means when actions have consequences that come in the shape of giraffes or infinite sinkholes. Playing out the Trolley Problem with a real trolley and spraying guts is actually a way to talk about the way humans treat each other—and it sets up a heartbreaking Ted Danson moment half a season later.
Jackson says—and I don’t think it’s just his voice that makes me believe him—that not only is everyone on the show really forking nice, they’re also darn good at their jobs. “We are doing very ambitious things,” he says on a phone call from the set. “It’s happening right this moment on Season 3. Right this moment, as a matter of fact. We’re attempting crazy stuff. People should be concerned. But they’re all so confident and good that there’s no panic.”
That might catch up to him. A new episode posts Friday, and then starting next week, they’ll come semi-weekly, in a faster burn leading up to the season premiere on September 27. And from there, new episodes of the podcast will go live the day after the show broadcasts. “I don’t have any idea how we’re going to do that,” Jackson says. Up until now, he’s had the time to solicit questions via Twitter and rewatch episodes. “I guess we’ll get an early advance? The show will air Thursday night and we’ll drop the podcast Friday morning. Yeah, I don’t know how we’re going to do that.”
Does he sound a little worried? Maybe. He’s also thinking about how to use something he saw on set in a podcast he won’t record for months. That’s how it works. Jackson just wants it to be good.