“I come across very nice, but I have a little bit of a negative ticker in my head,” Kristen Bell, indeed coming across very nice during a chat at a bar in Beverly Hills, tells The Daily Beast. “I don’t say those things out loud, but when I can at work, as a character, it’s a bit of a release.”
The Good Place, then, is a lot of a release.
On the NBC comedy, premiering Monday, Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who, after dying, learns that she’s made it to The Good Place. It turns out there’s no heaven or hell in the afterlife, just a Good Place and a Bad Place.
The Good Place is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each populated with a carefully selected group of people who will live in blissful harmonic balance among a plethora of frozen yogurt shops. Every action a person made during their time on earth is assigned a numeric value, and only those with the very highest numbers are admitted into the Good Place.
It’s only when Eleanor is introduced to her soul mate—yep, everyone in the Good Place has a soul mate to spend eternity together with—that we learn the truth. “Somebody royally forked up,” Eleanor says. (You can’t curse in the Good Place.)
Eleanor wasn’t the human rights lawyer that got innocent people off of death row who they think she is. She was a sales rep peddling pharmaceuticals (which couldn’t technically be called medicine because they were technically chalk pills) to old people.
There’s something sort of deliciously devious about Kristen Bell playing “bad,” for lack of a more nuanced word. The sunny disposition. The blonde hair. The megawatt smile.
It’s been used to disarming perfection when Bell has played against type—not the innocent ingénue type you might expect she’d be most suited for at first glance (though, as her voice work in Frozen proves, she excels at that, too)—in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, House of Lies, or, most recently, the R-rated comedy hit Bad Moms.
“I don’t know if, being in my own shoes, I can describe it accurately,” she says when asked to assess the appeal of seeing her play characters like Eleanor. She does say that her husband, Parenthood actor Dax Shepard—you may recognize them from the world’s most adorable washing machine commercial—has attempted to describe it to her before.
“It’s one that I, for whatever reason, whether it’s that I'm short or I smile a lot, have a somewhat inviting energy that’s kind of bubbly,” she says, indulging an exercise of self-analysis. “And giving that a bit of a paradox as someone who might have negative intentions is inherently interesting, because it’s unexpected.”
Bell discovered her knack for this while shooting Forgetting Sarah Marshall. “When I read her on the page she wasn’t the antagonist to me,” she says. “She was a quite sympathetic character. And I like being sassier.”
While Eleanor grapples with her conscience—already not the most fine-tuned instrument in her arsenal—and considers whether she should come clean about the mix-up that landed her in the Good Place, the carefully erected house of cards that is this heavenly utopia starts to crumble. Catastrophically.
It’s a lot of universe building and rules explaining for a sitcom. But that high-concept, high-stakes arena of comedy was precisely the challenge creator Mike Schur wanted after turning his lifelong fandom of Cheers and education as a producer of The Office into a reputation as a master of the modern-day office sitcom, having created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
In the comedy world, Schur’s foray into high-concept has been a bit of an obsession. “It was the scary, but it was only scary in the same way that starting anything new is scary, really,” he laughs. “I didn’t particularly think that anyone would care. That’s the truth.”
While the writers room was bogged down with conversations about just how much exposition to give at what pace, so that the audience wasn’t confused, but also not bored, there were far more interesting considerations as to what it means in today’s day and age for a female character to be branded as “bad.” Or, at the very least, not good enough to deserve residence in the Good Place.
I suggest to Bell that, because of our insufferable inclination to obsess over a female lead’s “likability” in TV—and only recent willingness to embrace that female protagonists can be shaded, flawed, real people, too—that had The Good Place been made even just five years ago it’s likely that it would have been a male in the lead.
“I would agree with that,” she says, taking a beat to ponder the alternate reality. “I’m trying to think if there’s something now more appealing that it’s a female character, because there’s still elements of sexism when you want to forgive a woman sooner. Is [Mike Schur] capitalizing on that? I don’t know. Now you’ve made this ping pong in my brain.”
Schur says they talked at length in the writer’s room that, “forever and ever and ever,” bad behavior on the part of a female character in a TV show or movie amounted to being promiscuous or a drunken mess. “It’s just very reductive, this kind of male conception of what a ‘bad woman’ is, dating back thousands of years,” he says.
When it came to Eleanor, they were insistent that these things not be an issue. She drinks, sure. But that’s not positioned as what’s bad about her.
“It’s boring and reductive to say the only way a woman can be bad is this 18th century-like Scarlet Letter woman of ill repute kind of person,” he says. “The things that are bad about her had to be things that were bad behaviors based on some philosophical idea of what is good and bad. Just making sure we're not doing this Nathaniel Hawthorne view of what a bad woman is.”
Of course, thanks to his collaboration with Amy Poehler creating Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, Schur has already proven more than capable at crafting a female protagonist who is anything but reductive or retrograde.
Bell knew Schur peripherally, after shooting a guest spot on Parks and Recreation as a foil who clashed with Poehler’s Leslie from a rival town. She actually signed on to The Good Place after only hearing a pitch from him, without seeing a single page of a script, she thought the pitch was that good.
But Bell has also been vocal about her hesitance to sign on for another TV series—she previously worked on Veronica Mars and the recently canceled House of Lies—without working out a schedule that would accommodate her needs as a mother.
She and Shepard have two kids, and that they grow up with a semblance of normalcy, despite their careers and celebrity status, has been a big priority of theirs. They were instrumental in a campaign to have celebrities’ fans boycott news agencies that run paparazzi photos of kids. It resulted in several large media outlets, including Entertainment Tonight and People, banning such photos.
“I have prioritized choosing to live like a present mother over choosing to live like an actress on a hamster wheel the rest of my life—or at least until my kids start to hate me,” she says. Schur promised her that he understood. Bell even texted Amy Poehler, who has two kids of her own, to corroborate Schur’s word. She vouched for him—hard.
We’re a culture obsessed with working moms, particularly celebrity moms who maintain busy careers, and the illusion that it’s all an effortless endeavor—the “I don’t know how she does it!” phenomenon. Bell has no time for that.
“I will tell you how she does it!” she says. “She has boundaries. She doesn’t go into work and say, ‘I’m here for anything you need!’ I say I need to be out of here at 3 because at 3:30 my kid’s got a recital. And as much as I love this job, my daughter is much more important to me than you.”
She takes a bit and leans in: “I have absolutely said that to people at work. I mean, I say it with a smile, but they also know I’m serious.”
It’s working out well for Schur, too, who, in the early stages of conceiving The Good Place, could only imagine Bell as Eleanor.
He remembers when she was on set at Parks and Rec, playing a hoity-toity character living in the town next door. He wrote a toss-off joke for her in a scene with Poehler’s Leslie, where Leslie is sad and singing a song. Bell’s character says to her, “Would you like to harmonize? I was trained in opera at the Sorbonne.” The joke is that her character casually has an operatic singing voice.
“And then Kristen just does it,” Schur laughs. “And she does have that voice. I was watching the scene and was like fucking of course Kristen Bell can sing that well. There’s nothing she can’t do well. It’s a little annoying, frankly. I want to find the thing she’s bad at. But so far I’ve yet to find it.”