Not long ago, Kristen Bell found herself with a lot of time on her hands while stranded in Orlando, Florida during hurricane Irma.
But, rather than delve into her Netflix catalogue, she went on a do-gooder’s mission: she played Bingo with evacuees from a retirement home. She paid for Frozen co-star Josh Gad’s extended family – parents, brother-in-law, niece and nephew – to join her in her hotel. She tracked down, via social media, a keyboard and a pianist, and visited a high school where families were holed up to belt out some Frozen tunes.
Just like her cult character Veronica Mars, Bell’s a “marshmallow”, soft on the inside – which makes it all the more entertaining to see her show her hostile side in Netflix’s new high-concept sitcom The Good Place.
“I enjoy playing people with misplaced values,” she tells RadioTimes.com on a call from Florida, some time between Bingo and Karaoke, as she awaits the passing of the storm. “I wasn’t walking around set in character being rude to everybody or anything, but I did kind of enjoy building a life for her in my head that made sense as to why she acted the way she did.”
The show – created by Parks and Recreation mastermind Michael Schur – takes place in a secular afterlife for good, wholesome people: a godless heaven, if you will. It’s a magical holiday village that resembles one of the picturesque streets you might wander through in Disneyland, minus all the tourists. “You know how you feel when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’re going to feel everyday,” Michael (Ted Danson), who runs this particular sector of the afterlife, says to the newly initiated.
It’s pretty much perfect, except for one thing. Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) is there by mistake.
Something has gone wrong with the sorting algorithm, and Eleanor doesn’t quite match up to her neighbours – a Senegal-raised moral philosopher, a Buddhist monk from Taiwan and a wealthy philanthropist who raised billions of dollars for disadvantaged people.
She’s no murderer, but she has lived a comparatively selfish life. She littered, she lied, she stole, if only pettily. As Eleanor discovers, she has been mixed up with a human rights lawyer by the same name, but she has no plans on correcting the mistake any time soon.
Bell was drawn to the role because she enjoys trying to understand what it is that influences people to do bad things – a central theme in the show.
“I loved the bones of it – it combined my two favourite things that constantly preoccupy my brain, which are comedy and thinking what it means to be a good person,” she says. ”People do the best they can with what they’ve got, and Eleanor didn’t get a lot, you know?”
UK audiences will have a rather unorthodox introduction to the show. In the US, it is about to start its second season, after a critically acclaimed 13-episode run last year. On Thursday, the first season will drop on Netflix, along with the first episode of season two. Episodes of the second season will then air weekly from Friday 29th September.
The first season is best digested as a single entity. It unfolds with a number of twists and turns, before being entirely upended by a reveal in the finale which also uncovers the show’s true ambitions. Without giving anything away, its rather telling that LOST creator Damon Lindelof was one of the first people Schur approached to discuss his idea before he had fleshed out a script. Kristen Bell was not far behind.
“I walked into his office knowing I would say yes to whatever he was about to pitch me,” she says, “but I got even luckier because he pitched me this two hour story that he had barely worked out the details of. This was two months before he sat down to write the thing.”
Bell says Schur has plans for a seven season arc drawn out, and she seems rather pleased with the direction the show is going in season two and beyond, having had a taste for the bigger picture.
“Although I loved season one, there was a voice in my head that said, ‘Yeah, but where are we going from here?’”, she says. “And I’ve gotta say, that writers’ room – their ideas are incredible. Season two kind of shocked me, and what they have planned for season three is even cooler.”
For lessons in televisual longevity, Bell could do worse than refer to her current co-stars and “incredibly lovely dads” Kelsey Grammer (with whom she is currently shooting Netflix drama Like Father) and Ted Danson, whose careers in TV stretch back to iconic sitcom Cheers in the early 80s. “Cheers is the best show ever made,” she says.
Her deep obsession with another of Danson’s shows, however, almost got their relationship off on the wrong foot.
“My husband [actor Dax Shepard] and I have a tendency to nerd out over a show. We watched the first season of Damages [a crime drama starring Danson]. Anyway, the whole first season was about this court case about Arthur Frobisher, and Danson played Arthur Frobisher. I very much recommend it – the first season, is a fabulous season of television.
“Three months after we watched that show, I got cast in Big Miracle in Alaska with Ted Danson. And when I met him in the lobby of the hotel, I was so excited. Because when somebody is ripe on your mind, they have meaning to you, you get really dorky about it, and I love that stuff. So we introduced ourselves, and I said ‘Ted – I don’t wanna freak you out, but full disclosure: I am checked into this hotel as Arthur Frobisher,'” she says.
Thankfully, Danson appreciated the compliment. “That’s almost too bold of a move to say to someone when you first meet them,” she says. “In retrospect, I’m grateful that he gave me a chance. If he had looked into my eyeballs and said, ‘Look I get it, I’m very cool’ and then walked away, I would have been like, ‘Yeah, that seems like a reasonable reaction’. He is very cool.”
The star is no stranger to TV fandom herself – her role as teenage sleuth Veronica Mars found itself a deeply devoted cult audience, despite being cancelled after just three seasons in 2007.
“I like obsessive TV shows – they’re the most fun. It’s the reason why I do it”, she says.
“[Veronica Mars fans] sent Mars bars, hundreds of them, to the CW to save the show. They sent dollar bills with ‘Veronica Mars is smarter than me’ written on them. They flew a plane over the CW to save it. These people were not sitting idly by.”
While they didn’t succeed in convincing US network The CW to renew the show for a fourth season, they did manage to raise a whopping $5 million to crowdfund a Veronica Mars film, which was released in 2014. Bell remains keen to return to the role, though this time around she has her heart set on a mini-series.
“I would personally like to see it in TV form; I like the serialised nature of the show. I mean, I loved being part of the movie, but I loved the ongoing mystery aspect [of the TV series],” she says.
“It’s going to be obviously a little different because I’m an old woman now, but, Murder She Wrote worked…”
For now, The Good Place – and staying safe in hurricane season – are the only things on her mind, and she’s got some good, spoiler-free things to say about the second season, which will arrive on Netflix shortly after the first drops on Thursday.
“The second season is Ted Danson season. You will see behind the curtain – it’s the moment in Wizard of Oz where they get to the Emerald City.”
The Good Place is released on Netflix on Thursday 21st September