“The Good Place” ended its first season with an astonishing, ground-shifting bombshell — Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a human trying to save her soul by becoming a better person after death, figured out that the Good Place was, in fact, the Bad Place, which should have been obvious all along what with those ubiquitous frozen yogurt stores in the neighborhood.
Ted Danson’s afterlife architect, Michael, confirmed this delicious disclosure with a maniacal laugh that became an instant moment of classic television, also revealing himself to be an immortal demon, and the episode itself firmly established the show’s bona fides. If series creator Michael Schur possessed the confidence to play that kind of a long game, what might he do for a follow-up?
The 13-episode, second season answer proved every bit as satisfying. While premises were still made to be broken, Schur and the show’s writers leaned into the idea of community, exploring the idea that people define themselves by the strength of their tribes. For “The Good Place,” that includes four humans striving to avoid eternal damnation, a demon learning to love flawed mortals and an all-knowing Siri-like being named Janet who appears to be turning into a human herself.
The actors playing the members of this makeshift family — Danson, Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto and Jameela Jamil — have quickly become one of the most appealing ensembles on television. The day before they were to begin shooting the third season premiere, we sat down with the cast on the Universal Studios backlot to talk about the show’s radical optimism.
I want to get just a taste of the upcoming season, and I have it on good authority that one of you has trouble keeping secrets.
Bell: Loose Lips Danson!
Danson: That’s absolutely true. I’m impossible. So let me guess: You probably want to know about what’s in store for our group of humans, who, last we saw them, were down on Earth pursuing their second chances. And Michael and Janet are monitoring them ...
Bell: I think we can reveal that, metaphorically, this next season is about how you can play chess with people who don’t know you’re playing with them and doing so in a way that doesn’t affect the greater universe.
Danson: What she said. [Laughs]
Bell: Because our characters don’t know there’s a greater mission. We’re meandering on Earth. What I loved about that whole last episode from Season 2 was that it summed up everyone’s yearly existence from Jan. 1 to March 1. You make resolutions. You’re going to be a better person. You’re going to work out more. You’re going to eat broccoli. And by March, none of that is happening. You saw it with Eleanor. She vows to change, and then she gets bored.
So now we are all left on Earth separately. And what we learned from the first two seasons is that our strengths come when we’re together. But can Michael and Janet tamper with us without affecting the universe?
Jamil: I will also add that the scripts we’ve read so far are even funnier. And slightly filthier.
Filthier how? Asking for all those fans writing “Good Place” erotic fan fiction.
Danson: Wait a minute. Where do you see this erotic fan fiction?
Jamil: On your blog, Ted. No … there’s volumes of it, mostly about me and Kristen.
Bell: It’s no secret that Eleanor’s very fluid in her sexuality. So people have been stimulated by that thought.
Jamil: The stories always start the same way. We’re just laughing and having a great time. And then one of our fingers touches the other one’s hair and then one thing leads to another.
And a hot-diggity-dog moment ensues …
Carden: You get it!
Jamil: It’s genuinely very sweet. Our fans are so passionate. They’ve made so many amazing paintings and even some statues.
Carden: I’d like to buy some of it. Is that dorky?
Danson: Well, it’d be like going to someone’s house and they have a baby picture of themselves out.
Carden: What if I buy it and make my parents put it up in their house? That’s cool, right?
Harper: No. But I have a framed baby picture of myself, so who am I to say?
Going back to that idea of Michael and Janet tampering with the humans, we saw that in the last episode where Michael shows up as a bartender on Earth, offering Eleanor guidance. Ted, did you enjoy that “Cheers” callback?
Danson: No. I’m literally traumatized if I have to get behind a bar. For some bizarre reason, I break into a sweat.
Bell: You’re so weird. Is it too much pressure?
Danson: No. It’s really like … I don’t know …
Bell: Well, dig deep!
Danson: It blindsides me every time. And if I have to be attractively coming on to a woman in a scene, it just devastatingly paralyzes me. I just hope they can get back to the Good Place without Michael having to do that.
Do you think there is a Good Place?
Jamil: I don’t know. But I do know I think about my motivations a lot more since doing this show.
Danson: Making sure the waitress sees how large a tip you left. Everybody does that.
Bell: Will just whispered that he tries to hide it.
Harper: I don’t want to be that cheesy guy who looks them in the eye and says, “Hey, that’s for you.”
Bell: Mike developed this point system, this little game with himself where if he’s driving and someone cuts him off, it’s minus 20 points. He tallies people all day for a fun game for himself.
And what he figured out for the show was … [Section omitted because it involves a huge spoiler for Season Three.]
Carden: That was a bit that got taken out of Season Two.
Harper: Yeah. But it will come back.
Danson: Who’s “Loose Lips” now? [Laughs]
Will I have points deducted if I put that information in the story?
Bell: You will go straight to the Bad Place.
If you went through life in a Mike Schur way, what kind of behavior loses points?
Bell: I judge everything by: Does it lean toward happiness or does it lean toward suffering? Like cutting someone off in traffic or all the seven sins … because cutting people off in traffic is one of them, right?
Harper: In L.A. Also: Selfies.
Jamil: Selfies definitely. And anyone who designs any sort of G-string. I’m more about minutiae.
Carden: I think about the point system a lot because my husband and I have a different moral compass. He’s a very good person, but he can justify just about anything if it helps his family or people he loves.
Bell: That’s tribal and, to be stereotypical, it’s more male. It’s more female to see the world a little more maternally. But look, if there was a lion in my backyard, my whole family would be dead. I’d be wondering if he needed water or had a thorn in his paw.
Jamil: Manny, what would your bad place things be?
Jacinto: I grew up in a very religious household and was fortunate to be given those principles as a kid. But who knows if they're right or wrong. I think all I know is that I know nothing.
Danson: He’s just going for being the smartest person in the room. Because it’s true, what he said. I remember watching my mother die. Up until then, I had read this philosophy, that religion, meditating, Zen and felt a kind of spiritual pride about who I was. And watching her die, I was like, “Oh, I know nothing. She may be about to know. But I don’t have a clue.”
Which brings us back to wondering if there’s a Good Place — both on the show and the afterlife.
Bell: Maybe the Good Place is right here, finding those people who challenge you and help you grow. And you do the same for them.
Carden: And no mobile phones. There are no mobile phones in the Good Place.
Jamil: Because we have Janet. But think about it: If the characters had mobile phones, they never would have bonded. Too many distractions — the breaking news alerts, the social media, the apps. Also Chidi would have ghosted the hell out of Eleanor every time she got in his face about his neuroses.
Danson: Now what does “ghosted” mean again?
Carden: It means when you don’t reply to a text. Ted, you should know. You’re a big ghoster!
Harper: I think we see groups of people doing bad things so often in the media that, with our show, it’s heartening to see a bunch of people come together and look out for each other without it being cheesy. In life, I’ve been part of groups of friends with really great people, and I’m a better person because of that. I think it’s a pretty common experience, so it’s nice to reflect that.
Bell: I think this show helps us digest the negative things around us and transcend them. Because if you look at the statistics and start from a place of logic, things have never been better. It’s like Steven Pinker said in a lecture a couple of weeks ago: Every newspaper could have printed for the last 30 years that “Today, 138,000 less people died of starvation.” The world is not getting worse. I mean, the Crusades aren’t going on. Little things like that.
Jamil: Absolutely. You know, there are moral philosophy lecturers discussing this show in their classes.