Having an outsider on the set of "The Good Place" requires some stealth coordination and, well, some spoiler-free props.
It's mid-August on the NBCUniversal lot, and production on the show's second season is nearing the finish line. To say that creator Mike Schur is taking the cloak-and-dagger approach to the next level for the afterlife comedy's sophomore outing, which premieres Wednesday on NBC, is putting it mildly.
One of the few scenes that was open for observation involves notoriously indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper) mulling over two hats — one brown, the other gray. The scene is as simple as the description.
"Getting the big secrets today," Harper teases just before taking his position in front of the camera.
The covert manner is the after-effect of an unsuspecting broadcast comedy that managed to execute an ambitious plot twist that had viewers saying — in the parlance of the "The Good Place" — "What the fork?" Not an entirely easy task in an age where binge-viewing detectives can rewind and piece together clues.
For the uninitiated: The series follows the newly deceased Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) as she tries to justify her slot in the Good Place — a heaven-like utopia run by Michael (Ted Danson) where cursing is impossible — despite living a life that should have yielded a more hellish fate. (If you haven't seen it, you may want to stop reading now.) The Season 1 finale ended with Eleanor realizing that she and several of her fellow Good Place inhabitants were actually stuck in a "Bad Place," an illusory, faux-utopia master-minded by Michael to torture them. Eleanor's memory was erased, and she started fresh again in the "Good Place" — but not before writing herself a note to find later.
It was a twist Schur worked hard to keep under wraps, seeking the advice of veterans of mystery such as Damon Lindelof ("Lost") and Drew Goddard, an executive producer on "The Good Place" whose other work includes "Alias" and "Lost." Of the cast members, Schur told only Bell and Danson. (Only one would end up keeping the secret, but more on that later.) It helped too that it was made in the dark, with the entire season shot before it started airing.
But it's one thing to successfully throw viewers for a loop when they're not suspecting anything. Keeping them on their toes when they're looking out for curveballs is a tricky endeavor.
"We dug ourselves an enormous hole," Schur says. "An enormous, beautiful hole."
Schur says the senior writers on the show met in December — before the Season 1 finale had even aired — to brainstorm how they would climb out of that hole if the show returned for another season.
"That was really something that I was stressing about," Schur recalls. "We did this really fun twist in Season 1 — amazingly, in this day and age. We got all the way to the end of the year without it leaking out, and then the question just became: What the hell do we do now?"
The main hurdle, Schur says, was in ensuring that the audience didn't feel impatient. After getting so much mileage in keeping viewers in the dark, things now shift to viewers waiting for the characters — reeling from having their memories erased — to catch up with them.
"It can be a real slog for audiences if they feel like it's 'hurry up and get to the point where I am,'" Schur acknowledges. "So we had to figure out a satisfying way to pay off what we had set up, without feeling like we were being boring. It was definitely complicated, but we figured it out."
"A brilliant escape room" is how Bell describes the show. "You won't really know what all the details mean until you've escaped."
Schur, it's obvious by now, is scant on details for the upcoming season. But he did say the new batch of episodes will juggle even more perspectives, including Michael's point of view.
Plot devices aside, the show has been hailed by critics and viewers who appreciate the way it poses a question about something deeper: what it means to be a good person.
"You genuinely have to sit with it for a while to realize its brilliance," Bell says during a break from taking publicity shots for the new season. "The subject matter is ethics, all the things we need to fix, Earth's current bad mood — it's all in this show.
"I've nailed a lot of dinner conversations because of the lessons I've learned from this show. Everyone is debating something nowadays, and now, I can actually say at a dinner party: 'Well, I disagree with that because, you know in moral particularism, cited by [British philosopher] Jonathan Dancy' — like, I actually have a sound argument as to why I believe certain things."
Danson, seated next to her, is enthralled: "Wow, wow. I'm so impressed. Keep going."
"A lot of the ethics and morals we discover in the show, I have always felt in my soul: Basically, be nice," Bell offers. "But it's much more specific than that. And I never had a good, rooted argument for it, and now I do."
Bell and Danson say Schur pitched them Season 3 when he gave them his outlook for Season 2. A somewhat risky move, considering Danson nearly ruined the hook of the first season by telling his friends, who had seemed unimpressed by the show's bare-bones premise.
"I did it to impress my friends, and it did," Danson recalls. "I had to call them actually and say, 'You're not going to say anything, right?' I'm much less of a blabbermouth now."
For Schur, whose past work includes ordinary, nonhigh concept workplace comedies such as "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," navigating this world of secrecy and close-to-the-vest plot developments in a time when viewers comb through every detail is, in a word, terrifying.
"It's trying to slip a sunrise past a rooster," he says. "The flip side is, how lucky and fortunate we all feel that people care about what we're doing. The worst fate as a TV writer isn't to have a show canceled. It's to put something out in the world that no one cares about. So I far prefer the current system of people who are paying incredibly close attention and who are very intellectually and emotionally invested in the work."
That actors need to return scripts to ensure the cycle continues is no big deal.
Bell, who does her own close readings of "Game of Thrones," says it's a cool perk of the job to be involved in a project where she has to be coy — not even filling in her husband, Dax Shepard, on details.
"We're obviously not 'Game of Thrones,'" Bell says.
"We're closer to 'Lost,'" Danson teases.
"Yeah, we're not about the body armor."
'The Good Place'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)