It was the giggle that made you gasp — and changed everything. In the season 1 finale of The Good Place, when seemingly avuncular afterlife architect Michael (Ted Danson) was confronted with a seemingly crazy accusation by Eleanor (Kristen Bell) — that she and her friends weren’t actually in heaven; they were in torturing each other in hell — he paused for a second, and then uncorked an alarming chortle that confirmed that he was indeed doing the devil’s dirty work. The divine, stomach-dropping twist made us rethink this frozen-yogurt-serving paradise from the ground up (or ground down) — and once again raised our level of appreciation for the always delightful, never-not-surprising Danson.
Before The Good Place returns to NBC for season 2 on Sept. 20 with a one-hour premiere at 10 p.m. ET/PT, let’s check in with the man who proves that it’s actually quite good to be bad.
You and Kristen were the only two actors who were told by creator Mike Schur about the season 1 finale’s big twist from the beginning of the series. What it was like keeping that amazing secret from everyone — and playing the long con onscreen?
Full of guilt. I — on several occasions with my close friends, without ruining the ending, told them that it’s about the afterlife and I play a middle management person there, and someone gets in there on a clerical error and everything goes nutty. And I could see that their eyes would go, “Well, sounds like it’s now going to be in the afterlife, but it’s your basic comedy.” And I could just see that flicker in their eyes and it pissed me off [laughs], so I immediately told them the twist ending and they were totally impressed. And I became that guy — that guy who cannot keep a secret… But to tell you the truth, I was wracked with guilt, but luckily the people I told, I called them and said, “Please, dear God, [don’t tell anyone],” but all of my friends are so self-obsessed that they’d probably forgotten already what I had told them.
It was hard playing that secret as an actor, because usually humor comes from the audience being in on something, and you doing the bad version of a double take or you rolling your eyes and everybody goes, “Haha, I get it,” but there could be none of that. And there were no private moments. You could not see my character by himself ever, because by himself he would have lit up a joint and kicked back and killed somebody or something. He would have become very devilish, very evil. So I kind of felt like, “Oh dear lord, I’m doing either a really good job, or this is some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen.” Because you just kind of came in on one note. The note was kind of Willy Wonka; he was always slightly frantic, it felt kind of one-note-ish to me — but by golly, it worked.
What did you think of that twist when Mike told you about it?
I just thought it was incredibly clever. And fun. I was worried: Would it hold for 13 episodes? And how do I be funny if this is a comedy? But Mike is so good, what it looked like was my character was just so upset and unnerved and was staring to unravel because his big chance at creating the perfect place for these beautiful people was failing. Then the audience goes, “Oh no, it’s Eleanor,” and now Eleanor confesses and he’s angry and stern and a little bit sad that she’s going to have to go to the Bad Place, and then he starts to like her and wants her to save her. So it had all these different twists and turns that I could play.
How many different laughs did you practice for the moment when Eleanor figures it out? Because the one that aired was perfectly creepy.
We had done several different with no laughs. We tried it several different ways, and I think it just kind of came out of me in a moment. I don’t think it was planned or thought-out in any way. And then we all kind of went, “Yeah, that’s a better way to go.” What’s kind of disturbing is I’m discovering that is one of my laughs in my life. So maybe I have been typecast.
I imagine it felt like you were working in restraints because you couldn’t show the full Michael. How freeing did it feel to start work on season 2?
This year, it’s just become delicious because I don’t have to hide anything. You get to see the demons at work…. It was like having carte blanche. My job is to set up situations where people end up torturing each other and themselves psychologically. So it becomes one prank. You realize everything he’s doing is purposeful and slightly prankish. So it’s fun to see him connive. It’s also fun to see him go up against Eleanor, who is basically smarter than he is, and watch the wheels come off.
How would you describe the dynamic between Michael and Eleanor early in this season?
It is definitely adversarial. She’s the one who busted me, she’s the one who put it together, and she’s put my life in jeopardy by doing so. So I have to be really on my toes to pull this off, and if I don’t, the stakes are huge.
Michael believes he has built a better system this time around — and he’d better, or he’ll be “retired.” Part of that revolves around torturing the quartet individually before bringing them together, and he’s done that by giving each of them a new soulmate. What can you hint about the new pairings?
The pairings are funny from an audience point of view, because you realize they are playing off of last season and what we’ve learned. Eleanor’s new soulmate would appear to be perfectly her — everyone appears to be their dream, but really turns out to be a nightmarish new soulmate.
Last season, the clowns were a nice way to creep out Eleanor. Based on those first look photos, the clown quotient has been upped.
New clowns. More clowns. Clown statues.
What other details tickled you? Mike told us that frozen yogurt shops have been replaced by Hawaiian pizza restaurants.
A lot of the old things are now new and switched. You’ll still be very tempted to hit your pause button so you can read the names of the stores…. The only way to get in out of the Good Place is by train. The bad guys showed up on the train and only Janet can drive the train. There’s a lot more train stuff this year, which is kind of fun. Every episode this year has this wonderful special effect visual magic that is going on that is appropriate to being in the afterlife. So it’s much more magical this year.
What else feels different this season, tonally or visually? Does the universe just feel more wide open?
Yes, it is a much more wide open road. There are many twists and turns — it’s not the same jaw-dropping, “Oh, it’s not the Good Place, we’re in the Bad Place!” but it’s equally entertaining and shifting directions this year. You will not settle down to a peaceful sitcom that takes place in the afterlife. It is constantly shifting underneath you, the audience and underneath Michael. You’re constantly scrambling.
I think there’s much more humor because you get it. You see people behind the scenes scrambling, and that sets up a much more obvious comedic rhythm than last year. Last year we were trying to go, “Stick with us, here’s this world that we’ve create, here’s how this world works, here are the characters, and there’s a little morality play going on, but we’re moving fast here. Hope you can stick with us.” Then, boom! Big ending. This year, there’s definitely a drummer in the background hitting rim shots, because now you can do the more obvious comedic set-ups and payoffs, which are fun and the audience enjoys that because they’re in on it. Whereas before you were much more of an observer of this world, now you’re part of it.
The audience now knows what the quartet doesn’t, given that their minds have been wiped. Mike says that we’ll see things from your perspective, which we haven’t before. What can you tease there? How quickly does he find his confidence shaken?
Everybody in that place except the four humans are my employees, they are people who auditioned for the part. So I have to manage this troupe of probably 290 actors pretending to be fellow human beings or who are actually there to just mess with the four humans. So I am stage-managing this huge operation that has so many different ways of going south, whether it’s keeping my actors — my fellow demons — happy, [or] my boss — the producer — who’s breathing down my neck. And you get to see that. You get to see Michael scrambling to keep all the balls in the air, and what’s at stake is very real.
Michael is obviously not a reliable narrator. Exactly how much of what he told the group is true? We know that the threat of retirement is real, and we know he is an architect — just not for the Good Place.
You will find that out. That is addressed because that is a concern. The audience will not feel like, “Oh, wait a minute — what are we supposed to believe?” They will understand the ground rules, and they have not been cheated.
Can you leave us with a cryptic clue about season 2?
When I’m not near the one I love, I love the one I’m near.
To read more about season 2 from creator Michael Schur and Kristen Bell, click here.