Following her breakout role in Veronica Mars, Kristen Bell’s career can be divided into two halves. The lighter half, sunny and Disney-friendly, is best defined by her role as Anna in the blockbuster Frozen franchise. Unlike complicated sister Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) Anna is pure good, a straightforward version of the Disney princess archetype that Elsa subverts. There's clearly some overlap here with her own persona (remember when she squealed about sloths on Ellen?) and has led to gigs like being the Laura Linney to Encore!’s Masterpiece Theatre, introducing every episode of the Disney+ series, Encore!.
But beyond the walls of Disney, Bell hasn’t always played characters quite as saccharine. She was sharp-edged and antiheroic as Elle on Heroes; manipulative and shallow as the title character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; and a downright mean girl as Nikki in Burlesque, who refused to be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs:
And let us not forget the drama she stirred up as the voice of Gossip Girl for six seasons! This divide in Bell's career choices is a tribute to her range, as well as an exploration of which archetype she best fulfills: Is she the sunny girl-next-door always with a smile, or the hot blonde with an attitude you’re afraid to anger at school?
No project since Veronica Mars has understood her range better than The Good Place. NBC’s morality play comedy has toyed with Bell’s dual roles from the very start, introducing her as humanitarian and blindingly obvious Good Person Eleanor Shellstrop. Eleanor wound up in the titular Good Place — in Christian terms, "heaven" — because of all her good works on earth. However, as we quickly learn, that Eleanor is not this Eleanor. This Eleanor was actually a scummy dirtbag from Arizona. Her placement in the Good Place is a mistake.
Of course, The Good Place’s many twists and turns over the years have revealed this to be fake, too. The Good Place was actually The Bad Place, Eleanor’s identity crisis was a form of torture devised by lead demon Michael (Ted Danson), who later turned on his fellow Bad Place cohort to help Eleanor and her friends get to the real Good Place. But that first twist only really works because of how believable Bell is as both Good and Bad Eleanor. We believe she’s capable of the greatness thrust on her by Michael because we’ve seen her be great as other characters. We also entirely believe the reveal, because Bell’s characters aren’t always as good as they seem.
As the show has gone on, and Eleanor has become a better person — thanks in large part to her friends Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) — the Arizona dirtbag has receded and her good side has come to the forefront. But wisely, both Bell and series creator Michael Schur have never let all of the old Eleanor go. It comes out in snarky asides that suggest the devil on her shoulder isn’t completely gone, or in flashbacks to who she was before coming to the Bad Good Place. Eleanor remains complex, even as she grows, and that keeps her interesting, while making her so much fun to watch.
Considering Eleanor’s growth, and Bell’s further involvement in the Disney universe, I have to imagine the lighter side of Bell’s performance persona will continue to prevail. (Only her return as Gossip Girl in HBO Max’s upcoming reboot and an upcoming caper comedy with Leslie Jones would seem to boast a darker Bell.) Considering the success of the Frozen movies alone, it makes sense — that’s where both the money and the international opportunities lie.
But I personally hope Bell keeps up both sides of her screen persona. Much ink has been spilled about Danson’s remarkable performance, Jacinto’s heartthrob looks, Jamil’s online activism, and even the delightful portrayal of sentient non-person Janet by D’arcy Carden. Bell has become something of the unsung hero of The Good Place, but its clear that the show wouldn’t work without her. She's a talented actress, and a verifiable A-list star. She’s got nothing to lose by continuing to push herself, and show that she truly does has the range.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.