Grab your moral compass: ‘The Good Place’ takes philosophy mainstream

Why We Wrote This

TV is not the hearth people typically go to for ethics lessons. But "The Good Place" is prompting more thinking around the idea of what it means to be a good person.  

Colleen Hayes/NBC
Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Michael (Ted Danson) interact in an episode of ‘The Good Place.’ Often called TV’s best comedy by critics, the show’s tenacity in an industry known for rapid cancellations speaks both to its fan base and its unusual approach.

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When veteran sitcom writer Michael Schur decided to explore ideas related to morality and ethics for his own benefit, it ended up spilling over into his creative life. He pitched executives a show about what it means to be a good person, which resulted in “The Good Place,” a sitcom on NBC now in its third season. Often called TV’s best comedy by critics, the show’s tenacity in an industry known for rapid cancellations speaks to its fanbase, and its unusual approach. The program prominently features the ideas of philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Aristotle – names not typically associated with a genre driven by one-liners and laugh tracks. The philosophers are used in conjunction with the afterlife journey of a group of characters, including Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who is trying with mixed results to overcome a past full of poor choices. As one 20-something fan, RaeLee Puckett-Sharpless, explains, “Ultimately, it’s a show about ethics and about people who make each other better.”

The appeal of television characters is often their flaws. But in contrast to morally challenged protagonists like Don Draper of “Mad Men” and Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” the denizens of NBC’s comedy “The Good Place” are working to fix theirs. And people are fascinated by how.

Now in its third season, the Emmy-nominated sitcom charts the afterlife journey of its main characters by name-dropping philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Aristotle – atypical fodder for programs that usually deal in one-liners and laugh tracks. Often called TV’s best comedy by critics, the show’s tenacity in an industry known for rapid cancellations speaks to its fanbase, and its unusual approach.

“I don’t think there has ever been a network sitcom that talks about philosophers in this way,” writes Errol Lord, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. “Plenty of great comedy shows have grappled with philosophical issues (“The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld,” “M*A*S*H*,” “Daria,” and, more recently, “High Maintenance”). But ‘TGP’ is unique in the way it talks about actual philosophers and their views.”

“The Good Place” is the brainchild of Michael Schur, a sitcom veteran who co-created both “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation,” and who wrote for the US version of “The Office.” His own musings on philosophical matters informed this solo project – which he has said he pitched to executives as a show about what it means to be a good person – and have translated to viewers.   

“Ultimately, it’s a show about ethics and about people who make each other better,” says RaeLee Puckett-Sharpless, a 20-something fan from Kokomo, Ind. 

From the moment Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) arrives in a heaven-like afterlife run by Michael (Ted Danson), she thinks it is a mistake. She is joined in “the good place” by ethics professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and aspiring DJ Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). 

Early in the first season, Eleanor asks Chidi to help her learn to be better (in flashbacks viewers learn that she was often selfish and dishonest) and various philosophers are soon part of her lessons. In season two, which picks up after a twist at the end of the previous season, an entire episode revolves around and is named after “the trolley problem,” in which a person must choose between allowing a train to run over five people or diverting it so it only runs over one. Season three finds Chidi exploring nihilism in an episode that also involves good-deed-doing. 

“I think that the second and third seasons display more philosophical depth than much of the first season, but the reason for this may well be that the first season had to do a lot of setup,” explains Todd May, professor of philosophy at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and a consultant to the show. “As far as their approach to philosophy, we do see the emergence of the idea of the little voice of conscience, one that Eleanor brings up as a general moral guide. This guide isn’t grounded in any particular theory, but in the unfolding relationships she has with those around her.” 

One of Professor May’s books led Mr. Schur to him, and now May meets with the show’s writing staff via Skype. “They are very keen on getting the philosophy right,” he says, noting he was tapped by the show for what was a first in his 30-some years in philosophy: “an emergency philosophical consult.”

Professor Lord, who is working his way through the seasons, notes that early on the plot brought out philosophical ideas, including, “Does expertise in moral philosophy translate into expertise about how to act well?... Can you learn to be a better person?... Does motive matter to whether actions with good consequences have moral worth?”

Colleen Hayes/NBC
Tahani (Jameela Jamil) (far l.), Janet (D'Arcy Carden), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) visit an art installation in 'The Good Place' Season 3 episode, 'A Fractured Inheritance.'

Lord also noticed changes in the philosophical approach in the second season. “It becomes murkier what the show’s view is about the relationship between being an expert about moral philosophy and being a good person. It still seems to me that it is skeptical about that.” And, he notes, “the layer of hope seems to be strengthened and deepened by Michael’s transformation into something much more like an ordinary human agent.”

In addition to winning the approval of philosophy experts, “The Good Place,” rated TV-14, also boasts an enthusiastic fan base. Ms. Puckett-Sharpless says she wasn’t sure about the show after seeing the first episode but eventually sat down and watched more of it on a friend’s recommendation. “Each season the story has some kind of reboot,” she adds. “There’s a new story that ropes you in. If the show is a puzzle, each season is a newer weirder piece. It’s fresh and a different take on the afterlife that no one has ever seen before.”

Bridget Heos watches it in Kansas City, Mo., with her husband and three teenage sons. 

“It’s funny,” she says, but notes that “there’s a deeper thread that really makes you think about the show.” The struggle by the characters to become better people reminds her of another famous story about improving one’s life. “To me it’s kind of like another version of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ where it’s about people who ... have opted out of being human beings,” she says. Watching them learn how to be loving and “not be superficial like Tahani,” offers a deeper meaning, she says. 

“But what brings us back, I think, is the characters,” she adds. “I love spending time with these characters.”

Lord notes that the show taps into “the longing to connect with others and the longing to be recognized as valuable.”

He argues Eleanor’s connection with others is what makes the difference in her journey. “Her meaningful interactions with the other characters ([especially] Chidi) is what really gets her to see the value of these things,” he writes. “These themes are very often explored by TV shows and art more generally.... But TGP executes this agenda in an interesting way.”

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