To an unfamiliar mind, philosophy may come across as a daunting field of study for its intellectually challenging ideas and equally convoluted literature. As a result, discussion of philosophy is often neglected or dismissed in conventional conversation for its intellectual inaccessibility. However, it is because NBC subverts this perceived inaccessibility that its latest hit sitcom The Good Place manages to entice viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with philosophy. In particular, producer Michael Schur uses the show as a medium for exploring the significance of moral philosophy in ethical decision making and how one should live life in relation to others.
The show follows the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who after dying, is sent to Schur’s candy-coloured version of the afterlife known as ‘The Good Place’; it is the place where all humans who lived ‘good’ benevolent lives on Earth are sent after death to indulge in divine pleasures such as limitless frozen yogurt and shrimp cocktails. The show’s central conflict reveals itself when Eleanor realizes she does not belong in ‘The Good Place’ and must have been sent there by mistake. In order to fit in, Eleanor decides to learn what it means to be a ‘good’ person with the help of her afterlife soulmate and moral mentor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper).
The show is unlike anything else on modern television. What makes The Good Place special is how it manages to balance humour and moral instruction. Unlike the average American sitcom, the show refuses to present itself as mindless comedy and instead opts for a type of philosophical comedy to convey a sincere and highly relevant moral lesson: how to be a ‘good’ person. While the idea of a ‘good’ person may be considered subjective under philosophical terms, Schur attempts to address the idea of ‘goodness’ from the standpoints of various moral theories. Should a good person act so that they may maximise pleasure for the majority as the utilitarian would say? Should a good person act strictly within universal rules to maintain moral integrity as the deontologist would say? Or should a good person act only in accordance with Aristotelian values as a virtue ethicist would say? These are the types of moral questions Schur compels his viewers to examine as Eleanor’s story unfolds; moral introspection is not simply a byproduct of the show as it is woven into its very premise.
As of the publishing of this article, the show has completed its third season and is confirmed to be renewed for a fourth by NBC, a decision undoubtedly indicative of the rising popularity of ethics among aspiring philosophical thinkers. While those intellectually familiar with moral philosophy may find the show’s philosophical teachings elementary, there is something of value to be extracted by everyone. Whether you be a casual viewer or a professor of moral philosophy, The Good Place is bound to both entertain and educate in a superbly humorous, quirky, and easily accessible way.
Watch the Season 1 trailer here.