Editorial: Welcome to ‘The Good Place’

  • FROM LEFT: Ted Danson, Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil of “The Good Place” attend a promotional event in Los Angeles on June 19. AP file

Published: 8/9/2018 12:04:44 AM

The basic formula for the network television sitcom has been roughly the same since I Love Lucy hit the airwaves in 1951: a half-hour of relatable comedy that doesn’t ask too much of its viewers. That’s not to say there haven’t been brilliant sitcoms that far surpass that baseline – All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Simpsons come to mind – but the structure of a situation comedy allows for only so much depth.

And maybe that’s what makes NBC’s The Good Place, set to begin its third season next month, so remarkable. 

On one level, it is very much a typical sitcom with a standard premise: a fish-out-of-water story set in the afterlife. The cast, led by Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper and Ted Danson, is lovable and diverse, and the foundational plot is strong enough for a sustained run. Most importantly in the world of sitcoms, it is very funny and often sweet.

But The Good Place also happens to be the best moral philosophy class you will ever take.

Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a shallow and narcissistic telemarketer who sells fake medicine to elderly people (among her many moral and ethical shortcomings). Upon dying in an accident, Eleanor arrives in a utopian community designed by afterlife architect Michael, played by Danson. “The Good Place,” as he calls it, is reserved for the cream of the crop of human beings, and so it is immediately clear to Eleanor that there’s been a mistake. But rather than fess up, Eleanor turns to her “soul mate” Chidi Anagonye – an ethics professor while alive on Earth – to help her become a better person in hopes that the mistake will go unnoticed. And so the lessons –  and plot twists – commence.

Chidi draws from the works of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, David Hume and other giants of philosophy, and touches on existentialism, deontology, utilitarianism and even the famous “trolley problem.” Contemporary philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Judith Thompson and Tim Scanlon are part of the curriculum, too. In fact, Scanlon’s 1998 book on contractualism, What We Owe to Each Other, is also the title of Episode 6 of Season 1 and plays a prominent role throughout the first two seasons.

As we write this, Scanlon’s book sits on our desk, largely unread. It is challenging material, and we’re reading (and rereading) at a glacial pace despite our admiration for the author and interest in his theories. The truth is that some of the concepts feel a bit out of reach. As Eleanor and Chidi know, moral philosophy can be tough.

Thankfully, The Good Place is easy. Season 1 is streaming on Netflix right now and Season 2 arrives on Aug. 28. A new season of lessons – er, episodes – will air on NBC starting at the end of September.

It’s been a long time since we were this excited for class to begin.

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