The Good Place

Philosophy on TV: “The Good Place”

The Good Place is a 2016 NBC television series in which one of the two lead characters — played by William Jackson Harper — is an ethics professor named Chidi Anagonye.  The show is set in the afterlife, where virtuous people go to live happily ever after with their soulmate.  Chidi was meant to meet the human rights lawyer Eleanor Shellstrop, but there was a mix up and another Eleanor Shellstrop — a drug sales woman void of a moral compass played by Kristin Bell — takes her place as Chidi’s soulmate.  To avoid being discovered and sent to ‘The Bad Place’, Eleanor convinces Chidi to teach her how to be a good person.

Todd May (Clemson University) is a philosophical advisor for the show, and I interviewed him via email about his role.

How did you become involved with The Good Place?  

I received an email out of the blue from the show’s creator, Mike Schur, asking whether I would be able to do some consultation.  It turns out that one of his writers had read my little book on death and suggested that we talk.

Can you explain what your role is?  

We’ve had three Skype sessions together, each lasting about an hour to an hour and a half.  In each case we discuss a philosophical issue and then ponder how it might be addressed during the episodes of the second season.  So far we’ve discussed death, existentialism, and some moral issues.  I have had the temerity to make a few plot suggestions; however, I assume the writers are savvy enough not to take them seriously.

What process do you go through to clarify and elucidate philosophical ideas for the show’s audience?  How is this similar to or different from preparing notes for an undergraduate intro to philosophy class?

Let me say this to start.  Mike Schur is a very bright and creative guy.  He was also involved in the creation of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99, as well as being a writer for The Office.  Because we’re dealing with both ideas and plot, our conversations are less like classes and more like, well, conversations.  There are ideas in play, but also characters in situations who are more than just instantiations of philosophical positions.  As the conversations unfold, we tack back and forth between the ideas and the show.  Because of this, it’s been as much a learning experience for me as a teaching one.  That’s a cliche, I know, but given the context of the conversations, it is very much true in this case.

How do the show’s writers, producers, and consultants decide which philosophical ideas to use for each show?

I don’t really know.  They come to me with certain things they’re curious about, and, with Mike Schur, we go over some of the ideas behind them.  Bear in mind that the these people are already philosophically sophisticated.  The first season–with which I was not involved–incorporated themes from Scanlon’s work, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, from trolley problems, and others.   I may help with the details, but they know what they’re doing.

What are the main challenges in your role with the show?    

If there is a challenge, it’s trying to think through how certain ideas are going to play out in the show.  Fortunately for me, that’s not essentially my responsibility.  I try to be as accurate as I can about the ideas, then discuss with Mike Schur some of the ways they may be represented in the show.

How do you balance representing what philosophers are like with how you want philosophers to be perceived on the show?

There really is only one character on the show who’s a philosopher: Chidi Anagonye.  He does display a certain paralysis at times that stems from seeing so many angles to any situation.  I can’t say I mind that even if it is a bit of a stereotype, because he’s also a charming guy in his bumbling way.  And really, how many of us philosophers can lay claim to being charming in any kind of way, bumbling or otherwise?

William Jackson Harper as Chidi
William Jackson Harper as Chidi in The Good Place “Pilot” | Photo by Justin Lubin/NBC

What value do shows like this – that explain ideas primarily discussed in academic circles for the public at large – have for society?

I’m not really sure.  The Good Place incorporates certain philosophical ideas and dilemmas into its structure, but not in a way that would be obvious to non-philosophers.  After all, it’s a sit-com.  I’m sure it’s possible to watch it without being aware of the particular philosophical issues and positions that are making an appearance.  On the other hand, if it brings folks into philosophical dilemmas in a way that provokes conversation, so much the better.

What challenges does a show like this face when trying to speak philosophically to a general audience?  

The show has real characters in particular situations.  If they are not to be flat representations of ideas, they have to be folks viewers can relate to, so they have to display a complexity of personality as well as relate to philosophically challenging situations.  But, you know, this is a challenge that is being grappled with in philosophy as well.  We’re all familiar with the complaints that philosophers often do thought experiments that are unrealistic or overly simplified, and there is some pressure to create more nuanced scenarios for philosophical reflection.  This is why some philosophers turn to literature when they want to think through certain philosophical issues.

Can you talk about a scene that you think works particularly well?

I very much like the last episode of the first season, the No Exit episode.  It seems to me to do three things successfully: display Sartre’s “Hell is other people” idea, create an unexpected plot twist, and yet remain in keeping with the earlier episodes.  It’s as though we can retrospectively see No Exit in the earlier episodes and in that way it reminds me of The Sixth Sense.

What do you see as the main benefits and risks of presenting philosophy in a sitcom?   

I don’t see any risks (I don’t think there’s a credible threat of masses of people suddenly deciding to enroll in graduate study in philosophy), but I do see benefits.  In particular, viewers getting to see and having the opportunity to grapple with important and difficult issues that animate philosophical discussion seems all to the good.

Should philosophers watch it?  What could they learn? 

It’s really a matter of taste.  The fun part for a philosopher could be figuring out which ideas are finding their way into the plot.  I don’t generally like sit-coms, but I found myself involved in this one in the way of trying to figure out a puzzle.

Do you have any insights as to how the show – or the philosophy professor – is being perceived?  

Not really.  I like Chidi and I think he’s presented in a sympathetic light but perhaps others will see it differently.  I should note here that Chidi’s being black is a boon to the profession that we really haven’t earned.  After all, our track record with philosophers of color–as well as other minorities and women–is not, shall we say, a model for other professions to envy and strive to emulate.

What do you think the future holds for philosophy in TV shows?  Will we see more explicit philosophy in TV?  

You’re asking for a prediction here.  Let me respond to this with a story about my abilities in the realm of prediction. When I was a freshman in college a new band came to play.  It was a small venue, small enough that the band had to come through the front door where I was standing.  I held the door for the band and asked them to give us a good show.  The band leader said they would try.  After they went through I closed the door and turned to a friend of mine and said, “That’s the best I’ll ever do with rockers–holding the door for some small time band from New Jersey.”  It was Bruce Springsteen.

Todd May took his Ph.D. from Penn State University in 1989, and has been at Clemson since 1991. He specializes in Continental philosophy and has authored thirteen philosophical books, focusing on the philosophical work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière.  He has found himself teaching classes as diverse as Anarchism, The Thought of Merleau-Ponty, Resistance and Alterity in Contemporary Culture, Secular Ethics in a Materialist Age, and Postmodernism and Art. 

Header image: The Good Place “Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis” Episode 109 – William Jackson Harper as Chidi and Kristen Bell as Eleanor – photo by Ron Batzdorff/NBC.

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