A lot of what we think of as prestige television, shows like Game of Thrones, or The Americans, or Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, are basically shows about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes, those shows seem to take a particular pleasure in killing off (in elaborately gruesome ways) their few well-meaning characters. For example, here’s a 20-minute montage of character deaths from Game of Thrones:
This context makes ‘The Good Place,’ an ABC sitcom now in its third season, stand out in the current cultural moment. The show, which is more philosophically inclined than just about anything airing on American television, has spent the past two seasons advancing a particular kind of philosophical argument: that it’s possible to become a better person, but only with the help of other people.
The show makes this argument by killing a few really awful people. When the show begins, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has died. As she was leaving the grocery store, a runaway shopping cart pushed her out into the street, where she was hit by a truck.
She wakes up in The Good Place, where only the best people go when they die. As Michael (Ted Danson), the otherworldly administrator of The Good Place cheerfully explains to her, 99% of people go to The Bad Place instead, where they’re tortured for eternity.
Since Eleanor was a world-changing human rights lawyer, she made it into The Good Place! The only problem is that Eleanor wasn’t a human rights lawyer—she was kind of a disaster of a human being. She sold fake medicine to old people over the phone, she was a selfish friend, and she didn’t even try to be a good person. Somehow, she got into The Good Place by mistake.
But she tries to become a better person, and the show is largely about how that happens. She relies on her ‘soulmate,’ a professor of moral philosophy named Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) to teach her ethics, and sometimes friends Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) to teach her how to be a good person in more than just theory.
Along the way, the show develops a real philosophical premise—when Eleanor tries to solve a problem on her own, her ethical skills usually fail her; when she wants to find out why Tahani is in a bad mood, she steals her diary, for example. But when she relies on others, she learns how to take other people’s perspectives and feelings into account, and figures out the right thing to do. (For example: Tahani explains to her why it’s important to actually pay attention to Chidi’s long lessons about Plato and Aristotle—because it makes Chidi feel appreciated). It all amounts to a show that offers a convincing rebuttal to the endemically individual-focused ethical philosophy of so much of the Western Tradition (here’s looking at you, Immanuel Kant).
This isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny. It is, in fact, extremely funny. Bell and Danson especially have honed the rhythms of sitcom performance into something like brain surgery—each line is delivered so precisely that it sneaks right into your laughbox before you even figure out why it’s supposed to be funny.
However, the jokes are always backed up by a real idea, and by real, sometimes painfully-complex philosophy, and that gives the show a real intellectual and emotional depth. The humor comes from an eminently human place, one that’s grounded in the always-complicated real world, no matter how fanciful The Good Place gets.