Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Good Place (S1; eps 1 & 2)

The Good Place: Everything is Fine & Flying (Season 1; Episodes 1 & 2)
Being a review and a wonky, lighthearted analysis of the first two episodes of Network television’s first philosophical sitcom.

"A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself..."
- Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Michael Schur is not fucking around.

In creating The Good Place, Schur - also the co-creator of Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine - has crafted the first TV comedy that's actively interested in, and engaged with, philosophy and ethics. Based on the evidence of its first two self-identified "chapters" that stuff isn't just pretentious window dressing, it's the reason for the show. In the first two chapters of The Good Place you will read or hear the names Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger, and Parfit. You will be presented with several snippets of moral thinking, and several overt, thorny, unanswered ethical questions. You will, if you're a total amateur Philosophy-skimmer like me, be really impressed by the ways that The Good Place incorporates all of this into its fabric.

...You will also laugh as you watch a panicked Ted Danson kick a dog into the sun, and then, in total kindness, offer to do it again. You will see a weirdly hilarious number of clowns. There are inexplicable giraffes, and a lot of wickedly good one-liners and gags. The Good Place is Michael Schur cashing in on success and goodwill to make something genuinely odd and personal and funny and earnest and smart and dark around the edges; there's more going on here than meets the eye, and I mean that on a couple of levels.

You can watch the first two chapters of The Good Place right now, for free, but in the event you’ve already watched it, or just don’t feel like it at the moment, here's the show in a nutshell: We join Eleanor (Kristen Bell) as she is welcomed to the good place - a purported heaven reserved exclusively for the very, very best of humanity, run by Michael, an apparent divine representative played by Ted Danson (sure, why not). It's a charmingly eccentric place that's a benign-seeming riff on The Prisoner's famous Village. In the good place you are given everything you desire, and for all intents it seems like any number of other pleasantly reassuring depictions of the afterlife (see: Defending Your Life's Judgment City). There's just one catch: Eleanor doesn't belong there. Thanks to some apparent bureaucratic screw-up, Bell's Eleanor - a terrible person - has taken the place of a woman who DOES belong there. Understandably unwilling to call attention to this mistake given what she learns about the place where she’s supposed to have gone, Eleanor sets out to stay in the good place by attempting to become a "good" person. Hilarity, and a heaping helping of intriguing ambiguity, swiftly follow.

What does it mean to be "good"? Is "goodness" defined by the actions we perform? By what we say? By the thoughts we have? Is "goodness" something we can learn? Something we can fake? Does the alignment of "good" thought and "good" action matter? If you perform good acts for bad reasons, does that matter? Bad acts for good reasons?

These sorts of questions are at the heart of The Good Place, and to the show's immense credit, the answers to those questions do not appear clear-cut in any way, shape, or form. That's where the philosophy and ethics come in. Chidi, Eleanor's roommate/purported soulmate in the good place, is an ethics professor. It's through him that the thinkers I've listed above are introduced.
Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which rears its head more than once, is a historically-seismic work of moral philosophy, with its goal being the development of a clearer understanding of moral understanding. Kant advances several general principles, including the idea that actions may be considered “moral” only when they are “pure,” motivated by “duty,” and unmotivated by reasons such as greed, self-aggrandizement, or desire, and that an action’s morality should be judged by the motive of the actor, and not by the result of the action (an assertion that, interestingly, would seem to be entirely contrary to the good place’s moral “scoring system”). Kant asserts that moral “law” must consist of a general formula that can be applied in any situation, exclusive of specific circumstances, and regardless of consequences. This idea of a “moral formula” is reinforced by another of the philosophers who are namechecked on the show.

That would be Derek Parfit, a living, modern-day philosopher similarly concerned with morality. Parfit initially found Kant irritating, and felt that the Kantian idea of autonomy was overvalued, but as he grew older he came to believe that “Kant was the greatest moral philosopher since the ancient Greeks.” He also felt that the clash of ideas between Kantians, with their absolute emphasis on “duty” and disregard of consequence, the Consequentialists, with their absolute emphasis on bringing about as much exterior “good” as possible and disregard of “duty” (which is, on the surface, the moral position of Ted Danson’s Michael and the good place), and the Contractualists, with their absolute belief in consent – absolute principles to which no one could reasonably object. Parfit’s recent book, On What Matters, postulates that there are “true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones. Humans can perceive these truths, through a combination of intuition and critical reasoning, but they remain true whether humans perceive them or not.” Parfit’s book is, essentially, an attempt to find the point of union between the three moral camps I’ve just (badly) described, to “prove” that morality matters objectively, beyond subjective motivators and human desires.

John Stuart Mill also seems to get a shout-out, with the word "utilitarianism" scrawled on Chidi's blackboard. Mill’s Utilitarianism is an essay written to advance another moral theory: that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to product the reverse of happiness.” Mill’s assertion that happiness (basically, pleasure, without pain) is the only basis of morality, runs counter to the assertions of Kant and Parfit, and underlines just how difficult it is to arrive at any sort of objective moral consensus.

…And Aristotle is Aristotle, man. As Eleanor quips, inanely, but also not-incorrectly, "he's the best one" (Aristotle’s name derives from the Greek word “Aristoteles,” which translated to “the best purpose,” or “the best aim”). Famously the teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s work in the field of ethics involved the practical, as opposed to the theoretical – on “becoming” good and “doing” good, as opposed to  “knowing” good for its own sake. He asserted that acting in accordance with one’s own nature, and realizing one’s own full potential, will result in doing good and feeling contentment. As with Mill, Aristotle asserted that happiness was the ultimate goal, with self-realization, awareness of your own nature, and the realization of your potential, was the best way to achieve that goal. 
The inclusion of these philosophers firmly reinforce The Good Place’s chief thematic concerns. The seeming outlier in this assortment of dead, old, brainy dudes is Martin Heidegger, whose On the Way to Language is concerned with the origins, nature, and significance of language (what he calls “the house of Being”) and communication, and with how language acts as signs and symbols that convey (or don't convey) agreed-upon meaning. There is of course a moral dimension to Heidegger’s book, but it’s inclusion is also an iiiiiinteresting choice from a narrative POV. After all, when Bell introduces a seemingly-new "language" into the good place - namely selfish behavior and negative words - she alters the good place's very fabric. She changes its signs and symbols, and with it, the good place’s "meaning." And about that "meaning"...

"What happens in the other place? ...Don’t worry about it!"

The Good Place is very charming, and clever-funny. It's also positively terrifying. Lurking among the show's brightly cheerful setting and numerous frozen yogurt kiosks is a monstrous fact, casually and pointedly glossed over: you and I and everyone we know do not "deserve" to go to the good place. We're all headed for the other place, like it or not - because you don't just have to be a good person to live in the good place, you have to be a FANTASTIC person (according to very specific criteria). To enter the good place, your actions on earth need to have promoted a maximal amount of external good in the world around you. Fall short, and you’re headed to The Bad Place.

The Bad Place - impliedly hell, though I wonder - isn't just a place where awful, unrepentant people go to suffer for their sins. It's the place where 90-something percent of everyone goes when they die (to suffer in awful ways, if you believe the brief "audio clip" that Janet, the show's sentient Siri equivalent, plays for us. I don't know that I do). That's horrifying. It damns nearly all of us. Did you spend your life contributing indelibly to mankind's knowledge of the universe? Good for you! You're headed to The Bad Place! Were you the founder of modern nursing, thus saving the lives of countless generations? Off to The Bad Place with you (literally – we’re told that Florence Nightingale didn’t make the cut, though “it was very close”)! Was your life spent being nice and thoughtful toward your fellow human beings, praying every day, and tithing on Sundays? Tough shit! You're still headed to The Bad Place!

Meanwhile, a small sliver of humanity is flying, and eating anything they want, and living in individually-designed homes, with access to anything that they desire, 24 hours a day, fully aware that everyone who didn't donate both their kidneys to a total stranger is suffering horribly for all eternity.

...Does that sound like a "Good Place"? Because I wonder.

In between the shiny facades and the quirky, smiling faces and the neato activities (whee! Flying!) there is real ambiguity to the "goodness" of the good place, and the show hints at that fact in ways both large and small. There is, of course, the ethical monstrousness of sending billions of people to a literal and/or figurative lake of fire for having scored a B+ or lower on an undisclosed "goodness" exam they never knew they were taking (and the ways in which that monstrousness dovetails neatly into the ways in which world religions teach analogous doctrines has the potential to really rile up the one million moms crowd).
There's also the fact that in the good place everyone's soul mate is their apparent opposite (so far, at least). Kristen Bell's Eleanor is unethical and immoral; her soulmate, Chidi, is an ethics professor. Eleanor's neighbor, Tahani, is a gabby, humblebragging socialite; her soulmate, Jianyu, is a silent monk. Even the "fun guys" that Bell meets in the good place are visual opposites - one is a buttoned-down preppy-type, the other looks like a burly, bearded outdoorsman. It's too early in the show's run to make any pronouncements, but this arrangement, and the way it's being played, suggest that soulmates in the good place are perhaps selected in order to help teach people something about themselves and potentially make them better people. Here's the question: If they've made it into heaven, why are they being "improved" further, and in ways which appear to target their specific foibles? Maybe that's what heaven is, in The Good Place - a place where we continue to improve and learn from those who are different from us. That's a really sweet thought, actually. But it also helps to highlight a fundamentally important question: Are the people in the good place really "good" people?

It's hard to say because, like, what IS "good" anyway, maaaaan? Schur's show makes it clear that the sky-high standard for admittance into the good place is good ACTION; Ted Danson's Michael explains it as the sum of the actions a person takes that then have positive effects on the world at large. But good ACTION doesn't necessarily = good person, as philosophers, ethicists, and religious types have long observed. Many traditions maintain that good action without good thought is flawed. Some, like certain sects of Christianity, argue that actions are essentially meaningless from a salvation standpoint, and that your only guarantee of same is to adopt Jesus into your heart - an exercise in valuing their version of "good thought" to the total exclusion of good action.

It's also hard to say because all we've seen so far of the people residing in the good place are the faces they've presented IN the good place. They certainly seem like good people. We're told they're good people. However, we don't know how Chidi or Tahani lived their lives on earth, and it's very possible that when we get glimpses of their past we're going to discover that things in the good place are much less straightforward than initially presented. When Eleanor receives a handwritten note at the end of chapter two, we're clearly meant to think that the message "you don't belong here" means what she think it means – namely, that it was intended for her. But again, I wonder. Is Eleanor the only one in the good place “by mistake”? The only one hiding who she “really” is?
…Sure it is.
It's too soon to know where Schur's show is going with any of this. It is very possible that I have drastically overthought a half-hour NBC sitcom, and that the rules for this world simply are what they are, decided on for entirely comedic/different reasons - but I don't think that's what's happening here. After all, this is a show from the man who seeded an episode of Parks and Recreation with subtle references to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. The first two "chapters" of The Good Place suggest that what we're seeing is a purposeful attempt to grapple with what being "good" means/should mean; with ethics and morality and life itself. With good jokes. And big heart.

That's wonderful.

What happens, do you think, when an ethics professor examines the ethics of a purposefully exclusionary afterlife? What happens when these people start to examine where they are, who they are, and why they were picked? I've got some theories (some very specific, very interesting theories), but I'll wait to share those in more detail as the show develops. As for what happens when a smart, big-hearted network TV comedy engages with difficult, slippery ethical/moral/philosophical questions? I have no real idea - but I can't wait to find out.

PS: all hail Doug Forcett!


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