Wisdom//

The Good Place and The Good Life

How a very funny sitcom is helping us ask the big questions about life

Michael Tran / Getty Images
Michael Tran / Getty Images

The question of what it means to live a good life has been at the heart of every religious and philosophical tradition since the dawn of time. It’s a big question. And, really, it’s the most important question. But in our modern, harried, notification-filled world, in which our focus is always locked onto the next item on our endless to-do list, our culture doesn’t encourage us to ask ourselves such a zoomed-out question. Any time and space that might be quiet enough for that to happen is instantly filled with screens begging — usually successfully — for our attention. Technology, even more than nature, abhors a vacuum.

But now that question has come back in a very unlikely form: the network sitcom. Specifically “The Good Place,” my new favorite show. It might seem strange to call a sitcom profound, but only if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s a show built on using ancient truths to navigate the present moment — which is a central part of our mission here at Thrive.

The premise is very high concept — and that’s the point. It’s not meant, as high concepts usually are, to provide extra wacky laughs, but to create a playing field where these big questions can be hashed out. The show is set in the afterlife, “The Good Place,” which is run by a nervous, excitable middle manager named Michael, played by Ted Danson. This is where you are supposedly sent if you were virtuous enough in life, thus avoiding “The Bad Place.” The show follows several recently dead characters as they try to continue on that path in their new setting. Problems start with the fact that the not-so-well behaved Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, might not actually belong in “The Good Place.” Fortunately, or not, her soulmate — all new arrivals are assigned one — is Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper, a Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy. His job is to teach Eleanor how to be good.

That sounds like a recipe for tedious, heavy moralism, but it’s not. As the show makes brilliantly clear, ethics and morality are simply formal ways of categorizing human behavior so we can talk about it and study it. And that’s what all humor is really about —  human behavior in all its glory. So when you see it all put together, a sitcom about morality and trying — and, especially, failing — to be our best selves makes perfect sense. The laughs on “The Good Place” — and there are many — are about the deepest and hardest realities, complexities and contradictions of being human.

That it works is a credit not just to the cast but especially to the creator, Michael Schur. After writing on the American version of “The Office,” and co-creating “Parks and Recreation” — a show known for having heart while still being funny — he came up with “The Good Place.” It was a subject he’d long been interested in.

And fortunately for all of us, he decided to unravel life’s moral questions, along with a host of others, and along with all of us, in plain view. When he was putting the show together, he put himself through a crash course in philosophy. That led to contacting Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at UCLA specializing in ethics, moral responsibility and free will, and whose work explores “the agency we exercise over our own attitudes, in particular, over our beliefs and intentions.” In other words, can we become better people by deciding to? The two hit it off, and eventually Hieronymi became TV comedy’s first “consulting philosopher.” (A gig Aristotle and Plato, judging by what we know about them, would both likely have jumped at.)

The show incorporates not just the thinking of philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard, but also contemporary thinkers, including Hieronymi’s dissertation advisor at Harvard, Thomas Scanlon. His book What We Owe Each Other had a big impact on Schur. “It assumes that we owe things to each other,” Schur said. “It starts from that place. It’s not like: Do we owe anything to each other? It’s like: Given that we owe things to each other, let’s try to figure out what they are.” Or, as Hieronymi put it, “what’s going to save the characters is the relationship they have with one another.” It is, as Schur acknowledges, “a very quietly subversive idea,” especially in a country so dedicated to the idea of rugged individualism and the myth that for success to be legitimate it must always be “self-made.” These are questions we see being wrestled with on the front pages of the newspaper every day: What are our responsibilities to others, to our neighbors, to immigrants, to those with differing political beliefs?

Schur plays out these ideas not just through his characters, but on his set. Schur is known for his “no jerks” at work policy, which accounts for his loyal following of actors and crew. And it’s yet another way the show lives its values and speaks to our current moment, including on issues like #MeToo. “Hollywood has a shameful and miserable past and, frankly, present about all people of color, all women especially,” he said. “It’s disgusting, it’s horrible, it makes me ashamed to be a part of the industry. I’m thrilled that it’s changing —  which it is. It’s finally being exposed.” For too long, says Schur, this shameful behavior has been excused as long as people produce results. “There’s a thing that happens in Hollywood because creativity is elusive and it’s gossamer and it floats in the air and no one can quite define it or recreate it,” Schur said. “And that is how monsters are made… People get away with anything they want if they’re making enough people enough money.”

As we’ve seen in recent years, this isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon — it’s one you can find in every industry. And it’s yet another way the show and Schur’s story resonates with me. At Thrive, we not only say “no jerks” but also “no brilliant jerks” to emphasize that being brilliant or a “high performer” doesn’t ever buy your way out of your responsibility to not be a jerk.

The show has been an incredible success. In The New York Times, Sam Anderson called it “the best sitcom on TV.” In The Atlantic, David Sims called it a “laugh-out-loud sitcom that nonetheless strives to investigate its storylines on deeper metaphysical grounds.” And the latest season, the third, which finished in January, racked up a rare 100 percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. (And it’s already been renewed for a fourth season.)

It’s also touched a nerve with the public. “Even though it’s always changing things up on the viewers, its heart (for lack of a better word) stays in the same place,” wrote one fan on Reddit. “It’s easily my favorite sitcom of the last ten years.” It’s not just that it’s funny, but people are hungry for the subject matter the jokes are wrapped around. “It’s a brilliant show, one of the few so absorbing that I don’t multi-task while watching it,” wrote another in a comment on the New York Times website. “It manages to be meaningful and thoughtful while also bringing — and landing — the jokes so quickly that you can’t look away.” There are articles about the theology of “The Good Place,” about why it’s “necessary” for its “message about humanity and redemption,” and how the show has made “philosophy seem cool.” There’s even a blog devoted to the philosophy explored on the show (slogan: “the unexamined show is not worth watching”), with topics like “Are We Responsible for Other People’s Decisions?,” and “Has Love Ever Been a Choice?”

And when you step back and take the same zoomed-out look at our world that Schur is going for in the alternate one he’s created, it’s no surprise the show is resonating. We’re in a time in which the gap between what it’s legal to do and what one should or shouldn’t do has never been put into starker relief. That’s the heart of ethics, and where it differs from the law. The latter doesn’t tell us very much about how we should live our lives. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it, “ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

And yes, we live in a world in which it’s possible, and not altogether inappropriate, to live in a state of perpetual outrage. Norms are being broken every day. Horrible behavior goes on with impunity, or is actually rewarded. “You don’t have to look very hard to see a group of people in this country who have given in and are just making the worst decisions you can make,” says Schur. “Like the most selfish, the most corrupt, the most evil decisions — and they’re just doing it as a matter of course. And it’s way too late. They’re never gonna go the other way.”

This can breed cynicism and resignation, but it can also motivate us to do what we can in our own lives. “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change,” wrote Ghandi. For Viktor Frankl , who survived the holocaust and went on to write the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, this is both our responsibility and our most important freedom. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” he wrote. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

But in today’s world, there’s far too much very sophisticated technology begging us to look away from ourselves, distract ourselves and put off unraveling those big questions of how we want to live our daily lives. As the renowned Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh put it, “It has never been easier to run away from ourselves.” And from each other. In a study by researchers at the University of Essex in the U.K., participants were divided into couples and asked to talk. Half the conversations took place with a phone in the room. “The mere presence of mobile phones,” the study contended, “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” and “reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.” The effect was more extreme when “a personally meaningful topic” was being talked about. Other studies have found that social media use is associated with depression and loneliness. Our modern world isn’t making it easy for us to have the time and space to figure out what is a good life.

And the consequences of this social atomization are not hard to see. There are endless articles about the worsening epidemic of loneliness. A study last year found that nearly half of all Americans report feeling lonely — with the highest incidence occurring in young people. Since 1999, the rate of Americans who take antidepressants has gone up by 65 percent. Suicide rates continue to climb, and a report release just last week found “deaths of despair” to be at an all-time high.     

So it’s no surprise that people are hungry for things that can add meaning to their lives. The New York Times now has a popular section called “The Stone,” a hub for “contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” At Yale, the most popular class, with 1,200 students, is called “Psychology and the Good Life,” meant to teach students what will truly make them happy. “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong,” said Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the class. And an even bigger sign: the cultural resurgence of the Stoics, the third century B.C. school of philosophy that teaches us not to put make our happiness contingent on external factors beyond our control. According to The Conversation’s estimate, those participating in global online Stoic communities now number over 100,000.

And that’s why “The Good Place” isn’t just hysterically funny, but also — that overused but sometimes necessary word in Hollywood — important. It’s both a reflection of our hunger for meaning and a guide to help us ask ourselves the questions we need to in order to find it in our own lives. The way our culture drives us to live and work isn’t fulfilling. People want more, even if that means asking more of ourselves. As Schur says, that’s the point of the show, “to point out that there’s more value in trying than in not trying.” We can’t be perfect, but we can be better. “No one will ever win the race to be the best person,” says Schur. “It’s impossible. But, especially since starting this show, I just think everyone should try harder. Including me.” Including all of us, as we try to figure what we owe ourselves, what we owe each other and what we owe our society. We won’t ever figure it out exactly, but making time to ask the questions is more important now than ever.

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