How ‘The Good Place’ Redefined the Sitcom

Although the show finished its fourth and final season this past January 2020, its influence on television will endure.

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Yona Litwin

“You owe certain things to the people that you share Earth with and that’s the point of the show,” creator Michael Schur said. “The attempt, the desire to be better, is actually more important than the result. What matters is that you’re trying.”

Sitcoms have a long history of teaching moral lessons. The moral guidelines that they teach are usually simple: be kind, tell the truth, and care about others. With short episodes, funny stories, and some jokes, these lessons are easy to digest and remember. However, in an attempt to give each episode a satisfying resolution, there is not much of a place for nuance. The Good Place is distinct from other sitcoms because it thrives on nuance. The Good Place does not only teach you about doing the right thing, but it also directly explores the philosophy behind it. It investigates what it means to be a ‘good person’ and whether people can become good through practice. “The Good Place is a show that teaches you the most while still staying a comedy,” said Sumaiya Rashad ’21. “It’s funny, even while it addresses philosophical and moral issues.” Combining an all-you-can-eat shrimp dispenser and a discussion of nihilism into the same episode isn’t an easy task, but the show made the pairing seem normal. It’s a representation of the show as a whole, talking about large, philosophical ideas while keeping the audience entertained and laughing throughout. 

For those who have not seen the show, it follows Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who has just died and been sent to the Good Place. The show takes place in the afterlife where humans are sent to either the Good Place or Bad Place based on the morality of their lives on earth. Only the most moral people are sent to the Good Place, but Eleanor was a terrible person on Earth so she realizes there was a mistake. In order to earn her spot in the Good Place, Eleanor takes ethical lessons from Chidi, who was a moral philosophy professor on Earth and is her assigned soulmate. 

The show covers a variety of moral lessons and the philosophers behind them, from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant. It does this while not feeling “preachy” through the use of humor, endearing characters, and dynamic plots. In other sitcoms, character growth is present, but often this occurs after multiple years and is a background to the jokes. The Good Place, on the other hand, centers on character development. The whole premise of the show, in fact, is about a woman who is trying to improve herself so she doesn’t get tortured for eternity in hell.

The show’s season finale featured the appearance of Pamela Hieronymi and Todd May, the show’s philosophical advisors. Hieronymi, a professor at UCLA, introduced creator Michael Schur to T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. In an interview, Schur claimed that the book forms the “spine” of the show, “the book we kept coming back to.” The book defends contractualism, the theory that the morality of your actions depends on your ability to justify your conduct to others. This moral theory is just one of the many covered on the show among moral particularism, deontology, nihilism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. The show promotes various ethical outlooks, and argues that there isn’t just one answer. After struggling with indecisiveness his whole life due to a fear of choosing the wrong answer, Chidi makes a revelation in the final season. “It turns out life isn’t a puzzle that can be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day, and you solve it again.” 

Television shapes our perception of the world in more ways than we realize. “TV shows aren’t just a fun way to relax; they’re a way to understand more about ourselves and the things we value,” said Audrey Hill ’20. TV shows have repeatedly shown their impact whether through direct social or political commentary, or implicitly by showing same-sex or interracial couples. But The Good Place is different. “While many shows function as a social or moral commentary, The Good Place does it so overtly that it ends up teaching its audience about many of the underlying ethical frameworks with which we evaluate the world,” Hill said. The show redefines what a television show, especially a sitcom, can teach its audience. The Good Place may be over, but its influence is not. Hopefully, new shows will continue where The Good Place started, combining meaningful, nuanced topics with comedy, in order to make something worth watching.

To watch episodes of The Good Place, click HERE

The Good Place is a show that teaches you the most while still staying a comedy. It’s funny, even while it addresses philosophical and moral issues,” said Sumaiya Rashad ’21.

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