Two years ago, a dreaded major requirement plunged me into an ethical crisis that I’m still wading through. Like one of those foam pits for kids to jump into, I keep thinking that I’ve found the singular moral truth that I can stand upon. But one of those foamy cubes of logic gives under my feet and I find myself rolled back into the uncertainty again.
I think most people are living out their lives in search of whatever they think is good, and I was taught that this is a noble goal. But very few people seem to notify the children they mentor that ‘good’ is not a thing. There aren’t just good things with a little sign that points it out for you.
Throughout this time floating through the ambiguity, The Good Place has been a companion sailor. The characters of The Good Place and I have considered, overconsidered, discussed, tried, critiqued, committed to and regretted agreeing with a whole spectrum of what good is, and if good even is.
The Good Place makes it exciting and interesting to be flailing in the foam pit of uncertainty.
It brings in real, useful ideas that you don’t have to fight through ethical texts to understand. Yeah, it won’t get you that far in your philosophy classes, but it’s considerably more detailed information about ethics than most people know. And I’d argue that the show’s interpretation of the material includes the most pertinent theory in the most coherent way I have ever been exposed.
Plus, it’s funny and generative, not just critical. Generations of parents have complained about TV shows, movies and music rotting their kids’ brains, and while there are a lot of flaws with that, they certainly didn’t understand the way shows like The Good Place can help people learn and understand the world around them.
While there are astute cultural critiques, the show is far more focused on how the characters experience the world, and what it’s like to be frustrated by the state of a community or culture. Unlike standup, late-night talk shows or a lot of other comedy, the characters demonstrate what it looks like to work through the critiques they have with nearly endless energy to believe that they can make the system better. Characters think, try, fail, revise and try again. They look to philosophy, art and friends for advice. It’s always about the process that they’re working through, not just the problem that they identify as needing work.
In doing this, the show isn’t prescriptive; it demonstrates how to think, not what to think. It doesn’t hide behind too much shrouding metaphor and allegory, and often the scenarios that are dreamt up bring the major themes to the forefront with bluntness and clarity that don’t require any reading between the lines. By not prescribing and not coming to clear or certain answers — we’re going to ignore the last thing Chidi said in the most recent episode — the show is honest to the world it exists in.
As characters demonstrate this process, they come across the same challenges that real people do. They get anxious, scared, regretful, downtrodden, vengeful. They validate these experiences and offer ideas for addressing them.
When The Good Place finishes up this spring, I hope more shows follow its lead. Its grace and tact at considering the world are well-needed on our screens and in our heads. Its model for teaching and encouraging thought is excellent and adaptable. My greatest hope, as I continue my trek through the foam pit and The Good Place feels the bittersweet release of its culmination, is that the writers will not wrap the show up in a bow in some stupid resolution. I hope it haunts me in the pit forever.
Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.