What the fork? And other ethical issues


Photo credit: Kaitlyn Curry

Feeling stressed after taking that midterm? Did that horror movie shake you to your core? No problem: the time has come again to purge all fear from your mind and fall back on an amusing rerun of “Friends,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office” or whatever tickles your funny bone.

I can often count on TV sitcoms to provide a comfortable 20 minutes for me to relax, shut my brain off and just laugh. While I can generally apply this rule to a decent number of the comedy shows I’ve seen, I cannot say the same with absolute confidence about NBC’s “The Good Place.”

With the start of the show’s third season this fall, you might have come across one of many recent articles discussing how its storytelling is different from other comedies on TV right now. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of “The Good Place,” the plot follows Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) as she finds herself in the afterlife belonging in “The Good Place,” a utopia for those who have lived a morally correct life on earth. Eleanor is surprised but happy to be rewarded, until she realizes that she was sent there by mistake and must work to become a more ethical person if she wants to stay — not the first situation you would think of as a setting for situational comedy.

I decided to talk to the philosophical minds of Trinity’s campus to gauge their thoughts on “The Good Place.” The topic of most controversy among the students and professors I asked about the show was: is “The Good Place” just entertaining fluff that will throw the occasional Aristotle reference in the mix, or does it encourage viewers to confront their own ways of thinking about ethics?

It’s no question that “The Good Place” is packed with chaotic jokes and antics. Patrick Keating, professor in the Department of Communication and chair of the film studies minor, praised the writers’ abilities to create genuinely hilarious gags, even while the ethical and metaphysical stakes of the plot are high.

“[I like that] it has jokes. I’m a sort of traditionalist this way. I like my comedy to have jokes. I want to be able to say, to think that the writer’s looked at the jokes and they’ve rewritten and rewritten them. They’re not just relying on actors to improvise. They’re crafting these jokes,” Keating said.

The character Eleanor’s arc, which involves her attempts to become more righteous, gives the writers plenty of room to poke fun at her understanding of fundamental philosophical thinkers and concepts. Max Freeman, senior philosophy major and member of Trinity’s Philosophy Club, saw the show’s humor as a way for it to introduce these concepts for further thought among viewers.

“I like it for it’s call-outs and references to philosophy, or at least philosophers,” Freeman said. “It has a really difficult job of talking about philosophy in a meaningful way while also being entertaining. Philosophy is fun, it can be fun, but it’s hard to go into that medium and make it [both] meaningful and fun … but I think it does a good job, [with] certain episodes doing better than others.”

Philosophy major Alex Gammon, also a Philosophy Club member, is a loyal fan of the show and praised its humor, but found it to be lacking substance to add to philosophical thought or conversation.

“It’s a show that references philosophy a lot, but it’s not really about philosophy. In order for it to be about philosophy, it’d have to engage in philosophy, have philosophical themes, some sort of interesting message or some kind of challenge. … I imagine that in some ways,” The Good Place” is for philosophers what “The Big Bang Theory” is for physicists. A physicist doesn’t watch the show like, ‘I love this show about physics!’ The occasional Neil deGrasse Tyson cameo doesn’t make it that,” Gammon said.

While some might view the exploration of ethical concepts in “The Good Place” as being only surface level, professor Rachel Johnson in the Department of Philosophy saw promise in the show’s ability to make its viewers think on ethical ideas that they might not have otherwise interacted with.

“It’s better to introduce these [ideas], even if you don’t have enough time to explain them thoroughly, than to not talk about them at all,” Johnson said. “I think they do a pretty good job of being accurate in what they say. So I don’t fear that my students will come into my classes with all sorts of misconceptions because they’ve watched this TV show: what they tell you about various moral theories is mostly correct.”

The writers of “The Good Place” have struck a tone likely to transport viewers into the world of the story no matter one engages with the show’s ideas. But whether you find yourself transported to TV heaven or not with each new episode this season, there’s one thing I truly believe: the show is damn funny.