In a crowded television market with networks not just competing with traditional line-in cable programming but with the ever-increasingly might of streaming services that are offering original programming that network television shows will never air, a network-based TV show that gets renewed past one season is becoming the new high bar jump. One such show is “The Good Place” on NBC.
I stumbled on the show in the midst of its first season trying to find something worth binge watching like most millennials my age. A full day of work deserves a certain level of vegging out; either cooked dinner, left overs or take out, a glass of wine and you look to see what’s on your home streaming device.
For the uninitiated, the show centers around Kristen Bell who plays the tragicomic Eleanor Shellstrop, a morally bankrupt individual who works at a company who sells fake medicine to needy people, a who just died and arrives in The Good Place run by the seemingly benevolent Michael played by Ted Danson. The long and short of it is that Eleanor, and the other three who make up the ensemble cast of recently departed from earth, are actually in The Bad Place. Michael turns out to be middle-management bureaucrat of The Bad Place who orchestrates a fake Good Place in order to torture these specific recently departed with the banality of pretense along with their own general irksome behaviors.
The first season easily could function as a weekly syllabus for an introduction to ethics or moral philosophy class. It was so heavy-handed I wondered could the show sustain a second season. When the first season concluded that this was not The Good Place but rather The Bad Place, I realized that the show had staying power. The genius of the show isn’t the simple plot-twist that happens at the end of each plot movement of the series, nor the deus ex machina moments the occur frequently, but its the quiet marvel that just when you think you’ve figured it out, the plot falls out beneath you like a trap door and the viewer is left falling into a new realm of possibilities.
While the show has hit all of the notes it needs to in order to stay on the air, it still retains the traditional milquetoast don’t-rock-the-boat feel to it that reminds us why network television programming is not the behemoth it used to be. There’s nothing overtly edgy about the show. The places in which it could be, it opted for comedy. The bloodbath scene of the trolley experiment or the crass comedy of a character having wind chimes for genitalia come to mind. However, on the subtle side, and more insidiously, its acceptance of the larger project of philosophy without any alternative is where the show fails the most.
Given the importance of non-European traditions in both the history of world philosophy and in the contemporary world, and given the increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds, this is astonishing. No other humanities discipline demonstrates this systematic neglect of most of the civilizations in its domain.”
Garfield and Norden go on to ask that college and universities rename their philosophy departments to “Department of European and American Philosophy” rather than make it seem as though the entire compendium of philosophy exists through the eyes of dead white, mostly European, men.
While the phrase “dead, white, men” is an oft-recited meme amongst progressives and liberals in America, it rings exceptionally true in an American culture that is increasingly browning itself despite current political turmoil. Therefore, the wanton hubris that American colleges and universities employ around philosophy departments draws from the same poisoned well that disaffects a show such as “The Good Place.”
Ultimately, the show makes a misstep because it uses Eurocentric philosophy as the only applicable canon to the moral and ethical dilemmas of its characters. The decision to do so stands in comic comparison to the rainbow coalition cast: a stereotypical vapid white American girl, a nerdy black guy with an “African sounding” name (his character is Senegalese), a wealthy young Pakistani woman with a British accent, and a dim-witted Filipino American guy from Jacksonville, Florida who sings the constant praises of Blake Bortles. In a sense, it’s a subtle assertion that not only is the present world governed by Western philosophical norms, but so is the afterlife.
Given that the first season seemed interested in the gory details of ethical and moral concepts that are only taught at the die-hard institutions that haven’t abandoned their liberal arts calling, it shouldn’t have been a bridge too far to incorporate the Middle Eastern, African and Eastern philosophies given that three of the main ensemble characters had distinctively non-Anglo Saxon ethnic backgrounds.
As the millennial demographic ages and the subsequent generationally-based consumer power grows, perhaps we’ll see this type of tone-deafness go the way of the dodo bird as millennial consumers will demand differently of the shows they watch. But for now it seems to be a present problem. At one point, the fight was just to secure appropriate ethnic and racial representation of characters on the screen, next it was to ensure that non-white characters didn’t so easily fall into racist Hollywood tropes and stereotypes. Now it seems as though the present struggle is around creating multi-dimensional non-white characters that can only be played by non-white actors.
“The Good Place” certainly took a step in the right direction, unfortunately it wasn’t a step far enough.