Michael Schur makes sitcoms that have a warm, pragmatic, Midwestern ethos yet manage to be sharp and funny. This is a hard thing to do—like being an incisive kindergarten teacher. And all his shows have been much better than they sound on paper. The American version of The Office, which he co-produced, was the quintessential unneeded remake; Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in an era of Black Lives Matter and mass incarceration, makes cops look good. Parks and Recreation, his masterpiece to date, celebrates moderate, consensus-based liberalism; it’s about reaching across the aisle and realizing we’re all just people here.
I shouldn’t like these shows, philosophically, but I love them. I love their characters and actors. I love their niceness; in a genre frequently built on low-level verbal abuse, these shows, especially Parks and Rec, seem like they’re trying to prove that there is such a thing as a laugh that is at no one’s expense.
And I love The Good Place (NBC/Global Television Network), Schur’s current effort, one of the most intellectually ambitious things I’ve ever seen on network TV. It takes up the story of a young woman named Eleanor, a mean and vapid person who dies in a sordid way and finds herself, by bureaucratic mishap, in heaven. Her assigned soulmate is an indecisive ethics professor named Chidi, whom she soon enlists in an effort to teach her to be good enough to survive heaven and avoid detection by Michael, the local overseer. (Compare C.S. Lewis’s great insight that the damned are not actually capable of enjoying heaven.) This initial setup turns out to be one of the show’s many false bottoms. Without spoiling two seasons' worth of surprise twists and cliffhangers, I can say that the third season opens on Earth, with Michael working behind the scenes to ensure that the main characters will meet, befriend each other, and, we hope, become good enough to make it in paradise.
Like any show one likes enough to keep watching, The Good Place often frustrates me. It tries to stay nonspecific enough in its depiction of the afterlife as to avoid offending anyone, which means, of course, that it’s a self-contradicting mess. I get tired of its over-reliance on philosophers-who-don’t-know-how-to-live jokes, always at poor Chidi’s expense. (Look around you: does America seem like a place where we need to stigmatize thinking more?) Its guiding philosophy seems to be based on the contractualism of a thinker named T.M. Scanlon, who developed his own framework for moral reasoning, and I want everyone who watches this show to read Mary Midgley’s short, simple, readable paper “Duties Concerning Islands,” a beautiful critique of (among other things) contractualism. Honestly, I just want everybody to read Mary Midgley all the time. But, aside from prayer or reading Midgley, I can’t think of many better uses for a Thursday evening than visiting The Good Place.