The Good Place: Philosophy as a Virtue

[Spoilers for The Good Place below. Obviously.]

I forking love the good place. Obviously there’s a lot there: Kristen Bell, that guy from Cheers, and humorous discussions about ethical philosophy. It’s that last part, of course, that makes the show truly exceptional.

There’s been a few think pieces on the anti-intellectual strain that runs through American television. I particularly liked this one arguing that Ross is the tragic figure of Friends, as he is a professor of paleontology who is slowly cut down by the other main characters, who always see him as a nerd and never appreciate his thoughts and ideas.

Of course, Friends is terrible for many reasons (homophobia, toxic relationship dynamics, etc.) One might argue that it was a product of its time but this streak continues even with more recent shows like How I Met Your Mother.

To be fair, HIMYM is somewhat better at avoiding intellectual bashing.  Marshall is a lawyer who is very interested in the intricacies of law, Lily becomes an art dealer, and Ted is obviously really into poetry. Robin and Barney probably vote Republican, so let’s not talk about them.

Unfortunately, there’s still the Robots vs. Wrestlers episode, where Ted has to choose between being with a group of people who share his intellectual interests, or going to see a robots vs wrestlers match with his friends. While Ted is obviously a snob, he also genuinely likes poetry and art. A possible redeeming feature for a terrible date is that she has a book by Pablo Neruda on her coffee table. He’s also memorized lines from the Divine Comedy in the original Italian. Nobody does that to appear snooty: it’s too much damn work. The only reason someone would do that would be because they really, really like Dante Alighieri.

Robots vs Wrestlers, however, makes it clear that Ted’s friends don’t value his interests at all. Whenever he brings up poetry or any similar intellectual pursuits, they make fart noises. They aren’t mocking these things Ted is being snobby about them; they’re mocking those interests because they’re perceived as nerdy or lame. The reaction isn’t “well that stuff isn’t for me.” It’s “you’re stupid for bothering with it.”

In the episode, Ted ends up at high-society party where he finds other people who enjoy many of the more intellectual things that he can’t discuss with his friends, like crosswords and Dante. However, he’s made to choose between staying at the party or joining his friends at the robots versus wrestlers event. HIMYM’s answer to that dilemma is that you should abandon that stupid nerd stuff. It’s fine that your friends deride you for enjoying it. The only possible reason someone might like that sort of thing is because they’re a snob and should be put in their place. Ted, obviously, goes to wrestling match.

The Good Place goes in the opposite direction.

When Eleanor first gets to the Good Place (well, what she thinks is the Good Place), she mocks Chidi incessantly. She calls him a nerd, doesn’t pay attention in his classes, and is generally very difficult. The writers get plenty of nerd jokes in, but they’re in the context of Eleanor as a terrible person; we’re not supposed to emulate her behavior.

And sure, Chidi is a flawed character. He is indecisive and the other characters are often aggravated by him (“this is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors” is a often repeated line in the show), but this is not problematic. Sitcoms, after all, pull their comedy from the foibles of people. What the show doesn’t do is present philosophy, an intellectual pursuit, as stupid. The very reason Chidi is supposed to have gotten into the Good Place is because he pursued ethical truth. That puts him in the same class as people who raised billions of dollars for charity or dug up landmines for their life’s work.

Eleanor is so much changed by her studies that, near the end of the first iteration of Michael’s world, she is reading philosophy in the Medium Place because it reminds of her of Chidi. In the last iteration, she ends up reading ahead of Chidi’s syllabus as her intellectual thirst grows. The pursuit of truth becomes for her a pleasurable exercise, and a sign that she is becoming a better person. Ultimately, philosophy is the bond that cements Eleanor and Chidi’s love.

At its core, the show portrays the intellectual pursuit of truth as a redeeming act. Indeed, it is the only thing that can truly redeem Eleanor. In the season two finale, nearly dying in the real world almost sets her on the right path, but it’s not enough. Without a deep examining of her life through an ethical lens, she begins to slip back into old habits. Michael has to put her in Chidi’s path, in philosophy’s path, for there to be a real chance for her to become a better person.

Eleanor’s study of philosophy, and her bond with Chidi, are ultimately what redeem her again and again, in every possible iteration of the Good Place that Michael can make. All that nerd stuff, in the end, is the only thing that can really save her. Being an intellectual in this show isn’t a flaw—it’s a virtue.  That, to paraphrase Eleanor, is pretty forking cool.

The Good Place grounds itself in the relationships between four messy, flawed people, while portraying philosophy as both interesting and having inherent worth. It manages to have both fart jokes and Kirkegaard references, and still do that most important thing for a sitcom —be funny.

With anti-intellectualism now becoming part of the political mainstream in many places, The Good Place feels like an antidote for our times. It’s a breath of fresh air for television, and I can’t wait till the next season.