Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Forking Around With Ethics in “The Good Place”

I feel like a philosophy major on a serious bender, thanks to the hours I’ve spent watching The Good Place.

In normal times, I rarely watch television. Movies are my beat, and it wouldn’t occur to me to binge-watch a TV series. Hell, I wasn’t even quite sure how to turn on Netflix.  All that ended in  mid-March when I found myself a prisoner in my own home, thanks to COVID-19. I’ve since watched all of The Crown and am finally catching up on Mad Men. Not to mention The Great British Baking Show, which fueled my enthusiasm for baked goods (yum!) but also reminded me of all the culinary skills I’m lacking.

Now, though, I’m hooked on a series that’s about as far-fetched as it can get. While mortality is in the air both in real life and on television, this is a show that skips death and goes straight to the afterlife. The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop, a rough-around-the-edges young woman from Phoenix who likes to party hard and satisfy her own personal needs at the expense of others. As played by Kristen Bell, the post-mortality Eleanor is brash, foul-mouthed (to the extent that the rules allow her to swear), and undaunted by any obstacle in her path. A cuddly heroine she is not. The comrades she meets in the afterworld are a motley lot. There’s Chidi Anagonye,, an earnest Senegalese professor of ethics and moral philosophy who gets the unlikely assignment of being Eleanor’s Good Place soul-mate. There’s Tahani Al-Jamil, a remarkably tall, remarkably pretty, incredibly snobbish Brit likes to boast of her history of philanthropy and her web of celebrity connections. And there’s Tahani’s official soul-mate, a young Taiwanese monk who’s taken a vow of silence. But wait—there seems to have been a mistake. He’s actually Jason Mendoza, a part-time DJ and drug dealer (as well as full-time doofus) from Jacksonville, Florida.

Two more essential characters fill out the cast. Presiding over this neighborhood of the  Good Place, a Disneyland-ish space full of fountains, frozen yogurt stands, and a giraffe or two, is Michael, its architect, and a being whose outrageous secrets are gradually revealed as the series moves forward. He’s played by Ted Danson, an actor adept at showcasing a wide range of outlandish emotions. (No question that in real life Danson has a wicked sense of humor. Long ago, when dating Whoopi Goldberg, he showed up at a Friars Club roast in her honor wearing blackface and proceeded to eat a watermelon.) 

And of course there’s Janet, who’s not easily described. She looks like your basic cute flight attendant type, but she has all the knowledge of the universe at her fingertips. Which doesn’t stop her from the occasional emotional trauma as she runs through a series of highly inappropriate boyfriends. .

All this may sound goofy indeed, but underlying it all are serious questions about ethics, with nods to philosophers like Aristotle, Descartes, and Kierkegaard. Under Chidi’s tutelage, Eleanor truly weighs questions of good and evil, evolving from a selfish brat into a far more empathetic woman. And – though she’s not immune to backsliding – her new outlook helps her weather the challenges that Michael and others set before her.

One thing that’s particularly refreshing: although Eleanor and her afterlife peers demonstrate at times all manner of bad behavior, no one on the series is ever cruel on the basis of religion, race, or political leaning. This is the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen on television. Some of them believe in eternal torture, but racist they are not.

No comments:

Post a Comment