A Review of
The Good Place and Philosophy
(Popular Culture and Philosophy Series)
Steven A. Benko / Andrew Pavelich, Eds
Paperback: Open Court, 2019
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Jeff Nelson
Disclaimer: If you’re reading this review, I assume that you’re familiar with “The Good Place” enough that spoilers will not be an issue for you. After all, why might you be interested in a book about a television show that you haven’t seen? If on the off chance that you’re reading this without ever seeing an episode, I offer these three thoughts: 1) Watch the show first, 2) There are spoilers ahead, and 3) If you’re mad about 2, see 1. Okay, here we go.
As books that analyze the philosophical themes of popular culture go, there probably was no book that was more inevitable to be written than The Good Place and Philosophy. At the beginning of the show, we meet Eleanor Shellstrop, who is given the news within the first few minutes that she has died and is now in the afterlife. Better yet, she is told that she has entered the Good Place, the show’s term for heaven, where all the most moral people who have ever lived arrive to enjoy eternity.
Unfortunately for Eleanor, she believes that somebody has made a mistake and she isn’t where she’s supposed to be. But fortunately for her, we discover that one of her afterlife companions, Chidi Anagonye, was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. That could have been left as a minor detail about one of the four main protagonists, but instead it becomes one of the driving forces behind the entire show’s premise. Chidi’s former career becomes Eleanor’s way of correcting this perceived mistake after the fact, as he becomes her ethics tutor when she begins learning all the lessons about being a better person that she never learned when she was alive.
Again, this could have lasted a few episodes at most before the story evolved. Instead, Chidi and Eleanor—along with most of the others, eventually—return to and build upon these early discussions throughout the entire series as they debate subjects such as the fairness of the entire afterlife system, what constitutes “good” and “bad,” the complicated nature of ethical decision-making, and free will vs. determinism.
With such overt themes a feature of this show, The Good Place and Philosophy seeks to expound on these subjects, drilling down on what it presents. Editors Steven A. Benko and Andrew Pavelich have assembled a variety of writers to analyze the show’s take on deep philosophical and ethical truths. They range from professors at institutions of higher learning to pastor-theologians to devoted independent scholars, all sharing an interest in both deep truths about life and the universe and popular culture.
The Good Place and Philosophy is divided into subsections according to theme. This includes sections devoted to analyzing how Michael and his fellow afterlife beings administer the rules of eternal existence, the portrayal of religious belief, what motivates us to do good, and the way the four main characters interact and support each other.
It should be said right away that there is a lot of knowledge and wisdom present in these pages. The Good Place as a TV show is tasked with divulging the writings of thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Aristotle in a way that viewers would find interesting, engaging, and at times even humorous. A book based on the show geared toward those who might want to delve deeper can afford to be a little more rigorous and expect the reader to take greater time and care in considering its analysis.
Most writers in this volume seem to have that expectation in mind, as they at times seize upon the conversations of the characters to further explain the names and concepts that Chidi and others bring up. At other times, the writers reflect on the less direct problems and discussions, such as whether the entire Good Place/Bad Place determination system is flawed or the accuracy of the claim that every religion got it about 5% right. For the most part, the writers don’t feel the need to stay in any particular box when it comes to this show’s subject matter.
I say “for the most part,” because not all of these essays are created equal. There are several, for instance, that seem to forget that they are analyzing philosophical themes in light of particular ways that they are presented on a television show. There are times when certain writers favor the philosophy at the expense of remembering the popular culture aspect of this project. The medium of television has certain strengths and limitations around it that some writers here either choose to ignore or are not aware of for the purposes of what they want to write about. Perhaps this is a nitpicky point, but a scholarly treatment of pop culture needs to remember that the artistic portrayal is itself an intractable piece of the whole.
That said, a few things are worth remembering for the reader. First, these essays are based on 22-minute episodes of what was at the time of publication a three-season series. In addition, the writers of these essays presumably wrote independently of one another, unaware of each other’s contributions. As such, there is bound to be overlap in specific scenes and subjects from the show that the writers touch upon. The most notable for me was how often Chidi’s dilemma over giving his honest opinion on a colleague’s red cowboy boots was mentioned throughout the book. Some readers may find this repetition irritating. On the other hand, both the repetition and the difference in perspective from one essay to the next on the same scenes may help the reader understand and appreciate the larger purposes of the work.
All in all, The Good Place and Philosophy is filled with interesting and engaging examinations of an entertaining and thought-provoking show. Its contributors often show both an appreciation for the series and a commitment to the exploration of the larger truths that it presents in fun, light-hearted ways. It serves as a good introduction to both while also pulling back the curtain a little more on the thinkers behind the show’s stories. It may not be perfect, but it certainly has many more points in the Good Place column.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and author. His latest books, both published in 2018, are Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band (Wipf and Stock) and Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times (Apocryphile). He lives with his family in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves as pastor of Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at coffeehousecontemplative.com.