Note: This article contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of The Good Place.
Since its premiere in 2016, Michael Schur’s sitcom The Good Place has become a rare beast: a critically acclaimed and Internet-beloved network comedy. Part of that success likely has to do with the charms of its cast, including Kristen Bell and an affably dumb Manny Jacinto. Others have been drawn in by the series’s fantastical premise and frequently abrupt plot shifts. But what is truly unique about The Good Place, what sets it apart from even other supernatural sitcoms, is its interest in morality.
To wildly over-summarize, the series (particularly in its second and third season) is about a group of people in the afterlife attempting to become morally good. The Good Place suggests an universe in which the Christian duality of heaven and hell is taken to extremes, with a select few morally-pure individuals spending eternity in paradise and the rest facing unending torture. This judgement, unlike in most religions, is based entirely on moral behaviour and not on faith.
The moral aspect of The Good Place is, for some critics and viewers, what makes it a great show. In a sense, it’s not a surprise that a series whose overt subject is the moral development of its main characters would be a critical hit, as a more covert version of such a theme has been the subject of some of the most acclaimed and popular sitcoms of the 21rst century, some of them created by Schur himself. Somewhere along the way, the critical rubric began to demand that TV comedies, if they were to feature flawed characters at all, showed their gradual improvement over the course of the series. I want to argue that The Good Place is the ultimate apotheosis of this trend — and, in being so, reveals many of the shortcomings of the moral sitcom.
TV Comedy and Morality
In a sense, the moral sitcom has been with us for a very long time. Some of the first sitcoms, like The Goldbergs or Ozzie and Harriet, habitually ended with a lesson being learned. This would become a fundamental part of the genre, particularly in family-based comedies — just think of the early episodes of The Simpsons, or the treacly conclusions of Full House. A sitcom episode was a miniature narrative of human development, typically with the family’s children or childish adults learning a lesson that would help them turn into mature adults.
However, the traditional sitcom’s ability to present narratives of moral development was always hindered by its episodic nature. No matter how many times they learned their lessons, Al Bundy would always be bigoted again and Bart Simpson always making trouble again by the start of the next episode. In order for their series to present a consistent product, the characters had to be trapped in amber, always relearning the same lessons over and over again.
This all changed when serialization became the new normal in television during the 2000s. With the exception of Arrested Development, TV comedies didn’t adopt the complicated, ongoing plots of serialized dramas. Instead, they serialized their characters. Audiences could watch their favourite characters grow and change over time. This dovetailed nicely with the conventional lesson-learning of the genre to create long-form moral arcs, where characters eventually became better people. And no one specialized in this more than Mike Schur.
The Office, Schur’s first hit, contains two core narratives of growth. Jim and Pam go through the external development that is American culture’s path to adulthood: getting together, getting married, buying a house, and having kids. Meanwhile, egocentric boss Michael Scott goes through internal development, learning over time to pay more attention to the needs of others. Parks and Recreation goes even further, giving character after character a narrative where they learned how to be kinder, usually beginning a long-term romantic relationship along the way.
This gradually became so much a part of the sitcom formula that comedies whose characters didn’t morally improve were rebuked for it. Series such as Archer and You’re the Worst were criticized for seeming to promise character development that never arrived. Conversely, acclaimed shows like Bojack Horseman pushed the boundaries as to how much time serious emotional development could take up in a nominal comedy.
Moral Absurdity in The Good Place
In The Good Place, as in religion, the implicit stakes of the moral sitcom — whether the central character will become a better person — are made explicit. In the conclusion of the first season, the four main characters learn that, despite appearances, they have been sent to the Bad Place, the no-name version of Hell. Their goal, then, is to become more ethical people so that they can escape eternal torment. But as this quest continues it becomes more and more evident that The Good Place isn’t quite sure what becoming a more moral person would mean.
To begin her journey, Eleanor begins getting ethics lessons from Chidi, who was a professor of philosophy in his mortal life. But does anyone actually believe that you can become more moral by taking an ethics class? Leaving aside all of the horrible things philosophers have done in their personal life, it’s obvious that a lifetime of studying ethics didn’t help Chidi. The field of moral philosophy hardly presents a consensus which an apt pupil could adhere to. And, in a world where morality is a mathematically tabulated, objective fact, what do the thoughts of dead Greeks matter?
In the finale of the second season, where the characters manage to return to Earth and attempt to act morally, we can see a similar confusion as to what a moral life would actually entail. Eleanor joins an environmental NGO, Tehani gives away all her possessions and becomes a monk, but the series is fundamentally disinterested in the environment or in Buddhism and sketches these choices in only the broadest strokes. Indeed, these seem like the things someone would toss out first when brainstorming “good causes”, not the result of two seasons of growth and meditation.
Maybe the largely incoherent idea of moral behaviour is simply a flaw in the writing. Maybe it’s meant to be intentionally subversive. I’m not that interested in the authorial intent of Schur and the other writers of The Good Place. What I am interested in is how, in carrying the logic of the moral sitcom to its extremes, the series helps to reveal the incoherence of the ideology that underlines them and, perhaps, the ideas of morality we use in our everyday life.
In The Good Place, morality is entirely an individual affair. The central focus of the series is not making the world a better place, but in becoming a better person. In the series’s eschatology, each person accumulates points for the good deeds they do, and loses points for bad actions, with larger social factors not incorporated. In more recent episodes there have been some suggestions that this system is unfair, but it seems worth noting that every character’s first reaction to learning that most humans are sentenced to an afterlife of eternal torment is wondering how they can avoid ending up as one of those people.
This is, perhaps, the natural endpoint of the moral sitcom. Michael Scott or Leslie Knope can’t substantially change the world, so their moral improvement amounts to being nicer and more pleasant to the people around them. Maturity, it turns out, is just being a little less annoying to your friends. To give you an idea of how the formula of the moral sitcom fails to deal with social and structural evils, consider that Brooklyn-99 — one of its most acclaimed current exemplars — is set in the New York police department.
And so, if The Good Place acts as a literal dramatization of the generic assumptions of the moral genre, it perhaps also acts as a critique of that genre. In one episode, we see the characters going through hundreds of years of repetitions of the same formula, learning the same lessons and forming the same moral bonds along the way before having their minds wiped along the way. Perhaps this is how Schur sees the genre he helped create: as caught in an endless spiral of narcissistic repetition, committed to a taken-for-granted idea of moral development that is ultimately incoherent. By creating the ultimate morality play, The Good Place might just explode the concept of morality itself.