The afterlife was an unlikely setting for a sitcom, but NBC had given longtime showrunner Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) creative freedom. And that’s where he wanted to go.
“I had been working on TV shows that amounted to a collection of goofballs in an office, working together. I’d been doing some version of that for 10 straight years,” Schur said during a lecture at the University of Notre Dame a few months ago. “I really felt like it sort of was incumbent upon me to take a big swing, so I did.”
When he started planning “The Good Place” — a tale about four deceased people navigating the afterlife — in early 2016, Schur embarked on an intense study of philosophy. He spent a month and a half reading different concepts about the afterlife. And when he realized the show was evolving into a story more about ethics than religion, he began reading Aristotle.
And then he presented the entire first season of “The Good Place” — a show that ended Thursday night after four seasons — to NBC.
“I pitched it as a show about what it means to be a good person. That’s a lot less scary than saying, ‘This is a show about dead people who read moral philosophy,” Schur joked at Notre Dame. “And when you get Ted Danson and Kristen Bell to be in the show, they will let you do whatever you want. To their credit, (NBC) never flinched.”
“The Good Place” premiered in the fall of 2016. It introduced millions of viewers to the self-absorbed Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Bell), who knows a clerical error has wrongly placed her in the Good Place — her life on Earth was a constant cycle of deceiving her friends, snarking at people who wanted to save the environment and selling fake medicine to the sick and elderly for a living.
Eleanor doesn’t want to be eternally tortured in the Bad Place (there are rumors of four-headed flying bears and bees with teeth), so she turns to the one person who can help her during this post-mortal crisis: her afterlife soulmate Chidi Anagonye — who just so happened to be an ethics professor during his mortal existence.
If Eleanor could learn how to be a good person, then maybe her wrongful presence in the Good Place would go unnoticed and she could stay there forever.
By the time the third season of “The Good Place” rolled around, less than 3 million viewers were tuning in each week for episodes — especially low when you compare it to NBC’s hit competition show “The Voice,” which averages between 8 and 10 million viewers each week, according to the New York Post.
But in a twist as big as season 1’s ending — no spoilers here — “The Good Place” is actually one of NBC’s highest-rated shows, averaging around 10 million viewers each week when streaming services and other platforms are factored in, the New York Post reported. Schur said 39 million people across all platforms have watched the show’s pilot episode that first aired Sept. 19, 2016.
And on Thursday, the complex story about life, the consequences of our actions, death, redemption and frozen yogurt concluded.
Here’s a look at why a show about ethics became so successful.
Philosophy, but it’s funny
While most Good Place residents spend their time enjoying frozen yogurt flavors like “four-day weekend” and “Beyonce compliments your hair,” Eleanor and Chidi — and later, the seemingly perfect Tahani and silent monk Jianyu (who is actually a chatty aspiring DJ named Jason) — get into the philosophical weeds. Using a chalkboard, Chidi highlights everything from Socrates to Immanuel Kant to T.M. Scanlon.
“Are we sure we should be paying attention to these guys?” Eleanor flippantly asks during one lesson. “It’s like, who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?”
With intense earnestness, Chidi looks Eleanor square in the eyes and answers matter-of-factly.
That ability to create entertainment out of philosophy is one of the biggest strengths of “The Good Place” — Schur has even said that some aspects of moral philosophy are inherently funny. But the show doesn’t just joke about ethics; philosophical ideas actually shape the overall plot of “The Good Place.”
“The show is so literate in real philosophy,” Meghan Sullivan, the Notre Dame philosophy professor who got Schur to come to the school last semester, told the Deseret News. “There’s shows like the ‘Big Bang Theory’ that kind of make fun of physics but don’t actually engage with it. ‘The Good Place’ engages really seriously with philosophy — some of the most important experiments and arguments are represented in episodes of that show — but it also is a remix, packaging it in a really unexpected and funny way.”
Just as “Hamilton” has increased youths’ interest in American history, “The Good Place” has created a new way for teachers and students to discuss standard philosophy curriculum. Sullivan was excited after watching the pilot episode — “Did people realize that this was a show about utilitarianism?” the professor recalled thinking — and ultimately decided to create a one-credit program at Notre Dame University based on the show called ... The Good Class.
Thirteen students were in the class. Since all Good Place residents are selected based on the literal sum of their actions — fixing a broken tricycle for a child who loves tricycles is worth 5.68 points, while fixing a broken tricycle for a child who is indifferent to tricycles is worth only .04 points — students had to prove their Good Class worthiness by ascribing point totals to their good and bad deeds.
Students were given assignments to watch specific episodes of “The Good Place” and read related theories. Sullivan booked people from the show’s production process as guest lecturers for the course — she said getting Schur to come and speak to the class was her “best day at Notre Dame ever.”
Two hundred miles away, at Beloit College in Wisconsin, professor Robin Zebrowski has also found more students engaging in philosophy as a direct result of “The Good Place.” Zebrowksi said a big strength of the show is how it hilariously portrays the complexities behind theories that often come off as black and white in textbooks — like the Trolley problem that asks if you would sacrifice one person to save five.
And in an age when people are identifying less with religion, Zebrowski said an ethics-centric show like “The Good Place” that doesn’t come off as preachy is a big draw.
“It’s giving people a way to think about being good and a potential afterlife in a way that doesn’t rest on specific religious convictions,” she said. “It says, ‘Look, you can still imagine a good life and there’s still a way to morality even if you don’t get the details of a specific religion right.’ … It’s genuinely good-natured about kindness, and I think we so desperately need that in 2020.”
A ‘well-timed’ show
For someone who’s worked in the TV industry for a long time, Schur has a lot of negative things to say about the medium today.
“Most things that are on television if you watch them will make you a worse person, I think. I believe that,” he told his audience at Notre Dame. “I would say 80% to 90% of things that are on television, just the act of watching them will make you worse, I’m not kidding. Television is a terrible thing, it’s a very powerful weapon. … I’ve tried my whole career to aim at the opposite outcome.”
Schur wasn’t expecting “The Good Place” to take off like it did. In his mind, he was just fulfilling his inner nerd by creating an abstract show about what it means to be a good person. In fact, he said one reason he placed the show in the afterlife was so his characters wouldn’t be expected to comment on current events. But over the show’s 3.5-year run, “The Good Place” started developing cultural relevance.
“The word ethics has appeared on the front page of every major newspaper on more days than it has not,” Schur said at Notre Dame. “I think it’s been really interesting to make this show in this era. ... It did not set up to be any kind of commentary on the current political situation or the current socioeconomic situation of America or anywhere else. It just happens to have weirdly dovetailed with national events.”
The New York Times has said that if “Seinfeld” is “a show about nothing,” then “The Good Place” is a show about everything, exploring through comedy what it means to be a good person and make a positive impact on a small and global scale. That’s a message Zebrowski believes couldn’t have come at a better time.
“In 2020, when I think the United States at least is probably more divided than we’ve ever been — not just politically, but maybe even ethically we’re seeing such a huge division — a show like this is so well timed.”
Millions of viewers have followed along as Eleanor, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the celebrity name-dropping Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and reformed demon Michael (Danson) have searched for self-improvement in the afterlife.
“Why are people engaging with it so much?” Schur said at Notre Dame. “If they’re not getting anything out of it but entertainment, I don’t think that people would continue to watch it as much as they do.
“The show’s argument and my personal argument,” he continued, “would be that yes, it can make you a better person, and that’s the explicit goal of this show.
“If I’m wrong, this whole last four years of my life have been for nothing.”