What We Owe To Each Other

What happens after you die?

“The Good Place”, developed by “Parks and Recreation” creator Michael Schur, has one of the strangest explorations of this question that any show, much less sitcom, has yet to offer. It follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) right after her death and her entrance into “The Good Place”, an eternal paradise for those who have been exceptionally good during their time on earth. However, it quickly becomes apparent that she does not belong there, and neither does ethics professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), socialite and philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jacksonville Jaguars fan Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto).

Eleanor must figure out how to keep her identity secret while under the watchful eyes of the neighborhood’s resident architect, Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a Siri-like robot with all the knowledge in the universe. Sophomore Izzy Essman said over email that the Good Place is “warm, it’s chaotic, it’s clever, and it never loses hope.” It’s through this endless optimism that the Soul Squad (Eleanor’s nickname for the group) begins to navigate questions about what it means to be a good person, how to be ethical (especially in the modern world), and grapple with philosophical concepts that thinkers have been contemplating for centuries. 

In “The Good Place” universe, every action you have ever taken has a positive or negative point value. If you reach a certain point count, you get into the Good Place when you die. Otherwise, you are relegated to eternal doom in the Bad Place. As a result, one of the major themes of “The Good Place” is what it means to be a good person—and what we owe to each other. In a panel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018, Marc Evan Jackson, who plays a supporting role on the show, said to Schur that he’s “created the smartest, dumbest show on television.” Regularly invoking names such as Kierkegard, Aristotle, and Locke, the show builds on concepts rarely found outside academia while simultaneously combining them with the absurdity of a sitcom. 

For sophomore Annie Yin, taking Intro to Philosophy while watching the first season was a particularly fascinating experience. She found that the episodes often lined up with what she was learning in class, and “the humor did make the philosophy more accessible,” while putting daunting questions such as the “crisis about what life means into perspective.”

“The Good Place” presents ethics and philosophy in a way that doesn’t feel educational, but makes you introspect and laugh simultaneously. Malia Kiang, a sophomore Film and Media Studies major and Philosophy minor said over text that the show “presented many different opinions and arguments about ethics and value theory, which definitely got me thinking about my own ideas and opinions.” During an interview earlier this year, Jacinto said that the importance of the show lies in how “the questions that come up are toward yourself and what you’re doing with your own life. We provide a final picture, and that causes people to ask more questions.”

Essman goes on to say “that some of the best episodes have been the ones that focus more heavily on philosophical concepts, like [the Season 2 episode] “The Trolley Problem”. A common question in philosophy, “The Trolley Problem” describes a scenario in which there is an uncontrollable trolley running down a track, which will inevitably kill five people unless you pull a lever, which would transfer the trolley down a different track that will only kill one person. Do you pull the lever or not? In this episode, Chidi, who is known for his indecisiveness, is forced to live multiple variations of this problem in a simulation generated by Michael. Despite the weight of the choices, the show manages to pull it off with a laugh while also deconstructing a complicated philosophical concept.  

At its core, this show is about trying to be a better person. To quote Michael, “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad, what matters is if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.” Although idealistic, it is a beautiful sentiment that roots this hilarious and whimsy show into ideas that the viewer can take into their everyday life. “To be honest, I don’t really care whether or not there’s an afterlife or what it might be like. I think I’m going to do my best in this lifetime and try not to worry about what comes next,” Essman said over email. 

In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Kate Gersten, a former writer on the show, says that “The Good Place is super relevant in today’s world… we’re all on this planet for a small amount of time, and… it’s important to take action on behalf of one another and on behalf of what is good.” Kiang echoes this same sentiment, saying that “The Good Place” critically examines “human relationships and what we mean and owe to each other.”

And on a personal note, this show has taken me on an adventure, allowing me to examine my own life, all with a sense of humor. After the final season wrapped up on January 30, it has become even more clear that this show is one of hope, love, care for one another, and doing it all with a laugh. Here’s the beautiful thing about comedy—it can take something as difficult as our crazy, messy world and turn it into a laugh, make my soul feel a little lighter, and even on my bad days remind me that there is good. It reminds me that I’m not alone, and I have the ability to love my community, my friends, and my family.

My deepest gratitude to the entire Soul Squad, everyone who worked on the show, and the friends who let me obsess day in and day out. Thursday nights will be a little less fun without you. 

So what happens after you die? 

The true joy is, and will always be, in the mystery.