SCMS 2020 - The Good Place: Morality, Mortality, and TV Pedagogy
Since its debut three years ago, NBC’s high-concept comedy-fantasy series The Good Place (2016- ) has racked up numerous critical accolades and industry awards in recognition of its narrative complexity, thematic depth, and groundbreaking audaciousness as a televisual text unlike any other. Though indebted to ABC’s recent cult phenomenon Lost (2004-10) and to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist stage play No Exit (1944), this Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning program created by Michael Schur is wholly unique, offering a humorous, philosophically astute mediation on the challenges of being a “good person” in an age of rapidly diminishing moral clarity; an era when the highest office in the nation’s government is rife with toxic masculinity and racist fear-mongering, and when even the most upstanding citizens’ best intentions — as consumers, as social media users, as voters — can have unintended, potentially harmful, consequences for themselves and others. Starring Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto as recently deceased individuals who must overcome their outward differences and embrace their common fate as posthumous pawns of demons in the afterlife, The Good Place is certainly willing to take risks in terms of departing from generic TV formulas and possibly alienating red-state viewers with its left-of-center perspectives on what ails the nation today.
Season by season, and with unforeseen twists occurring along the way, the series focuses on the occasionally combative but generally cooperative efforts of those four characters — Arizona salesperson Eleanor Shellstrop, Nigerian-Senegalese ethics professor Chidi Anagonye, Pakistani-British philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil, and Florida-born amateur DJ Jason Mendoza — to somehow make their way into the titular (secular) heaven that awaits only the most decent folks (despite a rigged point system). In doing so, and through an elastic time-travel narrative that partially allows them to wipe the proverbial slate clean, The Good Place offers valuable lessons on how to go about correcting for past mistakes while charting a path forward, toward a better and brighter future. Indeed, the show functions as a cheery (rather than dreary) form of pedagogical television, and not only by spending so much time in the makeshift classroom that Chidi constructs for the sake of educating Eleanor. It does this also in the sense of introducing some of the core tenets and foundational principles of moral philosophy to audiences who might not otherwise have access to such teaching (notably, Schur has drawn upon the expertise of actual philosophy professors who vet the show’s copious references to Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and other great thinkers whose work — summarized on Chidi’s blackboard — is not necessarily “dumbed down”).
This proposed SCMS panel seeks to bring together scholars who perhaps have themselves used The Good Place for pedagogical purposes (in their own classrooms) or who simply wish to bring this series’ many rare accomplishments to light. As such, panelists are encouraged to explore any topic that highlights the show’s distinctiveness, through any critical lens of their choosing (e.g., textual analysis, feminist theory, queer theory, fandom, reception studies, genre studies, authorship, political economy, etc.).
Please submit a 250-300 word abstract, a short bibliography (no more than five entries), and a 50-100 word bio to firstname.lastname@example.org by August 13, 2019. Participants will be notified of their inclusion in the panel by August 20, 2019.
David Scott Diffrient is Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University.