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‘The Good Place’ Tackles Complicated Ethics Questions With Wit And Charm

As Eleanor seeks to become her best self, she realizes that moral improvement involves self-sacrifice, something she never thought about on Earth.


Eleanor Shellstrop opens her eyes and finds herself in an unfamiliar waiting room.

“Welcome!” reads the bright green text on the wall in front of her. “Everything is fine.”

That may or may not be true. Eleanor soon learns that she has died and, thanks to her good deeds on Earth, ended up in the “Good Place,” where the good people go.

The third season of the award-winning NBC comedy “The Good Place” will premiere on Sept. 27. Seasons one and two are available on Netflix, and both are definitely worth binge-watching. “The Good Place” is charming and hilariously clever, and offers simple ethics lessons without dumbing down big concepts.

In the first season, Eleanor — played by Kristen Bell — learns how to navigate life in the afterlife. “The Good Place” is filled with an inexplicable number of frozen yogurt shops, flying machines, and a sort of humanoid Siri. Everyone is given a soulmate and a dream house, and curse words are automatically replaced with similar, cleaner terms, like “holy shirt.”

There’s just one problem: Eleanor doesn’t belong there. A computer system sorted her into the Good Place after she earned points based on selfless deeds that she didn’t actually do. Realizing that she has been mixed up with someone else, Eleanor confides in her assigned soulmate, ethics professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper).

In an effort to help Eleanor learn to be a good person, Chidi agrees to give her lessons in moral philosophy. Others later sit in on these lectures, which are filled humor that is both intellectual and accessible.

“Who died and left Aristotle in charge of ethics?” Eleanor asks in frustration in one such lecture.

“Plato,” Chidi replies.

This is one of the show’s greatest charms. It makes ethics lessons funny without watering down complex concepts. In a lecture on John Stuart Mill, Chidi explains that according to utilitarianism, a morally correct choice involves that which causes the most good and least pain. He begins to explain that this could be used to justify bad actions when he is interrupted.

A breakdancer named Jason, who is not exactly known for his intelligence, describes an incident from his life with a woman named Sheila, a black market alligator dealer.

“Sheila was gonna get married to my boy Donkey Doug and make him move to Sarasota,” Jason says. “It would’ve broken up my whole breakdancing crew, and Donkey Doug was our best pop-and-locker. So I hid a bunch of stolen boogie boards in Sheila’s garage and called the cops. I framed one innocent gator dealer to save a 60-person dance crew.”

“Shockingly, that is a relevant example of the utilitarian dilemma,” Chidi responds.

Season one ends with an incredible twist that will leave you asking, as Eleanor often does, “What the fork?”

In season two, ethics lessons with Chidi continue. Eleanor and her friends are forced to face moral dilemmas based on their lessons, including a real-life instance of the famous trolley problem.

As Eleanor seeks to become her best self, she realizes that moral improvement involves self-sacrifice, something she never thought about during her time on Earth. In fact, through flashbacks, viewers glimpse Eleanor’s past as a selfish and deceitful saleswoman who screams at environmental activists and uses a friend’s humiliation for financial gain.

In the season finale, Eleanor asks herself an important question: What do we owe to each other? For now, the “The Good Place” doesn’t have an answer, except that people do, in fact, seem to owe each other something. Hopefully, season three will explore some solutions, as one promo indicated that the show will examine more questions of virtuous living.

As with many fantasy stories, enjoying “The Good Place” requires a sort of suspension of disbelief, in which viewers are better off ignoring their own theological convictions to appreciate the universe of the show. But that can be hard to do when characters ask moral questions that the writers may not be able to answer.

“The Good Place” introduces an eternal judge, who is, so far, the closest thing to a god. But without an actual, holy, creator, God-like character, it’s difficult to know how Eleanor can determine what she does owe to her fellow humans. Does the world of “The Good Place” have a source of morality? Is there a creator in whose image humans are created, or a command to love one’s neighbor? We don’t know yet.

Nonetheless, “The Good Place” will have viewers laughing as they learn moral philosophy alongside Eleanor and Chidi. Even when everything is certainly not fine, “The Good Place” offers a charming look at some of life’s biggest questions.