“What do we owe to each other?” is the moral question that’s been the driving force behind NBC’s The Good Place since it first premiered in September 2016.
But when the show airs its last episode of the year Thursday night before taking a short break ahead of its final episodes in 2020, viewers will see the limits of moral philosophy tested. The fate of humanity is currently in limbo while Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Michael (Ted Danson), Janet (D'Arcy Carden), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), and Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) try to convince the Judge (Maya Rudolph) to alter the future of the afterlife.
Show creator Michael Schur told BuzzFeed News that he’s obsessed over these philosophical ideas for years while making The Good Place.
“You can be a good person in a vacuum,” Schur said. “But being alive at some fundamental level in most of the places on Earth means interacting with other people and having other people interact with you.”
Pamela Hieronymi, a philosophy professor at UCLA who agreed to advise Schur on his ideas about philosophy for the show, pointed him to the book What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon. The author was her dissertation adviser at Harvard, and when Schur explained the kinds of philosophical ideas he wanted to include in The Good Place, she said it lined up with Scanlon’s work.
“It really sort of lit up a room in my brain that had been searching for a way to explain the kind of thing that I wanted to get at,” Schur told BuzzFeed News. “And that was the idea that we owe certain things to other people, and the job of being alive on earth is to figure out what you owe to them and how you can provide it for them. That's the only way that any that there will ever be any progress.”
When we first meet Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, the gang thinks they’ve been ushered into a bright and cheery version of the afterlife called the Good Place, run by an immortal architect and leader, Michael, and his assistant, Janet. Once they discover they’re all actually in another kind of afterlife called the Bad Place, everyone comes together on a quest to become better people, which is shaped by their relationships with each other.
Eleanor’s character, Schur said, is a vehicle to explore the notion that “our problem on Earth is selfishness.”
“Her problem was she lived by a creed and the creed was, ‘If I just go off by myself and I don’t form any close bonds with other people, then I don't owe them anything and they don't owe me anything and everybody wins,’” Schur said. “But the show has sort of said, ‘No, that's not everybody winning. That's everybody losing because you're losing out on an important aspect of being alive on Earth, and you’re losing out on what you could contribute to a group of people, whether it's a group of people that works together or lives together or whatever.’ Everybody loses when people are selfish.”
According to Schur, human beings have a moral obligation to each other. He argued that oftentimes individuals think and act selfishly, but that people caring about the well-being of one another isn’t just helpful in making the world a better place — it’s necessary, Schur said, in making sure society runs effectively.
“To me, so many fundamental problems in America and in so many other Western countries, and I'm sure plenty of Eastern countries, is that people who are in the middle of a society are only thinking about, ‘How can I win? How can I do be better? How can I defeat other people or rise above other people?’” he said. “And they have a fundamental belief that what life on Earth is about is competition and if someone else is winning, that means they lose.”
Schur used the example of paying taxes as “the simplest way we do this.”
“We say as a group of people, ‘We're going to take a little bit of our money, and we're going to put it into a big pot, and we're going to use that pot to provide things that people need, who can't afford them, things like health care, and select school lunches for disadvantaged children, and by the way, roads and bridges and tunnels and stuff that everybody uses,’” Schur said. “We owe this to each other. You owe certain things to the people that you share Earth with and that’s the point of the show, very explicitly.”
The Good Place also takes on the moral question of “What do we owe to each other?” by addressing the power of friendship in transforming peoples’ lives. Our relationships with other people arguably hold us accountable and encourage us to consider kindness, Schur said, so naturally the role of friendship in these characters’ lives help them improve and become better people.
The life-changing importance of friendship has been a consistent theme in nearly every fictional TV show Schur has worked on. From The Office to Parks and Recreation and, of course, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. According to the showrunner, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) were “the protoversion of a lot of friendships and a lot of themes in The Good Place.”
“Greg Daniels and I pitched Parks and Recreation about a female friendship where each half was missing something and found it in the other person,” he said. “They found something vital in the other half and they both sort of helped each other transcend the people that they were at the moment they met.”
But the role of friendship and the positive impact it can have on these characters’ lives has never been more important or urgent than the high stakes of The Good Place. By working together and making each other better people, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason — and even Michael — are increasing their own chances of ending up in the real Good Place and saving the rest of humanity from ultimate doom.
“It's just a very core belief of mine, and I'm hardly the first person to say this. I'm not trying to take credit for the idea that friendships are important,” Schur joked. “I didn't invent that, but it's a core belief of mine, specifically for comedy shows but also just for life on Earth, that friendship is what makes life worth living and it's how we become better people.”
Whether it’s friendship, the role of other people in our lives, or a general sense of moral obligation, Schur said there are many possible motivators in inspiring people to be better. He said The Good Place adds to the chorus of philosophies that are already out there, delivering a message to viewers: “The constant checking in with yourself, the analysis of your own behavior, and the thought that you put into what you're doing and why you're doing it is what matters.”
As Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet inch closer to the end of their journey that will leave them either in the Good or Bad Place — and with the fate of the rest of humanity in their hands, too — Schur said he hopes viewers pay attention to the core lesson the writers and creators have intended for people to take away from the show since the beginning: Trying to be a better person, regardless of how you try, is better than not attempting to improve at all.
“As long as you're not being complacent and ignoring the feelings of other people and ignoring the effects of your own behavior on the world, then you're doing a good job because the attempt, the desire to be better, is actually more important than the result,” Schur said. “What matters is that you're trying.”