The Good Place returns for its third series. William Higgins tells us what can we expect — philosophically — from its new run?
On 27 September, The Good Place will return for its highly anticipated third season. The show has been widely heralded as one of, if not the, most philosophical shows on TV. As its characters try to navigate their non-denominational afterlife in the first two seasons, the audience was treated to lessons in Greek philosophy, deontology and a recreation of the famous trolley-problem. Before the show returns, I would like to explore two topics contained in the show, one of which may point to where it can philosophically go in its third series. These are Robert Nozick’s experience machine and Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.
First though, a recap. The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who has died and ascended to “the Good Place,” a quasi-heaven run by the architect Michael (Ted Danson). She is paired with her soulmate, moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). The most explicit philosophy of the show comes from Chidi’s lessons to Eleanor, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). By the end of season two, Eleanor and the gang have discovered the lessons on Aristotle, Plato, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics and existentialism.
The show is full of ideas about ethics generally, and floats ideas about the afterlife and spirituality, despite not subscribing to any one major world religion. One idea, however, that mirrors the show’s concept and has received less attention in writing, is Nozick’s experience machine.
The question stemming from this is, given the choice, would we plug into an experience machine? Would we achieve every sensation we want at the expense of never actually achieving anything in the “real” world?
Nozick proposes that there is a machine that people could be put in that would perfectly simulate reality. People could live their lives in their individual machines, experiencing as much of life as they wanted and achieving all the experiences within it. The question stemming from this is, given the choice, would we plug into an experience machine? Would we achieve every sensation we want at the expense of never actually achieving anything in the “real” world?
The characters in The Good Place are in their own sort of experience machine. Though technically a hell designed for each of them to torture each other, it is functionally a paradise where every need is fulfilled. Even after discovering that it is “the Bad Place,” they could choose to ignore their concerns about being mistakenly placed there and experience the paradise. That they choose instead to attempt to better themselves, escape “the Bad Place” and eventually return to Earth for a second chance, suggests that Nozick is correct in arguing why people would not plug into the machine. People, Nozick argues in his paper, want to “… do certain things…” and want “… to be a certain way…” The characters on the show demonstrate that they would rather improve and act morally than live in a functional, meaningless paradise. Though Nozick’s thought experiment does not have an explicit role in the show’s story, it is interesting how closely it mirrors his thought experiment.
“One imagines that they will return to the life they are living, forever. If they view that with joy or are willing to be reborn eternally and live the same way they have been, that is the mark of a good, moral life.”
Nietzsche’s own thought experiment of eternal recurrence is explicitly mentioned on the show. After realizing that they have been trapped in several rounds of resets, Chidi remarks, “I think this is pointless. We’re trapped in a warped version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.” Eternal recurrence has been a contested claim in Nietzsche’s studies, but most readings of it consider it a thought experiment for judging a good life. One imagines that they will return to the life they are living, forever. If they view that with joy or are willing to be reborn eternally and live the same way they have been, that is the mark of a good, moral life.
Eternal recurrence recurs throughout season two. In the second episode, “Dance Dance Resolution,” Michael and Eleanor each experience recurrence as Eleanor continuously discovers that “the Good Place” is actually “the Bad Place”, while Michael repeats the same plan in the hope that she will fall for it. Each is experiencing their own unsuccessful version of eternal recurrence, as Michael fails to live a life that he would gladly live over and over, while Eleanor unwillingly lives her life over and over with the same results. In the final episode of the season, all four of the main human characters experience a literal version of eternal recurrence as they are return to Earth to relive their lives.
This points to a structure we might expect in the third season. As the characters return to Earth to relive their lives, we could see the eternal recurrence hinted at in their afterlives, play out in their reality of the living world. Guided by Michael, with a lot of cosmic riffing along the way, we could see them reborn and rebooted again and again until they reach a moment in which they would happily choose to be rebooted to live the same moments for eternity.
The Good Place, over the course of two seasons, has brought major philosophical ideas into the lives of the everyday person, through the medium of a sitcom. Creator Micheal Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) has only just scratched the surface of a deep history of philosophers, so it is accurate to say that the potential of the show is seemingly limitless.