Can a Sitcom Teach Philosophy? Meet a Scholar Advising ‘The Good Place’

NBC’s ‘The Good Place’ attempts to build a comedy around the topic of moral philosophy. But can a network sitcom accurately teach concepts like existentialism and the works of Plato and Kant?

To try to get their facts straight, the show’s creators invited philosophy scholars into the writers’ room for the show. One of them is a Clemson University professor, Todd May.

Some colleges are now showing episodes of this TV show in their classes, as a way to jump-start discussions of moral philosophy. And NBC even created a series of short animated videos starring this Clemson professor explaining basic ideas of moral philosophy that they’ve put on the network’s YouTube channel.

Which raises the question: how much should colleges use pop culture in their courses?

For this week’s podcast, we talked first with Todd May, that professor helping to advise The Good Place. And we also checked in with an administrator at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who assigns the show in a first-year seminar she leads.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: How did you end up getting this gig as an advisor to this TV comedy show, The Good Place?

Todd May: Actually it was purely luck. One of the writers, Dan Schofield, picked up a little book I’d written on death and read it, recommended it to Mike Schur [the show’s creator].

What’s the elevator pitch for that book?

The book argues that death is one of the most important facts about us, and we need to come to terms with this fact that we’re mortal. I argue that, although the fact that we’re going to die is bad, so would immortality be. It would render our lives shapeless. And so, in a way, death is what gives meaning to our lives. But, and this is the part that Mike really picked up on, I think, is that morality helps give shape to our lives. It helps render those lives in a way that gives them a meaningful narrative.

So that’s why moral philosophy is worth people considering, even if they’re not scholars?

Think of this way: People will go to great lengths not to think of themselves as immoral. They will go to great lengths to think of themselves at least as decent human beings. What I sometimes say to my classes is that people’s ability knowingly to do evil is pretty limited. Their [potential for] self-deception is fairly infinite. So thinking about morality is thinking about who we are, who we want to be and how we want to think about ourselves.

Are there any notions and topics in moral philosophy that really are just too complex to come through accurately on the show, despite their best efforts?

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I think the answer is no, but I think the reason for that is that they won’t tackle a philosophical position unless they feel comfortable with it. There was one that came up on personal identity, and this appeared in the third season on the Janets episode, where she’s different people, and I thought they did a magnificent job, but they will pin you down until they know and feel comfortable with what’s going on. And sometimes if they’re not sure of it, I’ll get a follow-up email or a follow-up Skype. All of the writers were very concerned not to mislead with the ideas to make them inaccurate.

On the show’s YouTube channel, they’ve published a series of web videos featuring you walking through the show and going through the ideas. What were those like to produce?

The idea was to be able to take some of the philosophical ideas that appear on the show and to give them a little more depth than they were able to get treated with on the show. So the people who were interested could follow up and see it. These are four, four-minute videos. I was interviewed for … three or four hours.

Are you using any of these in your class?

I’m not, but the reason that I’m not is that I would feel weird. When I’m in the classroom, they can look at me like here, right here. But I understand that other people have, I’ve gotten some emails from some professors who said that they’ve used the videos.

But could a show like the Good Place actually belong on a college syllabus? It turns out it already is, including in a first-year seminar at UNLV, in a course taught by Emily Shreve who is Associate Director of Academic Transitions at the university.

Emily Shreve: We screened the pilot episode [in class]. It’s 20 minutes, so it fits really well into a 75-minute class. It’s a really exciting day for them because it’s so different from what we normally do. We watch the episode and talk through it and do activities linked to it to help them think through what exactly are ethics and why is that relevant to them.

This is a course for students starting off their university experience, so you might think they’d have more academic material. What are the benefits of doing this over reading a philosophy text, say?

Shreve: The reason why I think the show works so well is because it helps them visualize the consequences of ethical decisions. We talk a lot about the fact that when Eleanor talks [in one scene], calls Tahani [another character] a giraffe or takes all of the shrimp in that first episode, it might seem like an action that has no consequence with others, but what the show demonstrates is that it does. The giant giraffes are running around, shrimp are flying in the air, people are scared. [Editor’s note: the show is a comedy set in the afterlife, so there are giant giraffes in one scene.] And I think it just really dramatizes the fact that our choices do have an impact on people even if we don’t always see them, even if it isn’t always obvious.

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There are so many good ethics classes to be taken here on campus, and they’re going to get some in their major and they’re going to get some when they’re taking philosophy. But to just get that on the table that our actions impact one another, often in ways we don’t anticipate, I think is one of the most important ethics lessons that they can learn at this stage, and I think the show does it amazingly.

And so you’re not going to replace other classes with screening of Good Place. This is not for every class?

Shreve: Correct. It’s just kind of an intro to the concept to get them to think through it more. My hope is that it will get them to want to take an elective that is a philosophy class that delves into it more. It certainly gets them to watch the show. I have to warn them: I’m excited for you to go watch more of it and I want you to come and talk with me about it, but don’t do that at the expense of your homework. Do that first and then you get to go and catch up on the show.

Have you faced any skepticism internally at your university for having a sitcom effectively be a teaching material?

I have not. The first time I taught it, I actually was observed by one of my peers. One of the fellow instructors in our first year seminar program came in and observed it and she loved it so much she started using it, which I think is always a good endorsement. And then I shared this in a poster form at our best teaching practices expo and that got a lot of interest. People asked me to send them the lesson plan—people from all sorts of different disciplines. I think there was someone from our hospitality college and someone from somewhere else that I’m not remembering.

I think that most people are really excited to have varied approaches in the classroom. They want to have variety in the classroom. They want to use a lot of different tools and techniques.

This is just a sample of the episode—for more details on how Shreve taught The Good Place, and to hear Todd May’s favorite episode and details of his work with the writers, listen to the full episode.

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