I have a proposal that I think will make Philosophy 101 more palatable for all college freshman: replace the course with a binge watch of The Good Place. Now, I do understand that there are people who enjoy deep philosophical arguments. I do get that. But, by and large, those people are already collegiate philosophy professors and are, in this context, the problem. Michael Schur, the brilliant creator of both Parks & Recreation and The Good Place, is the rare example of a person who finds philosophy fascinating and not terribly serious. The Good Place disguises is with humor and an afterlife landscape that seems like the sort of thing Douglas Adams would come up with after drinking a lot of off-label cough syrup, but the show is sneakily giving its viewers a more effective philosophical education than they’re likely to find anywhere in higher education. A perfect example of this is season two’s exploration of the trolley problem.
You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option?
One of the pillars of The Good Place’s own philosophy is that anyone can change for the better. Season two, in large part, follows the journey of demon Michael (Ted Danson) as he learns more about what makes humans tick. The most hysterical example of this is when Michael plops the terminally indecisive Chidi into the middle of a real-life trolley problem and…ups the stakes. The Good Place isn’t just a good time. As it nears the end of its third season, The Good Place has become the best comedy of the decade and arguably the best show on television.
I have rarely, if ever, been more wrong about a TV show than I was with The Good Place. Honestly, it’s not entirely my fault. The show’s advertising looked awful. I couldn’t imagine how anyone was going to be able to sustain a show about the afterlife, but then I didn’t know how much of a genius Michael Shur was. Not only did he manage to create a genius sitcom that takes place in religion-neutral Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, but he’s written most of the episodes. The show isn’t just funny, it’s seriously addictive. I watched each of the first two seasons in two annual sittings. Ted Danson is taking a victory tour as one of the best comedic actors in TV history as Michael, the architect of The Good Place. In the show’s pilot, Michael gives an orientation to the recently deceased as to how their life’s actions have gained the entry to this elite post-death paradise. As good as the orientation is, you need to pause and read all the hundreds of scoring criterion that pop up during his speech. If you’re in a show hole during the summer TV doldrums, this is one you definitely need to catch up on.
Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy is one of my favorite TV characters of all-time. Baldwin’s megalomaniacal, prescient, manipulative, eccentric NBC executive was a hit from the pilot, but really had his first moment of pure “Jacktasticness” (trademark pending) in 30 Rock’s sixth episode. Jack has his overworked showrunner Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) pulling extra duty during an especially busy time writing jokes for a conservative fundraiser at which he’ll be speaking. This scene is the culmination of an episode of Donaghy messing with Lemon for his own amusement, plus it contains the greatest one-line explanation for why a character SHOULDN’T be wearing a tuxedo in entertainment history. 30 Rock went on to become one of the seminal sitcoms of the last 25 years, and in the sixth episode you can already see why.
The state of comedy on television is at its lowest ebb in my life time. It’s odd, given that television drama is in a golden age, that TV comedies are so mediocre that I can’t even think of one that’s worth watching. Parks and Recreation was originally conceived as a spin-off of The Office, though the only thing the shows shared was the documentary-style format. Though The Office plunged in quality at the end of its run, Parks & Rec stayed stellar through all its seven seasons on NBC, during which it was criminally ignored by the Emmys. Continue reading My Favorite Scene: Parks & Recreation Season 3 (2011) “Ron’s Swivel Chair”→
30 Rock is one of the last great network sitcoms, and was absolutely stellar throughout its seven seasons on the air. Choosing ONE moment from a season of 30 Rock is a superhuman feat, not unlike when Alec Baldwin’s elitist, CEO character, Jack Donaghy, attempts to have a perfect day (“Reaganing” is what he calls it). Jack Donaghy is easily one of my top 10 characters in TV history, and it will be the defining role of Alec Baldwin’s career. One of my favorite Jack moments comes in season 6 episode 18 (“Murphy Brown Lied to Us”) when NBC is purchased by a fictional company called KableTown, and Jack is demoted to running their subsidiary company, KouchTown.
The couches, unfortunately are death traps, closing like Venus Flytraps on their sitters. This may have stopped a lesser CEO, but this is Jack Donaghy and he was going to impress the new brass by selling every one of those death traps. He hires actor Stacy Keach to film an increasingly hilarious and desperate series of commercials; marketing them as the Tough Man’s Couch. It’s stupid and brilliant and that’s 30 Rock in a nutshell. Here’s a bonus video of some of Jack’s other great moments with some commentary from 30 Rock‘s writers.