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'The Good Place' Writers Are Getting Actual Forking Philosophy Lessons

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell in "The Good Place." (Courtesy of NBC)
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By Darby Maloney with Marialexa Kavanaugh

The NBC show "The Good Place" unfolds each week as an ethics lesson wrapped in sitcom.

"I wanted to do a show about -- practically speaking -- how do you learn to be a better person," creator and showrunner Michael Schur, told us when we visited him and writer/producer Jen Statsky on the Universal lot recently.

Figuring out how to accomplish being that better person is baked into the very fabric of the show.

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Schur even made one of his main characters -- Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper -- a professor of Ethics and Moral Philosophy. He essentially tutors the characters played by Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacintoon ethical behavior.

And whether you realize it or not, as you watch, you're learning something too.

Because of the philosophical discussions that happen on "The Good Place," Schur himself has been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the North American Sartre Society.

"This is no joke the highest honor I've ever received in my life. I could not be more excited," said Schur.

Todd May -- a real life Sartre scholar at Clemson University -- is one of two key philosophy consultants Schur has on speed dial.

William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell in "The Good Place." (Justin Lubin/NBC).

UCLA Philosophy Professor Pamela Hieronymi is another key consultant on the show. For one episode, she taught the writers about "The Trolley Problem" -- a hypothetical used to illustrate the ethical theory of Utilitarianism. She actually gave the writers her Intro to Philosophy lecture on the topic.

Statsky, who worked with Schur on "Park and Recreation," says being in the writers room on "The Good Place" where they read philosophy and have professors as advisors is "amazing."

"I've worked in a bunch of writers rooms," says Statsky, "and I've never had an experience where not only do I get to write a great show that I love, it's like being in college again. And I didn't pay attention in college. So it's amazing to get to do it over."

One of the central tenets of "The Good Place" is that learning to be a good moral person is most incentivized by being in a community -- there is strength in numbers.

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"It's something I personally believed. I think I was looking for the philosophical ideas that supported my belief, which is a pretty classic move," said Michael Schur.

Hieronymi helped him find that support when she turned him on to her thesis advisor at Harvard, Thomas M. Scanlon.

He wrote a book called 'What We Owe to Each Other" which lays out his philosophy of moral behavior in society.

Hieronymi calls it the "can't we all just get along" theory. The book can be seen both on screen in "The Good Place" and sitting around the offices behind the scenes.

With all of this talk about how we treat each other, we had to ask Schur about his experience in the mini-society of Hollywood. Schur had a lot to say on the topic:

"Let's be very clear Hollywood has treated almost everyone terribly. Hollywood has a shameful and miserable past and, frankly, present about all people of color, all women especially. It's only in the last couple years that most of the misery that Hollywood, as a machine, has created has even begun to come to light. And it's disgusting, it's horrible, it makes me ashamed to be a part of the industry. I'm thrilled that it's changing- which it is. It's finally being exposed."

And he unpacked Hollywood's history this way:
"There's a thing that happens in Hollywood because creativity is elusive and it's gossamer and it floats in the air and no one can quite define it or recreate it sometimes. What does it mean to be a movie star? How is that person not a movie star? How is this writer capable of writing this amazing thing and then one year later this terrible thing? It all feels very slippery."

Because of that "elusiveness," Schur says, people who are good at what they do "have been allowed to get away with anything. And that is how monsters are made. It's when the system of basic human checks and balances breaks down. People get away with anything they want if they're making enough people enough money."

As an amateur moral philosopher, Michael Schur took issue with the age-old Hollywood logic that bad behavior was a necessary part of the creative process:

"There's certainly no moral calculation where you'd say it's okay to treat people terribly - in whatever way that means - if you create something good. That's absurd! What kind of world are we living in if it's okay to be deeply cruel to people in order to get something like a good screenplay or something? That's an insane calculation that people made and have stuck to for decades and decades. It's finally changing."

You can watch "The Good Place" on NBC Thursday nights.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

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