There was a time not all that long ago when a network executive could leap up on his or her high horse, throw down a script and scream to those assembled below: “Every scene in this is about something! We can’t do a show like that!”
by Melanie McFarland
he Trolley Problem” is type of episode a person recommends to demonstrate to an uninitiated potential viewer what’s best about the series in question —“The Good Place,” in this case — and, just maybe, to call attention to their own cleverness. It refers to a thought experiment that asks a person to choose between saving five people in danger of being killed by a trolley by switching tracks and killing one person on the other side, or allowing the train to continue on its course.
In this comedy set in the afterlife a former professor of moral philosophy, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), attempts to explain the concept to the otherworldly architect of The Good Place, Michael (Ted Danson), as the central point of an ethics lesson.
The question illustrates two ethical viewpoints: utilitarianism, doing the greatest good for as many people as possible, and deontology, doing as much good as possible while being conscious of the actions taken to do it. This is not a concept I knew off the top of my head, by the way. My husband the philosophy buff had to explain it to me while we watched it.
I tuned him out, though, because I was more delighted by the all-powerful Michael’s reaction. Professing to be unclear on the lesson he created a reenactment of the problem for Chidi, himself and Chidi’s soul-mate Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) to experience in all its variations. The trolley would kill five, spare one, and reset. The trolley would kill the single person, save the five, and reset.
Then Michael spices it up: What if he knew the guy on the other track? How about if it were five Shakespeares? Each time the simulated victims would explode a shower of blood and guts all over a Chidi shocked into silence. It was a tremendous sight gag that would have gone on forever if Eleanor hadn’t figure out that Michael wasn’t learning any lessons about being good at all. He was torturing Chidi and figuring out how long he could push it until he got caught.
In that a single broad stroke “The Good Place” thrilled the philosophy nerd sitting next to me while incapacitating me, a couch potato for whom Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” in high school represents the extent of my philosophy education, with belly-bruising laughter….