This The Good Place review contains spoilers
The Good Place Season 2 Episode 6
If you’re creating a show based around the essential moral and ethical questions faced by humanity, it’s only a matter of time before “the trolley problem” comes up. Honestly it’s surprising that The Good Place even took this long to present it.
The problem, as capably described by Chidi in his lesson to team Cockroach, involves the following. You’re on a trolley that is out of control and careening down the track. Ahead of you are five people working on the tracks. They will certainly be killed if your trolley strikes them. You do, however, have the capability of pulling a lever to divert the trolley’s track – only this diversion will take the trolley to another track and kill one person. There is no way to avoid one of these two results. What do you do?
There’s no “right” answer, of course. Well maybe there is, but we are not a sophisticated enough species to comprehend it. Whatever answer one chooses is more a reflection of their own mindset and human-ness than it is commentary on the universe.*
*As fate would have it, the podcast Radiolab devoted an entire episode last month to the trolley problem, this time using the context of what moral decisions auto manufacturers will have to make in the creation of driver-less cars. It’s more than worth a listen to.
The best thing that The Good Place’s “The Trolley Problem” does is not particularly care about the trolley problem. Sure, it devotes nearly the entire episode’s running time to it. First in discussion with Eleanor. Michael, and friends. And then later on in practice with Michael taking Eleanor and Chidi on an actual trolley to explore the moral conundrum but in reality just use the opportunity to spray Chidi with all manner of viscera from dead railroad workers and loved ones.
These presentations and play testings of the trolley problem aren’t really about the trolley problem, however. They’re about Chidi’s impossible and impossibly noble quest to teac an ageless beast of pure evil, to appreciate humanity.
This is the best use of philosophy The Good Place has rolled out yet precisely because it’s implicitly dismissive of philosophy. It’s about people about how we all try to be “good.”
The fact that there is an actual demon in play just makes it all the better.
Chidi’s philosophy classes seem to be going relatively poorly so far. Eleanor is as close to a model student as she is capable of being. Even her questions about the trolley problem are unexpectedly insightful like “what if we know anything about the people involved?” It’s charming to see Chidi latch onto that suggestion so quickly and explain that it’s just one part of many potential variations on the trolley problem.
The rest of Chidi’s students, however, are struggling. Tahani and Jason are wrapped up in a trolley problem of their own. That problem is that they are two of only four known individuals in their plane of existence and are incredibly sexually compatible but…Jason’s Jason. His doesn’t quite understand the concept of keeping things secret and his ideal gift in the all the known universe is a Pikachu balloon.
Tahani and Jason bring Janet into the fold to play therapist to them. First Janet just has to download all the information regarding psychotherapy in the known universe. This takes approximately one second.
Michael Schur shows are infamous for escalating romances rather quickly (see: Amy and Jake on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation). It’s unclear if the Tahani/Jason coupling is here to stay but why wouldn’t it be? They’re about as good a fit that exists in the simulated bad place. Plus I admire the sheer boldness of the show’s decision to move Tahani and Jason from their bed into a therapist’s office within just 5 minutes or so of onscreen time.
The members of team Cockroach have a penchant for using Janet as their own emotional Swiss army knife though and the effects of misusing her from her intended purpose are starting to show. Janet’s thumb floats away of its own accord, a frog comes out of her mouth and the neighborhood experiences its first earthquake since the days of Eleanor’s shrimp improprieties.
“I fear this neighborhood is in danger of total collapse,” she cheerily tells Michael at episode’s end.
This seems a bit tacked on and I’m not sure I buy that “misusing your omniscient afterlife tool” is grounds for apocalyptic disaster but I’ll go along with it for now.
Thankfully, it’s the Chidi and Michael teacher/student relationship portion of the episode that takes up the most screen time and is the most most comedically and emotionally satisfying.
“Teaching Michael to be good is like teaching me to be not hot,” Eleanor tells Chidi at episode’s beginning, reminding us all that she’s played by Kristen Bell.
She’s right, of course. There could be no taller task than teaching an actual demon to be appreciative of humanity and all that comes along with it.
With that simple, and hilarious line from Eleanor, The Good Place contextualizes the hijinx of “The Trolley Problem” as legitimately heroic.
Chidi is a damned hero by attempting to do the impossible just to save himself and his friends’ afterlife. When Michael attempts to give everyone a gift as an apology, Chidi rightfully recognizes the gesture as a bribe and throws the absolutely incredible gift of the undiscovered writings of Emmanuel Kant in the garbage. Chidi throwing that book away without even considering accepting it for a moment is legitimately one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a half-hour comedy this season in terms of sheer heroism and selflessness. And it all happens in a split-second before everyone moves on.
Chidi is pot-committed. Perhaps its this dedication and clear selflessness to move Michael to finally ask for help.
Ted Danson is a television comedy legend and I’m always wary of overstating his performance because of his outsized pedigree. Still, there is no way to describe his reading of the same line to Chidi twice, once sarcastic and once sincere, as anything other than genius.
Of course Eleanor plays a significant role as well. Chidi logically understands how to be a better person but it’s Eleanor who has all the experience in the world of being an awful person. She’s able to equally recognize that Michael is torturing them again and then able to recognize that Michael is really lashing out because he doesn’t understand the material and feels small.
And that’s how “The Trolley Problem” changes its focus from the trolley problem to the far more fascinating concept of a demon learning to empathize with humanity.