Here’s a Good Thing: The Good Place is returning for its third season this week. Mike Schur’s objectively perfect show has repeatedly demonstrated that trying to learn actually works, so it feels appropriate to study up before NBC’s brainiest comedy comes back. In its first season, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) morally improved herself under the tutelage of philosophy scholar Chidi (William Jackson Harper). In the second season, repentant, dandy demon Michael (Ted Danson) joined Eleanor and her friends in their quest for goodness. Whatever happens this season—I won’t even try to predict—now is the time to hunker down with fun study aids.
The Good Place is a highly literate show. One major reference: contractualist philosopher T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, which is featured in both previous seasons. It would be an appropriate pick for this syllabus, but I’m not including it for a simple reason: I haven’t read it, and I’m probably not going to read it. It’d be violating the moral spirit of The Good Place to pretend that I had read it in order to recommend it to you, so my bad. (This is also why I am not recommending A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume or Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant, which are name-dropped in the show. I’m sure they’re real corkers. However, I made a promise to myself when I was 22 and sobbing about how I didn’t understand Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that I would never voluntarily read something so boring again. I’m not wavering now, dammit.)
Here’s what I can honestly recommend for The Good Place prep:
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre was the OG purveyor of the whole “hell is other people” story line. His existentialist play centers on three people damned to torture each other in the afterlife. No Exit is a quick, engrossing, horrifying read and an obvious influence on The Good Place, where four people are damned to torture each other in the afterlife. No offense to Sartre, but The Good Place is considerably less claustrophobic and harrowing.
Defending Your Life
In the 1991 fantasy rom-com Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks dies and has to justify his life to a heavenly panel. It’s a precursor to The Good Place and also just a great movie. Why don’t people talk about Defending Your Life all the time? Meryl Streep AND Rip Torn are in it! It’s whimsical and sad and funny! If I were a writer on The Good Place, I’d be desperately trying to get Mr. Torn to reprise his role for a guest spot.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The 2010 satire has a sharper edge than The Good Place, but a similar zany specificity. What’s more, in Shteyngart’s tale of a middle-aged man wooing a younger woman in a hellish near-future New York, people have concocted their own version of The Good Place’s ranking system for humans. Instead of tallying up their good deeds, though, Shteyngart’s folks get judged on things like hotness and credit score. If you like The Good Place’s blend of zingers and meditations on ethics, you’ll like Super Sad True Love Story’s blend of cutting social commentary and softheartedness.
Yeah. You heard me. Little Nicky. I know The Good Place is a critical darling, and Adam Sandler’s 2000 comedy flop Little Nicky is very much not that. Little Nicky is puerile and stupid. But it’s also a movie about a demon learning how to be a person … and I maintain that it’s a lot weirder and funnier than people give it credit for being. Henry Winkler gets covered in bees, Reese Witherspoon has a surprise cameo, and I have a good time every time I watch this shaggy, bizarre fantasy.
The Women by T.C. Boyle
In The Good Place, Michael is an architect with a dark past who just wants to innovate and make his world his own. T.C. Boyle’s The Women is a historical fiction ripper about Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect with a dark future who just wants to innovate and make his world his own. The Women does a remarkable job at tapping into the complexity of Lloyd Wright’s character; he’s neither hero nor villain, but someone in equal measures brilliant and pathetic. The expansive humanity Boyle grants Lloyd Wright reminds me of the generosity that The Good Place shows its flawed characters.
Blake Bortles’s Reddit AMA
In a show stacked with comic talent, Manny Jacinto’s portrayal of hot, oblivious Floridian amateur EDM DJ grifter moron Jason Mendoza still stands out as something special. As does Mendoza’s obsession with Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles. When The Good Place started airing, Mendoza’s fixation on Bortles was a self-evident joke. Who the fuck would root for Bortles? But then something funny happened: Bortles stopped sucking in real life. He also recently participated in a Reddit AMA, and so the only correct thing to do is to read it, in tribute to beautiful, stupid Jason. (Also, Bortles says he would like to guest star on The Good Place!)
“The Origin of Love” From Hedwig and the Angry Inch
You might not want to read Hume or Hegel, but I return to Aristophanes’s speech from Plato’s Symposium frequently. One of my favorite adaptations is “The Origin of Love,” from the play and film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Soulmates are a big deal on The Good Place, and this is the most poignant art about the concept I’ve ever seen.
In the first season of The Good Place, a gigantic sinkhole appears and threatens the neighborhood. On the South Side of Chicago, my Uncle Don witnessed a gigantic sinkhole that appeared and threatened the neighborhood. (He’s a firefighter, so he got called to respond to it.) And there’s local news footage of Uncle Don looking on as a car falls in the sink hole that is pretty good stuff.
This Maya Rudolph–Fred Armisen show just came out on Amazon, and it’s a worthy companion piece for The Good Place. Both shows have first seasons that use enormous twists to deepen the storytelling. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know a bit about these twists, though you can probably guess some of them based on Forever’s inclusion in this list, sorry.) Both take place primarily in an afterlife, and both focus on characters struggling with who to become in eternity. They also share a number of writers, as well as Rudolph, who has a memorable guest turn on The Good Place, but they are very distinct in tone. Rudolph’s June, like Eleanor, yearns to change herself into something better in death than she was in life, but her quest is a subdued, surrealist slow burn compared with Eleanor’s desperate, wisecracking self-improvement journey. The Good Place is quirky while Forever is melancholic, specific, intricate, and dreamingly vague. The overlap between the shows, rather than making them redundant viewing experiences, makes them ideal to watch in tandem.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Forever is on Hulu; it’s on Amazon.