Morality is Back: Goodness (and Diversity) in Popular Culture

Scientific studies have shown that when times are good, people act bad. Morality becomes an afterthought in times of peace and plenitude, perhaps because bad behavior often pays off when the world is otherwise stable. When everyone else is following the rules, that’s the time when a free rider can really go to town. But when times are tough, bad behavior can be disastrous, and when society itself is unstable, people suddenly start feeling the need to stick up for doing the right thing. Morality is a precious asset, when people feel in real danger of losing it, they notice.

That’s perhaps why, during a time where the American government has seemingly wholly capitulated to selfishness, narcissism and corruption, where icons of traditional morality have been revealed as hypocrites, and where race relations have reached a level of open tension not seen since the days of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, three of the most popular, mainstream shows on television are centered, directly or indirectly, around questions of both diversity and morality. Yes, after well over a decade of a seemingly insatiable taste for ever more morally repulsive antiheroes of all stripes, America is looking for good people and life lessons in their entertainment choices. And while these new shows often come with a wink, a nod, and a wicked sense of ironic humor, it’s clear that they are dead serious when it comes to their moral commitments. Morality is back.

We’ve already examined two of the three shows in this space: Blackish, a sitcom about an upwardly mobile black family balancing their wealthy lifestyle with their cultural allegiances, is the one most squarely focused on diversity. While much of the sitcom is conventional to a fault, the show stands out for its uncompromising and unabating commitment to teach a difficult lesson about black history or culture every single week, and for the way in which it has been embraced by audiences of all colors even while doing so. The second show is This is Us, a drama about a racially diverse family, and their love-hate relationship with each other amidst the triumphs and tragedies of life. With its time-hopping structure, and unfakeable authenticity, this is in many ways a show that makes you a better person just by watching it.

That brings us to this week’s main subject, The Good Place, an idiosyncratic, high-concept sitcom about four frenemies living together in an off-kilter afterlife. With a professor of ethics as a lead character, and an ongoing plotline that features an on-camera morality lesson nearly every single episode, this is surely the most high-profile half-hour comedy to ever feature accurate references to philosophers ranging from Socrates to Camus.

What really makes the show stand out and stick out, however, is how unabashedly it is on the side of good. For a show that began with the premise of truly awful “garbage human” Eleanor Shellstrop lying and cheating her way into a Heaven-like afterlife, the show quickly flipped its own script and presented us with characters who –in what may be the most daring departure of all for a sitcom –actually learn and grow into better people week by week. Despite what often seems like the show’s Larry David inspired sensibility, it’s actually a complete refutation of the Seinfeld writer’s famous “no hugging no learning” dictum.

Almost passing unnoticed behind the mirth and the morality is the fact that this is also (again in contrast to beloved 90’s sitcom Seinfeld) one of the most organically diverse casts to ever headline a hit sitcom. The four central characters are all of different racial backgrounds, and two in particular, the brilliant, nerdy and uptight African philosopher Chidi, and the dimwitted, laid-back, Asian-American dance crew leader Jason, play against common racial stereotypes to great comic effect.

All this might combine to make this sound like a dry slog of a show, but it’s actually a hysterically funny, seemingly featherlight concoction, just one with some substance underneath all the laughs. In any case, it is absolutely the right show for these times. Go watch it.

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