“Everyone hates moral philosophers,” Chidi, a former ethics teacher, says on “The Good Place.”
This sentiment may have been true a few years ago, but that was before the NBC comedy made philosophy the driving engine for its compelling storytelling.
Bringing a proper discussion of philosophy to a medium meant to entertain might seem like a daunting prospect, but shows like “The Good Place,” “Atlanta,” “Legion,” and “A.P. Bio” have incorporated these discussions in an organic way. And because so many of those shows are comedies, it’s made philosophy much more accessible to audiences who might otherwise never consider the subject. It’s given a new dimension to shows that are challenging their audiences to engage even more with the material.
Navel-gazing hasn’t always been so popular, though, mainly because of its perception as stuffy or difficult to understand. Clemson University’s Todd May, who consults for “The Good Place,” told IndieWire that incorporating philosophy on TV can be tricky because people often mistake what it really is.
“Philosophy often falls prey to one of two misconceptions,” he said. “The first one is that it’s just anybody’s opinion about things. This isn’t true. Philosophy requires meticulous and often difficult reflection on questions that are important but elusive, such as how we should act toward one another or whether there can be meaningfulness to life.
“The other misconception is that it is a realm so divorced from our existence that it has no relevance to people’s lives,” he continued. “Unfortunately, professional philosophers often contribute to that misconception by resorting to needless jargon in their writings. There are certainly issues in philosophy that require a technical analysis, but there are fewer of them than many philosophers seem to think.”
As TV embraces more complex storytelling, philosophical teachings have become much more commonplace — or at least we as viewers have become more attuned to them. Either way, today’s most engaging shows Kant seem to help throwing in some deep thoughts at their receptive audiences. Here are a few recent notable examples.
”Atlanta” Questions Reality
Working philosophy in may not be as difficult as it may seem if the TV show has a certain flexibility in storytelling. Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta” explores dimensions of the human condition, specifically those in relation to being black, living in Atlanta, and seeking fame in the age of social media. This has sometimes led to a number of bizarre incidents or elements that feel off-center from our reality.
In the recent episode “Champagne Papi,” Van (Zazie Beets) wants to take a selfie with Drake at his party, but realizes that the photos everyone had posted on Instagram were fake and were taken with a Drake cardboard cutout. At the same party, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) discusses Bostrom’s simulation argument, which states that everything we experience is a simulation made by technologically advanced humans.
Ibra Ake, who wrote the episode, was inspired to include that conversation after hearing Stanfield and Beetz discussing the hypothesis in a video diary. “It just fit in with the whole episode, as far as creating a reality and the things being a simulation,” Ake said. “And the internet feels like a very complex world that kind of exists, and it’s hard to explain but it’s very real. It seemed like a parallel point to Instagram and life and all of that.”