No, Chidi, That’s Not Nihilism
No, Chidi, That's Not Nihilism
by Evan Hrobak
NBC's The Good Place initially sets itself apart from the network sitcom lineup with a conceptually adventurous premise. Though it maintains the signature heart of Michael Schur's other shows (The Office, Parks and Recreation), The Good Place moves the situations that spark comedy from the workplace to the afterlife and our lead characters are either dead or other worldly beings. But even after viewers buy into the supernatural, the show further distinguishes itself by expecting its audience both to have and engage with specific knowledge. While that first expectation, coming to the screen already knowing something, is common enough in referential comedy, a Good Place joke could equally hinge on a reference to Immanuel Kant or the Jacksonville Jaguars. Relying on a knowledge base encompassing references that specific through a range that broad presents a degree of risk network sitcoms usually won't take. Still, The Good Place makes its boldest moves by expecting its audience not only to know that Immanuel Kant is a philosopher and that a philosopher is like some old-timey bearded guy who thinks heavy thoughts or something (most shows would stop there), but also asking them to think through snippets of Kant's ethical theory.
These snippets come from Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the smartest of the show's dead folk and a neurotically indecisive professor of moral philosophy. Intelligence in comedy characters typically manifests as simple difference—an easy foil to lower brow, more common sense characters. In contemporary television's most successful smart people sitcom, CBS's Big Bang Theory, the intellect of the physicist and engineer ensemble primarily culminates in exhibitions of nerd culture. Leonard and Sheldon know comic books and role playing games while Penny grasps sports and dating. When science speak does come into the show, it usually operates the same way professional jargon does in medical and legal dramas. No one expects the audience to know what all the polysyllabic terms mean, just to get that certain characters know them while others don't. But when Chidi expounds on Aristotelian virtue ethics in The Good Place, viewers need to get the gist of the role that habit formation might play in ethical behavior to understand his and Eleanor's (Kristen Bell) character arcs. That the show trusts its audience can perform this bit of logic establishes The Good Place as an easy critical favorite.
The show's writing team also differentiates Chidi from other smart sitcom characters by making his area of expertise moral philosophy rather than law or one of the hard sciences. Within two years of The Good Place's premiere, NBC launched another philosophy professor sitcom, the snarkier and more conventional AP Bio. Despite the shows' differences, the presence of philosophy professors as lead characters in primetime network television signals a broad desire and willingness to see people engage in rigorous thought about choice and value. At a time when our academic and corporate institutions are endlessly specializing forms of knowledge, these characters, especially Chidi, mark a thirst for holistic and humanistic understandings of the ways we engage with others in the world. This desire in television echoes the desire contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum expressed about literary theory. In her 1992 book Love's Knowledge, Nussbaum remarked that after reading Derrida's "perceptive and witty analysis of Nietzsche's style" she was impressed (as we might be with a light, quippy joke to joke sitcom) but, borrowing a metaphor from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, still felt "a certain hunger for blood; for that is, writing about literature that talks of human lives and choices as if they matter to us all." While one side of that analogy probably weighs a hell of a lot more than the other, the longing is the same.
Like Derrida and Nussbaum, Chidi and The Good Place do their own bit of engagement with Nietzsche. Always doubling down on its plot twists, The Good Place returns the main characters to their previous lives with the hopes that they'll redeem themselves with improved behavior. But in the fourth episode, the now earth-bound protagonists accidentally learn the truth of the afterlife. Supernatural beings Michael (Ted Danson) and Janet (D'Arcy Carden) explain to Chidi, Eleanor, Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) that their newfound knowledge prevents them from acting with genuine altruism and thus condemns them to the Bad Place—some variant of damnation. Throughout the rest of the episode, this and other cosmic revelations loosen the knots holding our philosophy professor together. Chidi removes his shirt, blathers Nietzsche's "God is dead" aphorism, cooks marshmallow Peep chili, and exhorts his students to embrace nihilism because nothing matters. He leaves his pupils with the decree: "The world is empty. There is no point to anything. And you're just gonna die. So do whatever."
Clothing, cooking, and the prof's surprising jackedness aside, Chidi gets Nietzsche and nihilism wrong in a way no moral philosophy professor actually would. The infamous "God is dead" phrase appears first in book four of Nietzsche's The Gay Science and later in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Chidi's "God is dead" performance comes from the second iteration of the phrase in The Gay Science, a section widely known as the parable of the madman. The history of the three word declaration is fraught with misinterpretation in the way a particularly bold metaphor about the state of essentialist metaphysics ripped from a 300-plus page book of nineteenth century German philosophy can be fraught with misinterpretation. By tearing a few lines from a long complicated book and inviting viewers to read them as absurdist gibberish, The Good Place perpetuates the too common trend of not actually seeking to understand something. Ostensibly, Chidi would know better. He's an ethics professor, not a maker of the memes, bumper stickers, slogans, platitudes, or commmonplaces that stifle thought.
But calling out a sitcom's lack of philosophical accuracy is a fairly silly complaint. Just as you shouldn't rely on Law and Order for thoroughly honest depictions of the criminal justice system, you shouldn't look to The Good Place for textual analyses. Critical fault-finding screeds with the sole standard of factual perfection serve well the click-bait/hot take industry, but do little to help us understand our art or ourselves. The creatives behind television comedies and dramas have a host of concerns, primarily funniness and suspense, to which they can reasonably sacrifice some others. If either show ignites an interest, there are books to read.
While Nietzsche's books reject inherent and universal meaning, his nihilism is affirmative rather than pessimistic. To accept that nothing has any inherent meaning does not mean to reject meaning altogether, but to affirm that human beings create meaning. If some value inheres in a custom, behavior, or idea, it's been there always, from the start. If some value is universal, it is, for everyone everywhere all the time. Nihilists reject that value inheres in anything, and insist that someone put that value there, some more people cultivated it, and that value has grown to appear as an unalterable fact. For nihilists, value isn't given to the world from the heavens, but created and sustained here on earth. Despite Chidi's course of action, that reality isn't cause to lose your shit in a grocery store, buy copious quantities of beans, marshmallows, and peanut M&M's, and prepare a diarrhea-inducing concoction in front of an ethics classroom. Though Nietzschean nihilists would hold that nothing has inherent and universal meaning, it does not follow that they would find everything to be meaningless. This affirmative nihilism entails a celebration and exaltation of value creation, and the death of God passages are in part calls for humans to take up the responsibility of meaning making. When old value systems are crumbling for better (accountability for sexual harassment in the workplace) or worse (widespread intolerance in political discourse), understanding the active role people play in creating those systems can both calm and empower.
With that serenity and strength comes difficulty. If our value systems aren't bequeathed from above but created and refined by people, we need to be able to provide rigorous intellectual defenses for the systems we espouse. Since we're not obeying a universal rule, we need to be able to communicate our creations to everyone, even a devil's advocate playing frat bro in a snapback and a Key Ice tank top or a professor singing "you put the peeps in the chili pot and heat them both up" while wearing a light purple "WHO WHAT WHEN WHERE… Wine!" shirt. Those people will create meaning too.
Inasmuch as The Good Place asks us to consider how, why, and whether we should treat others the ways that we do, the show asks us to be conscious of our own meaning making. Insofar as The Good Place continues to provide snippets of ethical theory, the show will likely get a lot wrong. The former is good, and the latter is fine.