Saturday, September 24, 2016

Teaching with TV: The Good Life according to The Good Place


"Somebody royally forked up."
- Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place

At least that is the premise of The Good Place (NBC), a show that I cannot believe I almost missed. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has just died. Not to worry, though! She has landed in "The Good Place," which is neither heaven nor hell (turns out there is no heaven or hell - no religion got the afterlife right... just some stoner from Canada); it's where the really good people go. Someone (or several someones?) in the afterlife does a meticulous calculation of every deed done in a life and determines whether or not the dead get to go to The Good or Not-So-Good place. Those in The Good Place get a house made especially to their liking, all the fro-yo, and a soulmate!

But Eleanor has a problem: Someone "forked up" (turns out you can't swear in The Good Place) and she is in fact not the saintly type of person who would get rewarded in the afterlife. She is a deeply - and comically - flawed person and those flaws seem to be wreaking havoc on The Good Place. No one knows this more than The Good Place's well-meaning architect Michael (Ted Danson) and Eleanor's soulmate and recently deceased moral/ethical philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper).

Poor Chidi is now faced with a moral dilemma: should Eleanor be exposed so that the communal afterlife can be saved? Or, should Chidi protect Eleanor and teach her how to be good so that she can stay? And, what does it mean to be good? Does goodness depend upon intentions? Actions? Character? Destiny? Genetics? Also, how does one go about becoming good? By doing good works? By learning how to have empathy? Does it matter?

The Good Place tackles all of these questions and more. Kristen Bell (I will always love her for the superb Veronica Mars) is a lovable, terrible person. We want her to be better but we also love watching her be bad. And of course we'd all like to think that we'd belong in The Good Place with her. The trailer might lead you to think that this is a show that is about religion. But it's more about complex moral philosophies displayed with sarcasm & silliness. Perfect for any course on ethics, philosophy, and/or religion.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Binge-worthy: Roswell


"September 23rd. Journal Entry 1. I'm Liz Parker and five days ago, I died. After that, things got really weird."

So begins September's adorable binge-worthy choice. This summer I rewatched Roswell. The show's premise is that aliens did land in Roswell in 1947, but their story really got started in 1999 when 3 alien teenagers reveal their secret to local high schoolers. Based on a popular young adult novel series, Roswell uses UFOs to explore themes of teen angst, family dynamics, and the fact that all of us feel a bit like aliens at one time or another. Decidedly more earnest than Buffy (which is a strength and a weakness), Roswell shines when it focuses on its kitschy setting (alien conventions! little green men costumes! Jonathan Frakes cameos!), Romeo & Juliet-esque leads Liz and Max, and the good chemistry of its talented young cast (you'll recognize more than a few famous faces). This show is less good when awkwardly fusing Native American spirituality with the aliens' journey of self-discovery. And, like The X-Files, my favorite episodes focus on character development and humor; the conspiracy theories get a bit cumbersome. Overall, if you are looking for 3 seasons of extraterrestrial fun, a few "big questions" about identity & family & spirituality, all in a turn-of-the 21st century teen drama package, this is the show for you.