MMC Professor Brad Herling Created an Entire Course Around a Hit TV Series

  • Brad Herling teaching
Thinking outside the box is nothing new to MMC’s History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies department chair Brad Herling—so it comes as no surprise that he has dedicated an entire course to analyzing hit NBC sitcom The Good Place.

Professor Herling talked about how this fictionalized TV series surrounding afterlife inspired him to develop a brand new syllabus.

What inspired you to dedicate an entire MMC course to TV hit series The Good Place?

BH: I have been teaching a class called The Nature of Evil for a couple of decades now in the wake of 9/11, and it has consistently been well enrolled and popular. But I started thinking, “This is depressing and only one side of the story. Why can’t I also teach a class about the good?” Every time I tried to devise that course, something like “The Nature of the Good,” it just didn’t seem to have the same appeal! Or, maybe I just couldn’t wrap my head around the topic.

But then, in 2016, I got the answer when The Good Place showed up on the scene. A perfect way to talk about the philosophical “good” from many different perspectives. As a kind of fastidious scholar, I really needed to wait until the whole series came to a close to build something around it, and that happened at the beginning of 2020–hence the course premiering this past fall.

The Good Place touches heavily on ethics and philosophy. How do you integrate these topics into your course?

BH: The series creator, Michael Schur, was quite clear that he wanted to make a show that was about ethics and philosophy. He enlisted prominent philosophers (not me, unfortunately!) to serve as consultants to him and his writing team. So, the show provides an excellent invitation to learning more about classic philosophical questions and perspectives, and in the course, I simply run with that, and we study the theories, issues, thinkers, and texts that are referenced in the show.

How do you separate those topics as they exist in a fictionalized TV series from those topics as they exist in real life?

BH: This is an issue we talk about in the course. The show is a sit-com, so how effectively can that genre address very complex philosophical issues—and also the depth of questions about relationships, death, injustice, and so on. Ultimately, it is clear that the show is a great, funny, and engaging way of bringing students and viewing audiences into philosophical inquiry, but these issues need more attention than a mere sit-com can inspire.

You have a nontraditional grading system in place—how does it work?

BH: The course grading works on a point system—kind of like the point system that features prominently in the show. So students receive positive points for every academic exercise they complete—and it is up to them to choose the way to accumulate those points. The difference here: for the most part, students don’t receive negative points like they do in the show (for doing things like revving a motorcycle or using “Facebook” as a verb–or not reading the syllabus).

What else piques your interest about this show?

BH: I find it compelling that The Good Place intervenes on the standard identities and narratives of Western philosophy in many important ways: e.g., by bringing in non-Western perspectives, and also locating philosophical inquiry among our diverse main characters: Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, Jason, Janet, and Michael.

That said, my students have pointed out problems with the show (its classism, for example) that have become important aspects of our discussions. In the end, the show inspires critical thinking—just as all good philosophical inquiry should.