Why Do We Have to Feel Good? On Michael Schur’s Cloying Moral Universe
Ariella Garmaise Considers the Instagram Infographic Approach to Ethics
In the pilot episode of the Michael Schur-created sitcom The Good Place, Ted Danson’s archangel Michael walks Kristen Bell’s newly-dead Eleanor through the afterlife. As they stroll around paradise, or “the good place,” Bell turns to Danson. “Who’s in the bad place that would shock me?” she asks. “Mozart, Picasso, Elvis, basically every artist ever,” Danson quips in return. It’s an offhand joke, but Schur has grappled with the moral obligations of art and artists throughout his highly successful career.
A television mogul who has long dominated prime time—in addition to creating The Good Place, he co-created Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks & Recreation, and wrote on and produced The Office—Schur’s feel-good oeuvre posits that television can, and ought to be, ethical. Now that Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place are over, Schur has translated his principled vision to the page with his new book How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question.
In How to Be Perfect, Schur is an ethics TA desperate to relate, guiding his readers through centuries of philosophical texts by answering questions ranging from “Do I have to Return My Shopping Cart to the Shopping Cart Rack Thingy?” (Chapter 4) to “Making Ethical Decisions is Hard. Can We Just….Not Make Them?” (Chapter 12). The book is something of a Cliff’s Notes to philosophy, written in the puerile “awesome-sauce” prose that has become his trademark—he’s prone to phrases like “thingy,” “gibberish sandwich,” and “gobbledygook.” It’s also a manifesto of the ethical principles he’s spent his television career investigating. Schur has said that he favors television with “a beating heart at its center”; the thesis of much of his writing is that goodness at an individual level has the power to redeem bleak, and even malignant environments.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks & Rec follow coworkers-turned-family members at a police bureau and in local government. During Schur’s tenure, The Office abandoned its British predecessor’s nihilism in favor of a more saccharine American sensibility. Indeed, he’s arrived at a magic formula for sitcom success, relying on a combination of goofy ensemble casts, typically in workplace environments, where, as in How to Be Perfect, the conclusions are always neat.
Having been nominated for 19 Primetime Emmys, Schur’s television programs are some of the most popular and lauded of the past two decades. His output has inspired a recent surge of similarly moralizing situational comedies: Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek, and Superstore are not Schur productions, but bear the stench of his trademark feel-good workplace mockumentary. How to Be Perfect is Schur’s most potent distillation of this one-good-deed-can-change-the-world philosophy, but in his attempts to make art that is moral he fails on both accounts.
The moral universe Schur envisions is more similar to an expense report than it is a fully lived-in human world. In The Good Place, characters’ actions in life are assigned a series of point values that determines whether they go to heaven or hell, a conceit he returns to in his book. “Imagine that you [could] call on some kind of Universe Goodness Accountant,” Schur posits in How to be Perfect, “to give you an omniscient, mathematical report on how well you did.” He’s being facetious, but only somewhat—he employs moral tabulations throughout the book. Schur’s main philosophical contribution is his coinage of the phrase “Moral Exhaustion” to refer to his feeling of fatigue at every choice bearing ethical weight. “Every day we are confronted with dozens of moral and ethical decisions,” he writes.
There’s an environmentally “best” toothpaste we should buy, an “ideal” length of time we should leave the water running when we shower, a “most ethical” car to drive, and a “better” option than driving at all. There’s a “more responsible” way to shop for groceries, a “worst” social media company we definitely shouldn’t use, a “most reprehensible” pro sports franchise owner we shouldn’t support, and a “most labor-friendly” clothing company we should. There are expensive solar panels we should put on our roofs, low-flow toilets we should install, and media outlets we shouldn’t patronize because they stiff our journalists.
If Schur intends this list to exemplify the endless ethically fraught crossroads we arrive at daily, it serves as more of a reminder of our relative impotence. In the face of growing global catastrophe, the decision to shop at Everlane over Forever 21 is meager resistance, if not moral posturing. Neoliberal economists have been telling us to vote with our dollar for the past half century; Schur’s only intervention is to add that this sometimes gets tiring. This isn’t to say that we should empty our recycling bins into our trash cans or skip the organic produce aisle, and Schur is correct in his diagnosis of a cultural moral exhaustion. But it’s not our endless choices that fatigue, it’s their futility.
Schur’s emphasis on the individual also infects his television, set at sterile office enclosures like corporations, local government, and police headquarters. The cognitive dissonance between the power of the individual and the institution bursts when characters in Schur’s moral fishbowls confront the real world. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a zany comedy about an NYPD precinct, experienced this puncture most profoundly, when Andy Samberg in police uniform mugs, “I’m one of the good ones,” after the murder of George Floyd made the topic of police brutality unavoidable for the show. The joke is partially on Samberg’s character, who, by the episode’s end, is disillusioned with the institution, but he nevertheless returns without further questioning for the remainder of the series’ run.
At the beginning of that same episode, the show’s resident badass bisexual and audience surrogate Rosa Diaz leaves the precinct to become a private investigator because of police brutality and corruption, but continues to help out her friends as needed, in something of a liberal fever dream. Schur’s creation of a nominally progressive Brooklyn police force is less grating than his insistence that the intentions of the individual police officer can correct the entire system’s moral fabric.
In How to Be Perfect’s eighth chapter, “We’ve Done Some Good Deeds, and Given a Bunch of Money to Charity, and We’re Generally Really Nice and Morally Upstanding People, So Can We Take Three of These Free Cheese Samples from the Free Cheese Sample Plate at the Supermarket Even Though it Clearly Says ‘One Per Customer,’” Schur dedicates two pages to an internal debate over whether or not he should leave his bank because of the conduct of its CEO. He investigates CEOs at other banks and concludes that “these dudes (and they’re basically all dudes) are essentially interchangeable”, only to amend the chapter’s conclusion by noting that after the book’s first draft, he did ultimately switch banks to an institution whose practices he deemed more ethical. He’s armed himself with a tepid self-awareness that renders him less oblivious than Samberg’s character, but his self-effacement registers more as PR than as genuine ethical inquiry. Again, no one could fault Schur for wanting to switch banks, did he not insist on receiving a good deed credit.
As Schur evaluates Kant, Bentham, Aristotle and the existentialists within the context of modern life, his mission shifts from guiding readers on how to be a good person to proving that he himself is one. How to Be Perfect is an attempt to show that Mike Schur is Good (unlike Mozart, Picasso, or Elvis, all of whom find themselves in the Bad Place). He’s assuaging some guilt: Schur reminds readers three times throughout his book that he’s a “well-paid TV writer,” and repents for his crime of being a “white dude.” Under a subhead titled “The Gods of Luck Demand Tribute!” he walks readers through a twenty-point list describing the ways in which good fortune has propelled his career, including that he was accepted to Harvard (though “through hard work, certainly”), had friends from the Lampoon who helped him land a job at Saturday Night Live, and was selected for small writing staff position on The Office.
But there’s no real need for him to self-flagellate for what is, by all metrics, a successful career. His attempts to signify that he’s one of the “good guys”—he bemoans that feminist literature is so often published with pink covers and chastises ancient philosophers for relying on male pronouns in their writing—only reinforce his role as cloying moral referee, penalizing Aristotle for failing to maintain standards set by Instagram infographics.
Though Schur apparently attempts to atone for his blessed life every time he enters a grocery store, he would be the first to admit that he feels his greatest moral contribution to the world has been his television output. At a 2019 University of Notre Dame panel titled “Can Television Make Us Better People?” Schur answered the event’s titular question with an emphatic yes. “If television can’t make us better people, then nothing can,” he said. “That’s the explicit goal of [The Good Place], and if I’m wrong, this whole last four years of my life has been for nothing.”
Schur’s astronomical Nielsen ratings don’t betray any slide, but his supercilious focus on improving the moral character of his audience comes at comedic cost. The Office lost its bite once its characters gave up on despising their jobs and started to treat their colleagues at a paper supplies sales company as family. Andy Samberg is irresistibly charming in Brooklyn Nine Nine, when he isn’t tasked with becoming the world’s nicest police officer.In a world where our individual choices mean less and less, we delude ourselves in pretending that they mean more.
Because Schur conflates a code of ethics with an elementary school classroom’s code of conduct, this decline in humor has no correlation to actual moral improvement. Schur’s quest for goodness is a narrow one, limited to the scope of a like-minded audience, who, similar to the characters that populate his shows, are largely middle managers with little reason to question the status quo. His gentle optimism and lighthearted humor are opiates for the masses desperate to have their worldviews confirmed, a feedback loop where being a good person is tantamount to watching one on TV. Filtered through his infantile sensibilities, this lack of pathos emerges most vividly in The Good Place (later revealed to be The Bad Place), where expressions of anguish are limited to “holy forking shirtballs,” because heaven censors swearing.
Social realism only ever infects the Schur bubble by absolute necessity, and always awkwardly, like when he refers to the politically-connected billionaire child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein as a “nightmare person.” His preaching, reserved for an audience with “a car full of groceries—and thus a functioning car—and the luxury of posing philosophical questions” leaves viewers with a product roughly as thorny and as funny as an after school special.
When The Good Place aired in September 2016, two months before Trump’s election, film and television producers were frothing at the mouth for bland content that reflected kindness, positivity, and something called “radical empathy.” Recycling, good manners, and returning your grocery cart were all part of The Resistance. Paddington 2 was declared a brave rebuke to Brexit-era xenophobia. Schur’s television programs have dabbled in explicit political involvement: then-Vice President Joe Biden made not one but two appearances on Parks & Rec, the first of which Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope bumbled through, so overwhelmed was she by her sexual attraction to the militant warhawk rebranded by the media as anodyne grandpa.
In the run up to the 2020 election, Schur told SFgate that Knope “would’ve done everything in her power (and that the Hatch Act allowed) to get Joe Biden elected.” Under the Biden administration, with niceness in office and little change in the way of material circumstance, Schur’s moral promises ring especially hollow. Maybe life during the Trump era was an Onion article, but now it’s a Schur-22-minute sitcom, where decorum blithely persists against a backdrop of chaos, and signaling goodness is just as good as the real deal.
In a 2018 article about The Good Place, New York Times writer Sam Anderson recalls observing to Pamela Hieronymi, a consulting philosopher on the show, that American culture was losing touch with ethics. Hieronymi disagreed, explaining, “It’s amazing to me how moralized and moralistic we seem to be.” In this way, Schur’s fastidious moral accounting echoes the culture writ large, where minute differences—who posts what, when and how soon—account for massive distinctions in character. Like the askew “t” that dangles cheekily below “How to Be Perfec” on the book’s cover, the moral challenges Schur envisions are matters of presentation. As he tells his children in the book’s earnest coda, “I’m placing a decent-size bet on the idea that understanding morality, and following its compass during decisions great and small, will make you better, and therefore safer.” But in a world where our individual choices mean less and less, we delude ourselves in pretending that they mean more, and Schur’s insistence on the power of simple kindness feels less brave than desperate.