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The Good Place: The Trolley Problem

“That’s what’s so great about the trolley problem: there’s no right answer!”

Prior to watching this episode, I would have said that there was nothing more tedious than a moral dilemma. Having watched this episode, I want to emend that edict: there is nothing more wonderful than a live-action moral dilemma orchestrated by Michael.

The highlight of “The Trolley Problem” is, of course, the sequence of scenes Michael creates to illustrate Philippa Foote’s classic thought puzzle about active and passive evil, utilitarianism, and sentimentality. Does it get any funnier than Chidi’s friend Henry bragging about his boots before being destroyed by a runaway trolley? Or Dr. Chidi forced to confront the real pain of imaginary family members of the people he just ran over with a trolley?

It’s all, of course, just an excuse for Michael to torture Chidi. As Michael says: “old habits die hard.” And as all of us who feel tortured by moral dilemmas might add: “yes, they are torture, and only truly evil demons—and/or moral philosophy professors—would inflict them on another person.”

Meanwhile, Janet—who is no more a therapist than she is a human—tries to coach Tahani and Jason through their emergent relationship. This sequence had some lovely character bits, like Tahani not letting Jason speak and then realizing what she’s done, or Jason stumbling on the truth (he treats her well, she doesn’t reciprocate) without realizing it.

As Ariel pointed out last week, watching these characters cycle through resets could be tedious, but isn’t. Watching Tahani and Jason, though, does feel more comical than meaningful, perhaps because they’re so ill-suited, or perhaps because Jason and Janet were so cute. But Tahani and Jason’s relationship is more than just giggles: it has a real impact on Janet, whose attempt to be supportive to her humans causes her thumb to pop off, a frog to jump out of her mouth, and worse.

It’s a challenge that runs parallel to the trolley problem: how does Janet reconcile her programming (to make her humans happy) with her desires (to date Jason)? Can she suppress what she wants in the name of the greater good? Should she even have to?

Pulling an Eleanor:

• Michael: "Obviously, the dilemma is clear: How do you kill all six people?”

• Chidi: “What do you think about me writing a rap musical about Kierkegaard?”

• Chidi, seconds later: “My name is Kierkegaard and my writing is impeccable. Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical.”

• Jason: “I think Tahani feels embarrassed that I’m not some scientist who forecloses on banks.”

• All French people go to the bad place automatically. Even eating a baguette costs us points, since that makes us more French.

• Tahani once dated a non-famous Hemsworth brother named Larry.

• The movie marquee in the background of the trolley sequence advertised Strangers on a Train and Bend it Like Bentham.

Four out of four trolleys.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

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