Clemson Professor Helps Bring Philosophy to the Masses on NBC’s “The Good Place”


In the second season of “The Good Place” on NBC, Michael, the character of Ted Danson, goes through an existential crisis after facing his own mortality.

“If I’m right here and I go, what’s the point of all this?”

Philosopher Todd May wants you to know that Michael’s collapse is not a cry for help, but an intellectual inquiry.

“If you’re a clinician, isn’t it, that’s a sign of depression. But if you’re a philosopher, these are probably the first signs of existentialism,” May said on Mother Forkin ‘Morales, a four-part video series in which the philosopher and professor Clemson explains the complex moral issues the NBC sitcom has explored over four seasons.

The characters of “The Good Place” are dead. And in the Hereafter, curses are expressly prohibited, hence the appropriate substitute “Mother Forkin ‘” in Heaven.

Existentialism – or the theory that we are all individuals with free will – is just one of the great ideas May helped the writers and actors of “The Good Place” to grasp during her tenure. three years as a philosophy consultant for the series.

May visits the Writers’ Room, directed by Mike Schur, producer of “The Office” and “Parks n Rec”, before each season to ensure the accuracy and understanding of the philosophical ideas the series focuses on. : personal identity, death, life, justice and morals.

“And what they [the writers] this year were interested in justice issues. And so I would just show up with the ideas and help them sort them out. And we just didn’t discuss the ideas, we just discussed how to plot them, ”May said of her visit to the writers’ room ahead of season four and final season in March 2019.

Make the philosophy “accessible”

May has been teaching Clemson students in the Philosophy Department for 30 years, but her methods are the same whether she’s in Clemson or Hollywood.

And while her Wikipedia page touts her writings as “poststructuralism and poststructuralist anarchism,” May prefers to describe her works through more digestible “life themes” like how to cope with suffering and how to be a better person, a- he explained.

“One of the things with philosophy is that it often deals with important ideas. But most philosophers speak so that only other philosophers can understand. And my thought is that we need to spread those ideas.”

“The Good Place,” which premieres its final series of episodes on January 9, 2020, brought philosophy to the masses during its four-season airing and popular podcast, which delves even deeper into the issues discussed on the show. .

“Now one of the things that I’ve always thought is important and often missing from philosophy is to make it accessible. And so basically what I’m trying to do is bring the kinds of techniques I use in class to define, ”May said.

May’s latest book, “A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us,” asks the reader to be a better person.

“We always need reminders to try to be decent.”

The theme of self-improvement is also incorporated into season four of “The Good Place,” which airs now. May said it was a reminder that was needed.

“Our culture is so polarized now. It’s very typical that people come together in their

niches and never come out. And so the idea that having obligations to each other

and being in a society together and trying to be better … that’s something that’s really needed right now. ”

More than a thinker

During her three decades at Clemson, May did more than teach and write books. An avid activist, May has led and participated in many protests and movements aimed at bringing about change at the university.

In 2016, he helped student protesters at the long Sikes Sit-In, a nine-day protest against racial inequality at the university. He has served on diversity committees and is a columnist in the faculty newsletter dealing with the treatment and compensation of employees by administration.

In 2017, May and two professors fasted on the steps of Sikes Hall for six days in support of international students affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from certain Muslim countries. Although President Jim Clements signed a letter with 600 colleges and universities to support international students affected by Clemson, May said that was not enough.

“The administration refused to condemn the Muslim ban.”

For the past two years, May has taught two courses at the Perry Correctional Facility in Pelzer.

He said the inmates, many of whom are coming out of long-term solitary confinement, have spent a lot of time reading and are ready to discuss complex topics.

“And the people who are there, they just want to talk about ideas. I mean, they go crazy… they have backgrounds, they have ideas, and we go back and forth.”

May teaches Perry about justice and how to live a meaningful life, the same ideas he helped the writers of “The Good Place” to implement.

The experience of teaching at Perry, May said, affected him deeply.

“There is a famous anti-death penalty lawyer named Bryan Stevenson … And he has a saying, almost like his motto. He said: ‘Everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.’

Stevenson is an equal rights lawyer who fought to overturn the death penalty in the Deep South, a story that will be told in the upcoming film, “Just Mercy”, starring Michael B. Jordan.

May said the inmates he teaches Perry are more than their beliefs, a truth he sees every time he teaches.

“And when you meet these people, it’s true, you can see it. We share a space where that ‘more’ starts to come out.”

Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at [email protected] or Twitter @zoenicholson_

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