Saturday, January 28, 2006

You gotta have faith

Andy asks:

What shows would you nominate for "best portrayal of a Christian" (or most fair portrayal, perhaps?)? Best shows dealing with people of faith in more than a one-dimensional manner?

Well. . .that's a good question. But let's take a look at some recent trends, shall we?

Hanna Rosin has a piece over at Slate containing these thoughts. . .

Hollywood's latest spiritual awakening dates back a decade to the success of Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), the treacly show about a trio of angels dispatched to Earth to patch up domestic strife. (And this was itself a straight remake of Highway to Heaven.) But the shows have come a long way since then. Now Hollywood has done away with the heavenly intermediaries and the cheesiness; each season brings new characters who actually utter the dreaded G word as part of their normal harried life. In the FX show Rescue Me, the stressed-out firefighters are always experiencing crises of faith, holding their scruffy heads in their hands and praying out loud. For the scriptwriters and the producers, being so openly, conventionally, religious is a mark of their authenticity and great sensitivity. Writing a God-fearing character into a script these days gives you the right to feel brave and worthy, just as writing a gay character did a decade ago.


NBC sold the show as "provocative and edgy," and from the beginning it drew the predictable backlash—a few affiliates refused to air it, and Christian groups complained it was the "work of an embittered ex-Catholic homosexual," as the Catholic League put it. (Jack Kenny, the show's gay creator, based the show on his lover's repressed family—and made sure to say so in every interview he gave.) NBC will probably claim the show was just too controversial, but usually controversy makes for good buzz. Daniel was just boring, and for an obvious reason: Hollywood executives seem convinced that dinnertime at any religious home sounds like the 1992 Republican convention, with everyone screaming about gays and sex and other culture war issues. Kenny did to Daniel what other Hollywood executives do to TV presidents—made him a wuss who's soft on everyone and loves the environment. Jesus, meanwhile, was straight off the inspirational best-seller list: a friend who might seem flaky but always comes through with the hard truths like "Life is hard," or "Boy, you never know, do you," his response when they figured out Daniel's sister-in-law is gay.

Read the rest of the piece here.

The problem is that people of faith want to see people of faith on TV who are near-saints. They don't want to see the Christians who get sidelined by Vanity Fair; they want to see the ones who make it all the way to the end of Pilgrim's Progress.

The problem with all of this is that complication makes for good drama. And when you make broad, sweeping generalizations about large groups of people, it ends up being just as condescending as making fun of them (think about the trend a few years ago in Hollywood where every film had a "magical Negro" who showed the white characters how to be better people -- Lost is doing a nice subversion of this with Mr. Eko, who is treated as this stereotype by all of the characters but doesn't deserve that treatment since he was formerly a crime lord). And, to be fair, Hollywood did have its share of religious characters back in the day who existed solely to help the hero pray and didn't seem to have lives of their own.

But it's a tricky row to hoe. People of faith don't want every representation they see of themselves on TV to be sanctimonious and holier-than-thou. But, at the same time, the mass media has to deal with the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world who use their podiums for so much bluster. And if we want people of faith as heroes, they need to have complications to overcome, struggles to endure (unless we want to do Touched by an Angel all over again).

The biggest problem (and I touched on this earlier) is that Hollywood just doesn't GET religion in America. This is because the people who work in TV and film come largely from the East Coast and West Coast. On the East Coast, the church/synagogue/other house of worship increasingly stands for a social institution rather than a religious one. In addition, many of the younger generations have fallen away (think of the way religion is portrayed on Gilmore Girls -- for the titular Girls, it's non-existent; for the grandparents, it's a way to keep in touch with a social network). On the West Coast, religion has increasingly become a very personal thing, a very emotional experience. While these are deeply unfair generalizations, these cultures give rise to most of our "Hollywood types."

But to the rest of the country, church is a place where one gets social AND spiritual AND emotional fulfillment. When church just isn't important to characters, it rings false to these people. And this is where we find an increasing disconnect.

So that brings me to my list. . .

The Hills on King of the Hill seem to have a healthy religious life. One couldn't call them evangelical, exactly, but they attend church regularly, and are not denigrated for it. Similarly, all of the characters on The Simpsons have some sort of religious affiliation.

Lost deals with issues of faith fairly, I think, which is natural since all of the characters are trying to atone for past misdeeds. In addition, the show has been showing the dichotomy of when faith becomes fervor in the Locke/Eko relationship.

Scully on The X-Files was a practicing Catholic, and that was a neat twist to her traditionally skeptical character. It also made for some of the series' best episodes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for a show by an atheist, had an oddly Judeo-Christian afterlife system, though little to no mention was made of any sort of religion. Firefly, from the same creator, balanced an atheist with a pastor and made both of them interesting and vital characters.

Battlestar Galactica, while adhering to no creed in OUR world, features a president who makes decisions based on her faith (which are often right), raising that particular issue, while the Cylon enemy believes in one true God.

But you'll notice that these shows are all animated or genre shows. It's easier, somehow, to deal with these issues through some sort of prism of removal. It's much harder to find straight sitcoms and dramas (especially in our modern time) that deal with these things. But there are a few.

As mentioned above, Rescue Me deals with issues of faith, though I think it does so much better than the author of that article does. Hannah on Everwood is a practicing Christian who refuses to have sex before marriage (much to her boyfriend's chagrin), but the situation isn't played for laughs. Six Feet Under featured a gay Christian who reconciled both sides of his personality (and kicked off a character type). And there's Angela on The Office, who is played for laughs, but also has very real feelings that are easily hurt. My Name Is Earl features karma in a really non-specific sense. And 7th Heaven is just awful.

I'm sure I'm missing several (and I'll get to the biggest one in a bit). There are lots of religious experiences that would make for good series that haven't been plumbed yet. What about a show set in the African-American church community (it's been decades since Amen), which shows how important that community is as a social unit (and has lots of great gospel music)? What about a show about missionaries? What about a show about Jains, trying to avoid stepping on bugs?

Unfortunately, shows about religions don't do well in the ratings. There's just too much surrounding them FOR them to do well. Controversy tends to spring up around them easily. Better to just homogenize.

Which brings me to Ned Flanders, whom many evangelicals have glommed on to.

When The Simpsons started, Ned was clearly the butt of the joke: the too-perfect neighbor who had a great wife and kids, a job he loved and a great faith. He was also an evangelical Christian. As time has gone on, though, Flanders has been allowed to grow as a character. He's a good guy, but he gets tested. He's lost his wife. He gets angry. He gets hurt. And he has to deal with Homer Simpson.

Sure he comes under fire for satire now and again (EVERYone does on The Simpsons), but it's easy to see why so many evangelicals like him: He's a real human being. A DECENT human being. And that's a lot more than you're going to get on most other sitcoms (just look at how Family Guy plays Peter's Catholic father for laughs).

While we're at it, some films that explore religion in America successfully (and this is by no means a complete list). . .

--The Apostle (I still can't believe Robert Duvall lost the Oscar).
--Hell House (A fascinating documentary that hasn't been widely seen).
--Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Weird psuedo-mysticism, but COMPELLING pseudo-mysticism).
--Most of Scorsese's output is deeply influenced by his Catholicism.
--Bruce Almighty (okay, I'm kidding).
--King of Kings and Last Temptation of Christ (Nicholas Ray's version of the story of Christ is the best American-made straight-telling of the Gospel, even if it's overlong; Scorsese's film is not for everyone, but provides a fascinating view of Christ filtered through an American lens).
--The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille's premium grade cheese says something about the mindset that led to the mega-church).
--Kundun (a gorgeous film that somehow gets into the RHYTHM of Buddhism).
--It's a Wonderful Life
--A Charlie Brown Christmas
--Terrence Malick's films seem influenced by Eastern religious rhythms.
--Pulp Fiction, surprisingly, is mostly about finding a path of righteousness (okay, that's not surprising if you've SEEN the film).

So there's a few.

Get cracking.

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