THOSE PEOPLE

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 | Uncategorized

The invaluable Walter Russell Mead riffs on one of the few remaining groups that people are actually encouraged to bash:

Will there ever be a TV show that portrays Christians as normal, decent, struggling and complicated human beings? Certainly not in ABC’s new line-up. Reviewing the premiere of “GCB” for the Washington Post, Elizabeth Tenety describes what passes today for serious, empathetic programming about people of faith:

After mom Amanda Vaughn loses her Ponzi-scheming husband in a sexual rendezvous-induced car accident, the former “mean girl” moves with her two children from California to her “God-often-speaks-to-me-through-Gucci” mother’s house in Dallas…

[The show] is one part Church Lady, one part Desperate Dallas Housewives.

Carlene Cockburn, played by Kristin Chenoweth, is Vaughn’s high school nemesis and the show’s faith-filled antagonist, delivering witty one-liners…and Dallas diva-ness in a series that alludes to the excesses of Christian culture and depicts how religion is used, at least in some circles, to justify immoral behavior.

Any racial or ethnic group in this country as negatively portrayed on primetime TV would be up in arms–and rightly so. To be clear, Via Meadia does not object to the depiction of religious hypocrisy, an all-too-common phenomenon that is certainly worthy of dramatic treatment. Rather, we take exception to the fact that Christians in the media are almost uniformly shown as hypocrites, idiots, bigots and so on. As Tenety rightly asks of “GCB” (by now, you can guess the acronym), “where is the Christian love?”

Contemporary television and film producers go out of their way to paint moving, sympathetic portraits of everyone from bullied gay teenagers to sex addicts and Mafia wives, but somehow run up a massive empathy deficit when it comes to men and women of faith. And the occasional show that attempts to seriously grapple with religious themes, like NBC’s excellent “Kings” — which brilliantly retold the biblical story of King David in a modern setting — are poorly promoted and quickly canceled.

I never got a chance to see “Kings” so I’ll have to take Mead’s word for it.  But I did see a few episodes of the last time television tried to engage the modern Christian religion.  Remember “The Book of Daniel?”  Don’t worry; neither does anybody else.

St. Barnabas’s Episcopalian vicar Daniel Webster has a wealthy parish. Yet his family life constantly complicates everything. Peter is Daniel’s model son and med student, but struggles with being a semi-closet gay. His adopted brother, ethnic Asian Adam, is an incorrigible rascal. Daniel’s father in law is also a bishop, and the ‘discrete best friend’ of Daniel’s bishop. In-laws and parish benefactors attract further trouble on top of the regular pastoral work. A hippie Jesus Christ inspires Daniel in cheeky visions.

Here are a couple of plot synopses which will give you a general idea of why this thing tanked pretty much before anybody knew it was on the air.

After bailing his daughter Grace, who sold some marijuana, Episcopal vicar Daniel Webster preaches about forgiveness, to the female bishop’s anger. The St. Barnabas parish’s school building fund of $3,000,000 is emptied by his in laws Victoria and Charlie. Model (gay) son Peter announces his med school specialization won’t be healing but cancer research; his adopted Asian brother Adam, also adolescent, is mouthing and fooling around. Last rites conclude a perfectly hellish day. Yet the next starts even worse: Charlie is found literally robbed naked, died from a heart-attack, anally abused.

Daniel final expects his father Bertram Webster to open St. Barnabas’ school. He discovers mobster Tony Vaporelli is a closet gay, fearing to be burn in hell and be killed if outed. Peter’s cover date Adele forces him to have sex in her aunt bishop Beatrice’s car but fails to remove the condom wrapper. Adam has joined a mixed swimming team and dodges classes, so he can shower with Carolyn. They have sex in her boarding school in between classes, but he gets locked-out wearing boxers only. Daniel promises the tough parenting the incorrigible scamp desperately needs. Judith joins Worth’s electoral campaign.

You get the idea.  Considering that this turkey hit the airwaves in 2006 and considering what was going on in the Episcopal Church at the time, “The Book of Daniel” must be considered one of the great missed opportunities in the history of televison.

If any show should have been a great television show, it should have been “The Book of Daniel.”  Let’s make this guy a typical modern Episcopal minister in a typical modern Episcopal parish dealing with the Current Unpleasantness.

Maybe this guy’s got liberal parishioners who are delighted by the changes in the church as well as traditionalists who are horrified.  Maybe this guy doesn’t want to condemn anybody and is desperately trying to keep his parish together along with trying to raise his family on top of all that.

Perhaps this rector has a wise-ass Midwestern blogger fisking his sermons and ripping TEO to shreds every chance he gets.  Maybe this show treats people on both sides of the issue as actual human beings and maybe it actually has honest debates instead of one-sided polemics.  Maybe this guy ends up losing some parishioners and friends.

But NBC couldn’t manage anything close to that.  Instead, we got this crapfest which died after a month and a half.  Leaving aside the whole unbelievably lame conversing-with-Jesus plot device, one of the many reasons why this joke was basically religious science fiction was that Our Hero’s conservative Episcopal bishop was a woman.

Why does show business suck so completely at depicting Christianity?  Hostility is certainly a part of the reason but not all of it.  Much of the reason why most movies and TV shows with Christian characters are so bad is simple ignorance.

Not only is Christianity completely outside the experience of the people who create and write television shows, but the people who actually believe this way-truth-life, rising-from-the-dead stuff and intentionally try to live their lives accordingly might as well be Zoroastrians or some other group of religious exotics as far as movie and TV screenwriters, directors and producers are concerned.

Add to this the fact that in much of the entertainment world, conservatives, and particularly conservative Christians, serve the same function as the Indians used to in old Western novels and movies. 

Conservatives are not people who merely disagree with you; they are, in effect, mindless, bloodthirsty and savage demons whose only motivation is evil and who not only shouldn’t be reasoned with but can’t be reasoned with.  They are fit only to be destroyed.

If conservatives are the modern version of what TV and movies used to perceive the Indians to be, homosexuals are the modern version of what show biz Indians later became.  Noble gay savages, if you like, constantly oppressed by the relentlessly evil culture around them, immaculately conceived and incapable of any kind of sin or failure.

In other words, both groups are cartoons and neither group is human.

As for GCB, I’m not angry about it.  For one thing, it’s par for the course.  For another, when you insult and belittle most of your audience (for those who didn’t know, GCB stands for “Good Christian Bitches”), you can expect your run to be a short one.  The show’s quick hook will no doubt be blamed on Christian “bigotry” and “intolerance.”

Which is also par for the course.

20 Comments to THOSE PEOPLE

Katherine
March 7, 2012

I watch (sometimes) police/crime solving shows and sports. That’s it. There are reason I don’t watch. “Good Christian Bitches” would be an example.

Daniel aka Fisherman
March 7, 2012

I’d prefer watching reruns of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen ;)

Allen Lewis
March 7, 2012

Typical Hollywood. Of course a lot of the screen-writers are gay, so don’t expect much empathy with orthodox Christian thinking.

Gays have to be portrayed as heroes or else exploited victims these days. They cannot be depicted as anything less than virtuous.

Like Katherine, I only watch sports and some crime shows (re-runs of CSI, mostly). This sort of thing is the reason why.

xavier
March 7, 2012

Christopher,

I saw Kings and it was a really great show. I thought it was a great really wel done and I was immersed in the atmosphere. The actors were good and I enjoyed watching the series. Too bad NBC killed it for some another show that focuses on farts and snot

xavier

vado a Roma
March 7, 2012

Remember that Jim Naughton’s blog started as “Blog of Daniel “? He and Susan Russell thought it was great PR for TEC.

LaVallette
March 8, 2012

Modern Dramatic Courage: Take on those whose Master’s direction is “Turn the other cheek!”.

But there is a sting to the tail:”Vengeance is mine,” said the Lord, “I will repay!”.

Sinner
March 8, 2012

Will there ever be a TV show that portrays Christians as normal, decent, struggling and complicated human beings?

Well there’s Rev. But you probably wouldn’t like it.

Sinner
March 8, 2012
Gregg the Obscure
March 8, 2012

If they were brave, they’d mock Moslems. Braver yet and they’d mock BHO. Only a saint would be brave enough to mock the culture of death.

Michal
March 8, 2012

Part of the reason the entertainment biz screws up so often when portraying Christians is indeed hostility. But why? Because many of the people producing the “shows” are trying to promote another agenda. Secularism. It’s the fallout from the Enlightenment…non-Christians benefited from the secular take on society, and they’d like to continue benefiting. In secular terms it has become safe to attack Christians.

And they get away with it in part because we now have a Christian counterculture that produces it’s own music and movies. Neither side acknowledges the existence of the other. Oh, and the days of the Father “Bing Crosby” movies are over because so many of his co-religionists turned Liberal. Don’t expect Hollywood to turn out any more “Belles of St. Mary’s” pictures.

Michal
March 8, 2012

Almost forgot…I saw some of “Kings” and the pace was dreadful. Very slow. I guess it was good, but I didn’t watch most of it.

John
March 8, 2012

The Vicar of Dibley.

Michal
March 8, 2012

I had a friend and college classmate (definitely a non-Christian) who appeared regularly in “The Vicar of Dibley”…a fine example of how the C of E went off the rails.

Dr. Mabuse
March 8, 2012

The sci-fi remake of the series “V” a few years ago had a Catholic priest as one of the heroes of the underground, fighting the aliens. It was an odd show; I think the writers were actually TRYING to write a positive Christian character, but they got so many things wrong. I put it down to just genuine ignorance; they really don’t know how Catholics (or other Christians) think, talk and act, and they were drawing on what they knew – mostly old movies and TV shows. So you’d get a church that LOOKED Catholic inside, but the priests seemed to be entirely on their own. Bishops just didn’t exist. There was no hierarchy – there was just the parish priest and the Vatican, and the Vatican would just send a letter of dismissal when the heroic priest said something wrong. “That would never happen!” I’d keep muttering as I watched. And you never saw these men discussing questions of theology, or looking to the bishop or the Pope for guidance. No one ever wondered “Do aliens have souls?” “How do they fit into God’s plan of salvation?” “Can they be saved by belief in Jesus?” Catholicism just seemed to be functioning in a sort of airlock. Very weird experience to watch. And the show really went stupid in the second season and was cancelled.

Vicky
March 8, 2012

So you’d get a church that LOOKED Catholic inside, but the priests seemed to be entirely on their own. Bishops just didn’t exist. There was no hierarchy – there was just the parish priest and the Vatican, and the Vatican would just send a letter of dismissal when the heroic priest said something wrong.

The same sort of thing was done in Six Feet Under on HBO. After the father dies, one of the sons is approached by the TEC Rector, asking if he wants to be appointed a deacon to replace his dad! (Oh, and naturally the character of the son was gay.) Since I was in the long diocesan process to become a vocational deacon at the time, it left me both laughing and wishing I could just be ‘appointed’ rather than have to go thru discernment groups, classes, commissions, committees, vestry approval, bishop approval, background checks, psych exams, etc. etc. etc.

Smurf Breath
March 8, 2012

That’s great John, so you use English sitcoms that tickle your vanity as the source of your theology, as opposed to the Bible.

That explains a lot. Let me just challenge you though: sitcoms are a one sided debate. They don’t really engage the other side, and they make their cases in indirect ways, ways which could be used to prove the exact opposite case.

Is this really the deepest level you’ve thought about theology?

Katherine
March 8, 2012

Dr. Mabuse, on the secular front, I have often have similar feelings when I drop in where my husband is watching “Law and Order” reruns. Fairly often the plot is a liberal fantasy, and I have to say, “That’s not realistic! You can’t do that!”

The Little Myrmidon
March 8, 2012

“Will there ever be a TV show that portrays Christians as normal, decent, struggling and complicated human beings?”

Sadly, the Book of Daniel was the first thing I thought of (and not in a positive way…)

ccinnova
March 8, 2012

It’s worth noting that Kristin Chenoweth is considered the star of the show. She’s been described as an outspoken Christian, but her views on sexuality are more accurately described as Episcopalian than evangelical.

FW Ken
March 11, 2012

http://www.amazon.com/Eifelheim-Michael-Flynn/dp/0765300966

An interesting take on aliens and salvation.

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