Thursday, October 05, 2006

Media Watch

I can't remember ever not being cynical about the way movies and television (not to mention the literature of the last century or so) generally portray religion and people who seriously practice religion. One favorite archetype is the Elmer Gantry figure--a venal hypocrite whose inevitable downfall casts not-so-subtle aspersions on the whole faith that he purported to espouse. Another is Father Mulcahey from Mash--likable and well-intentioned enough, but definitely running on a low dose of testosterone--in short, a wimp. The Camden family from Seventh Heaven is at least allowed to be somewhat real, but in a very syrupy way; I mean, who can really take that much sweetness? Plus, the nitty gritty of their religious practice is never exposed; everything is kept rather superficial. Eric Camden is some sort of (mainline?) Protestant minister, but that denotes a wide universe, and to keep it that general also keeps it proportionately unrealistic. Then there was the short-lived Book of Daniel, which was overtly Episcopalian, and I actually kind of enjoyed. But it was also bizarrely Episcopalian, an exaggerated caricature of every weird thing the Episcopal Church is currently into, which is no mean feat, since the Episcopal Church is currently into some very bizarre and weird things.

This Fall's primetime network fare features two new programs--both on NBC--that attempt once again to integrate "people of faith" (I really do hate that expression, but...whatever) into the cast and plotlines. One is Friday Night Lights, based on the movie of the same name, and therefore focusing on small-town Texas' obsession with high school football. My brother Steve (yeah, literally my brother) has some pertinent comments about this program on his own blog. I haven't seen it myself, but from two eyewitness accounts I have read, it is a dead-on accurate and unaffected representation of the dominant Christian piety of west Texas.

The other entry is Studio 60 On Sunset Strip (Monday, 10 Eastern & Pacific). This show marks the return of the writing and producing team of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, who distinguished themselves in the first four seasons of The West Wing. I am openly a West Wing junkie, still in serious grief over its demise, so I've watched the first three episodes of Studio 60 in seach of a fix. It's cruel. Sorkin and Schlamme have an unmistakable literary style in the dialogue they write, and a trademark technical and narrative style as well. Plus, one of the lead roles is played by Bradley Whitford, whose Josh Lyman was a mainstay of the Bartlett administration. The other leading character is played by Matthew Perry, who had a several-episode gig on "the wing" as deputy White House counsel. So there is the patina of the experience of watching The West Wing (did I mention that the music is done by the same person as well?), but, alas, it's not.

Enough of my whining. One of the characters in Studio 60 is Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), who is--Is there a better way to say this?--"openly Christian." She (the character, that is) is a comedic actor who is a member of the cast of the show for which Whitford and Perry's characters are the writers (it's clearly a stand-in for Saturday Night Live). In every episode so far, she has been in a position to make a point about how Hollywood just doesn't "get" Christians or Christianity. She appropriately rolls her eyes and grimaces and throws out "Aren't you clueless?" one-liners. Now, this has to be one of the biggest ironies of the decade, because the character of Harriet Hayes is a neon illustration of how Hollywood--are we ready for this?--just doesn't "get" Christians or Christianity. In contrast to the honest if unsophisticated piety of Friday Night Lights, Harriet's Christianity tries to be uber-chic and sardonic. Tries, but fails. In an effort to be cool and avoid the sticky sweetness of a Seventh Heaven, as well as the hypocrisy and primness of the classic archetypes, Sorkin and Schlamme have turned Harriet into...well, I don't know what, exactly. Just not a believably authentic Christian of any stripe (the implication is that she is an evangelical). I could illustrate with prayers for falling objects on ex-boyfriends and malicious riffs on the theme of "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior," but the hour is late.

In order to write convincingly, you have to write from the inside. (That's why I never believed that, had The West Wing been allowed to continue, Arnold Vinck [Alan Alda] would have been allowed to win the presidency. I don't know that Hollywood can do Republicans any better than they can do Christians!) You can't just learn some of the vocabulary and some of the symbols and throw them into a script. Practice makes perfect, though. Maybe someday they'll get it right.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

I've been watching Studio 60 for the same reason--missing West Wing--I'm intrigued by "the Christian" character and I'm willing to see how she fleshes out. It's so early in the game for this show, I don't think we know what they'll do with her. I do like that she isn't afraid to laugh at some aspects of Christianity and she isn't remotely like the Camdens, who all give me a a sugar headache--it's either the sweetness or the bad acting, I'm not sure which.