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Finding God (and faith!) on TV!

Finding God (and faith!) on TV!

This blog got it’s start a decade ago writing about a very short-lived television show about an Episcopal priest called “The Blog of Daniel.” After that show’s cancellation, it was said in the popular press that it would be very hard for television to ever talk about faith in a serious way again.

The good news is that God has not left the small screen and faith is portrayed and discussed in a variety of ways, sometimes great, and sometimes goofy.

The drama “Greenleaf” was the most successful new series in the history of OWN, the cable network begun by Oprah Winfrey, and one of summer television’s success stories. It got attention for Ms. Winfrey’s return to TV acting, but it was equally distinctive for its subject matter: a Christian megachurch and the travails and power struggles of the family that runs it.

As important as religion is in the lives of many viewers, television has had a tentative relationship with it. Often, faith has been relegated to syrupy treatments (“Touched by an Angel”), used as a vehicle for supernatural plots (see Fox’s “The Exorcist,” coming this fall, and Cinemax’s “Outcast”) or ignored altogether. It’s rare to see the kind of immersive depiction that a series like “Greenleaf” makes possible: religion as a way of life, a means for good and bad and struggling people to engage with existence.

Given the sheer number of series in the age of peak TV and the recent focus on diversity of all kinds, there should be room for religion and religious diversity, too. But are things changing, and how? Here, the New York Times critics Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozik survey how television’s congregation has expanded and where there’s still room for improvement.

Religion has not gotten any easier to dramatize effectively, but it is an effort still worth trying. Sometimes TV falls back on the trite and sometimes shows can rise above it.

…religious diversity is not getting any less important in public life. Because good stories are specific, and personal faith (or the conscious lack of it) is as specific as it gets. And because religion tries to answer some of the same questions that art does, about human frailties and emotion and dealing with the knowledge that you will die someday.

That can be a bummer! So TV networks have viewed it as a subject that gets you in trouble. You might get a sunshiny picture of it — the “7th Heaven” approach — or, occasionally, you got religion treated as an “issue,” in controversial, short-lived series like “Nothing Sacred.” Or it would be a device to signal that things had gotten real, as when President Bartlet tore into God on “The West Wing.”

All of which can be legitimate — some people do turn to a higher power only when things get rough. But there’s also religion as a routine, even dull part of daily life. “Friday Night Lights” did this well: Christianity (this was small-town Texas) was a steady part of life from Sunday church to Landry’s speed-metal garage band. (Crucifictorius forever!) But it was an exception.

The reviewers forget to mention Blue Bloods, which revolves around a family that is three generations in law enforcement and are devout Roman Catholics. The show often ends with the family saying grace around the ritual Sunday meal, and frequently deals with issues of faith and ethics.

Showing faith in everyday settings can be challenging and at times very satisfying.

I just watched all of Netflix’s community-college football doc “Last Chance U,” and I loved it and found it engrossing, informative, complicated and often surprising. One small thing that stood out to me is that the players say the Our Father together. There’s also a brief scene in which one of the coaches leads everyone in a Scripture study. If you watch this and don’t think about the pilot of “Friday Night Lights” — when a little kid asks Jason Street, “Do you think God loves football?” and Jason answers, “I think everybody loves football” — I don’t want to be your friend.

South Park, which can at times work hard to cross blasphemy-for-laughs line, can even turn a sympathetic face towards faith.

But one of its best episodes, about a young Mormon kid moving to town, is a kind of nonbeliever’s love letter to faith. It both ridicules the founding story of Joseph Smith and sincerely argues that the church is a net positive anyway.

Television is also a good place to think about non-belief as a religious stance.

This is maybe a good place to say a word for considered nonbelief, which is a kind of belief in itself. You mentioned Grace on “The Good Wife”; her embrace of God especially matters in contrast with the atheism of her mother, Alicia (a particular liability, the show made clear, for an aspiring politician). Neither is portrayed as right or wrong — the important thing, from the show’s perspective, is that they’re each asking moral questions, not how they come to the answers.

TV seems to do better…

…with fictional religions than actual ones. (“Leftovers,” “Game of Thrones” — even “Battlestar Galactica” was one very religious show.)

[Remember “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?”]

Which is one more reason I look forward this fall to the final season of “Rectify,” a beautiful little treasure on Sundance. On the surface, it’s about a death-row inmate released after his murder-rape conviction is vacated. At heart, with characters of various degrees of faith, it’s about Christian ideals in living practice — redemption, forgiveness, grace. (Its creator, Ray McKinnon, played the idealistic, doomed preacher in HBO’s “Deadwood.”)

There are many reasons the series isn’t a big hit (slow pace, gloomy subject, art-house sensibility). But if anyone has ever wished for more and better series about religion, I beg them to catch up on it. TV as a medium has farther to go, but for one more season, this small corner of the cable schedule remains, as the hashtag says, #blessed.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) portrayals of faith on television today?

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