I finally did something yesterday I had never done before: I intentionally watched a reality television show. The key word in that previous sentence is “intentionally.” I have, of course, seen reality TV before, a lot of it. But it has always been against my will. My wife would turn on an episode of The Biggest Loser every once in a while, or The Bachelor every twice in a while, or Say Yes to the Dress every marathon in a while, and I would sit in the same room and read and pretend not to be distracted but actually secretly watch the show because I like spending time with my wife and because I really, really like it when Randy asks the brides if-they-are-saying-yes-to-the-dress.1
But apart from these magic moments, most of my experiences with reality TV frightened me. For they were so damnably good at getting me to hate people. Reality TV, it seems to me, relies on inspiring hatred in its viewer more than any other form of entertainment.2 Even when you know how stupid the premise is, how contrived and ridiculous the emotion, how dependent on selective editing and ominous music the drama, you still find yourself hating Courtney by the end of the show, and wishing Ben would give the rose to someone more stable and sensible, like Kacie B. And if a particular show is not dependent on hate, it’s usually dependent on contempt, designed to generate a lazy, prideful scorn for poor people, or rich people, or people from New Jersey.
This is all meant to explain why I finally sat down to watch Oxygen’s new reality show Preachers of L.A. yesterday (tagline: “living the God life”). I don’t watch a lot of Oxygen Network—firstly, because I don’t have cable, and secondly, because oxygen is not one of my favorite elements. (#Argon4Life #NobleGas) But every time someone is identified in popular culture primarily by their Christianity, I often feel like there’s a lot at stake for me personally in how they are portrayed. And according to the general rules by which reality TV operates, I assumed that Preachers of L.A. was going to try to generate hate and/or contempt for these Christians, and thus at least imply contempt for Christians in general.
And to some extent, I found what I expected. The show follows a group of mega-church pastors and their wives, most of whom do not actually live or work in Los Angeles, all of whom lead thousands of people and make lots of money. Though it isn’t discussed directly on the show (not the one episode I watched, anyway) these preachers teach their followers something that’s often called “the prosperity gospel.” In its best forms, the prosperity gospel inspires faith and thankfulness in a God that provides. In its worst forms, people on TV promise that God will make you rich if you send them money. I’m not going to tell you what I think about this,3 but it’s probably not hard to see why a minister with a multi-million dollar home and a fleet of luxury cars is going to be controversial. The hatred/contempt potential is very high.
When the show finally ended though, I found myself thinking a strange thought. This thought was hard to put into words, but it was something like this:
Why didn’t I hate that show?
Let me hasten to say that I did not like the show. I did not want to watch another episode of it. But I didn’t resent its continued existence, not in the way I expected to, in the way I resent, say, diet cream soda or ESPNEWS. Instead, I found myself feeling sort of happy just to see Christians on TV, even Christians that are completely unlike me in many respects.
Keep in mind, of course, the internal resistance that I feel in even bringing something like this up. Few things piss people off quicker than a CHeW-MiM complaining about being underrepresented in something. (That’s my personal acronym for Christian Heterosexual White Middle-class Male. Feel free to use it in future conversations.) Because most claims of “under representation” are really claims of discrimination. And behind every charge of discrimination is an argument about power. So if I say something like, “Christians are underrepresented on TV,” the implied argument is, “Christians don’t have enough power.” If your reaction is to disagree with me about the first charge (the TV one), it is likely because you disagree with the second (the power one). Christians, you may think, already have too much power, and their absence from TV allows other underrepresented groups to correct that imbalance.
But I am not, actually, going to claim that Christians are underrepresented on TV. That is to say, I am not going to claim merely that. Rather, I think that all people of faith are underrepresented on TV, that faith itself is sort of a (if you’ll forgive the word) “taboo” topic and that TV in general would benefit from a lot more depictions of people who are Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Christian, Sikh, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, etc, and are identified as such. And I think this not because religious inclusion would correct a power imbalance, but rather because it would correct a moral imbalance.
Television has, for the most part, undergone a transformation of sorts in the last decade, producing an unprecedented level and amount of quality programming. As far as I know, there is not yet an agreed upon name for this wave of excellent programming. “Prestige TV” seems to be the most common name, though I have also seen “smART TV,” “Art TV,” “Elevated TV,” and, simply, “Good TV.” Whatever you want to call it,4 this wave started at the turn of millennium with The Sopranos and definitely includes Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Wire. It also includes Dexter, The Shield, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and Homeland (on most people’s lists); Justified, Damages, and Sons of Anarchy (on generous people’s lists); and possibly Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, True Blood, and Lost (on the lists of people who don’t mind robots, zombies, vampires, or tropical polar bears).
This list is probably incorrect in a number of ways and will anger you to the extent that you care about something that a stranger with a laptop threw together in ten minutes. I list them out not to rank them or exclude other great shows, but to draw attention to a couple things.
The vast majority of these shows feature characters who are, politely speaking, quite poopy. The technical word for this kind of character is “anti-hero,” and Art TV seems to be rather obsessed with them, mobsters and serial killers, drug dealers and homicidal kings, corrupt cops and bad husbands.
Related to Thing 1, most of these shows5 are designed to indulge and explore themes of evil, and they accomplish this extremely well. Art TV shows are set in worlds that contain only two kinds of people: evil6 people and victims. There is too much tragedy and not enough redemption. Too much despair and not enough hope. Too much cowardice and not enough courage. In the words of Arya’s dancing master, “There is only one god, and his name is death.”
This is part of the reason I don’t think the term “Good TV” is a useful one to describe these shows. I encountered “Good TV” in an essay by Todd Hasak-Lowy on the Believer Logger. He defines Good TV as a show that is “artistically ambitious, aesthetically sophisticated, unmistakably smart, etc.” I think this is a good summary of the qualities of these shows,7 but I also think that narrative that succeeds in only this way (artistically and/or aesthetically) is not good at all, in the same way that a technical manual that teaches you how to fly a plane into a building is not good at all, even if it does teach you how to do so very well.
My point here is that Art TV has grown incredibly sophisticated at articulating evil and has utterly failed to do the same with good. We have a hundred shows dedicated to finding the perpetrator of a murder (in Art TV and in regular TV), but we have no show based around trying to figure out who left a bag of groceries on the doorstep of a hungry family, even though the second act is by far the greater mystery.
But why is this so? All narrative is driven by conflict, and it is perhaps thought that goodness can’t generate conflict in the same way that evil can. This is largely because we tend to view goodness as passive, bland, a series of negative statements. But this is a terribly narrow view of what goodness is—a false image, a demon’s trick.8 Goodness is positive, creative, sexy, alive. And goodness, far more than evil, is of central importance for us Americans, for we live in a country that is increasingly trying to figure out what “goodness” means to us, and how best to live next to people who disagree with our conception of it.
Religion, and Christianity in particular, is at the center of that conflict, and it is not a simple, easy conflict. It is a tangled, gnarled bramble patch, and it needs unraveling and examining, it needs complicated narrative and artistic ambition, it needs good actors that can bring to life three dimensional characters—it needs, in short, everything that Art TV can provide.
There’s the danger, of course, of causing a massive poop storm to sweep over your network. Nothing gets people angry faster than talking about God, not even whiny CHeW-MiMs. It is probably not a coincidence that the two shows of the past decade that were best at discussing the nature of “goodness” and its relationship to religion were Battlestar Galactica and Lost. We seem to be able to deal with religious themes much easier when they are in the context of fantasy or science fiction (or whatever you want to call Lost; that show is kind of genre grab-bag), where some element of the supernatural takes the show out of the normal flow of modern America and allows it to exist on its own terms in a kind of alternate universe.
But if nothing else, religion is a complicated part of our lives, and it should be a complicated part of our television shows. And that means, at the very least, that it needs to be present. The not-actually-living-in-LA preachers are not going to accomplish that. Hopefully something else will. Because I am not watching that show ever again.
1 For some reason it makes me happy when shows, novels, or movies work their own title into their dialog.
2 With the possible exception of political talk shows, which is a whole other column
3 Really, I’m not. But if you really want to know, I’d suggest taking a look at Matthew 16.
4 For what it’s worth, I think Art TV is probably the most accurate, Good TV the least, for reasons that will become clear very shortly.
5 The exceptions are Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and to some extent, Justified. But you’ll notice that these shows are on the fringes of Art TV.
6 You may possibly object to my use of the word “evil.” It is, admittedly, an old fashioned sort of word. But I think I should insist on it. However much you might empathize with Dexter Morgan or Jaime Lannister or Walter White, however much their circumstances make them sympathetic or relatable, objectively speaking their actions cannot be described as anything other than evil.
7 This is why I think Art TV is a better term for it. In my view, “good” will always refer first to moral goodness. To his credit, Hasak-Lowy is intensely aware that enjoyment and praise of these shows carries serious moral implications.
8 It might be worth mentioning here C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which the demon Screwtape suggests certain ways that his nephew Wormwood can influence a certain man to change his thinking about goodness to a passive, negative idea, such that a virtue like “charity,” with its incredible richness of meaning, gets degraded into something like “unselfishness,” which even sounds ugly in the ear. As with most things, Lewis is quite insightful on the matter.