There’s a saying that if you want to turn even the most innocuous social gathering into a heated debate, start talking about politics and/or religion. This board has seen plenty of political discussion recently, but religion hasn’t seen quite as much action. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past year or two understands that religion is becoming a major topic in most forms of entertainment. Some are presented in a very bad way, but most are meant to be respectful, at least as much as tawdry entertainment can be.
This article provides a good summary of how religion has fared in the past few decades. Some shows are addressing religion indirectly, such as dealing with the afterlife or the resurrection, while others address it head-on. The big question is, why has religion made such a resurgence, and why now?
First of all, religion has always been there. It’s just that most shows based on religion have been downright awful. Most of the time, their demise is blamed on a public that is too secular for its own good, but the truth is that people generally don’t want to watch TV shows that reek. Think back to the 70’s, when Little House on the Prairie was on the air. One of the main characters on that show was a pastor, and that show didn’t shy away from dealing with religious issues. People didn’t mind because it was done well. The same was true of Highway to Heaven. I enjoyed watching a likeable actor (Michael Landon) play a “down to earth” angel who did his best to help people. (One exception was when Jonathan and Mark framed a drug dealer who kept getting away with his crimes. I didn’t think that sent the right message, but that’s another rant entirely…) Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven are other examples. What they all seem to have in common is that they don’t try to force a particular religious view down the public’s throat. They all share the belief that we should all try to make the world a better place.
I think part of what’s fueling this religious trend is the righward leaning of our executive branch of government (yes, it does make a difference), and part of it is backlash from family-unfriendly events such as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl. Those certainly aren’t the only reasons; Joan of Arcadia debuted to solid numbers last fall, before the Janet incident happened. I think the simplest explanation is that TV and movie producers are starting to figure out that if you make something that actually has something intelligent to say, it will do better than something that’s poorly made and makes people feel like their religious experience is being cheapened. But even that is open to interpretation, as you might expect. I really enjoy watching parodies of religion on shows such as The Simpsons and King of the Hill, as long as the parody has an intelligent point to make. Other people see the same things and feel extremely offended. It all depends on the individual, which is why you probably won’t see anything that digs very deeply into major religious issues. The suits want to take advantage of the trend, but they also don’t want to alienate their target audience. Do you think we’re likely to see a TV show about the pros and cons of a specific denomination anytime soon? I doubt it. However, shows that either scratch the surface of religion or focus only on non-denominational topics have been doing well for years.
The bottom line is that, just like any other TV fad, religion as a subject will eventually fade, then something else will take its place. It will never really die, because most of us have an innate need to believe in a higher power than ourselves, but it won’t always be at the forefront of entertainment. Depending on how well (or poorly) it’s done, that may actually be a good thing. Hollywood revolves around greed, which the Bible describes as the root of all evil. It certainly doesn’t seem realistic to expect anything spiritually uplifting to come from that kind of environment, although it does happen sometimes.