A tele­vi­sion God for the age of anx­i­ety

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Scoreboard - BY CATHLEEN FALSANI Re­li­gion News Ser­vice

Even in our present “golden age” of tele­vi­sion, with the num­ber of scripted pro­grams on net­work, cable and stream­ing chan­nels ex­pected to top 500 this year, shows that fea­ture re­li­gion or faith are scarce.

Rarer still are spir­i­tu­ally themed se­ries that suc­cess­fully find an au­di­ence, if not crit­i­cal ac­claim, amid the thrum of hun­dreds of other view­ing op­tions.

Those shows seem to come along per­haps once a decade – “7th Heaven” in the 2000s, “Touched by an An­gel” in the ’90s, “High­way to Heaven” in the ’80s, “The Fly­ing Nun” in the late ’60s through the early ’70s.

Then this fall, the new CBS hour­long dram­edy “God Friended Me” pre­miered to such im­pres­sive rat­ings that the net­work gave a full-sea­son or­der for it after only three episodes. Its sur­prise suc­cess has caused some me­dia watch­ers to won­der whether we’re on the cusp of a re­li­gion re­nais­sance on the small screen.

“It’s cycli­cal,” said Jef­frey Ma­han, a pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Iliff School of The­ol­ogy in Den­ver and au­thor of “Me­dia, Re­li­gion and Cul­ture: An In­tro­duc­tion.” “It’s not ran­dom. We get them in re­sponse to some­thing.”

After 9/11 came shows such as “Sur­vivor,” “Fear Fac­tor” and “Lost,” which re­flected the ex­is­ten­tial crises and angst ex­pe­ri­enced by many Amer­i­cans, said Craig Detweiler, pres­i­dent of the Seattle School of The­ol­ogy and Psy­chol­ogy and au­thor of sev­eral books about the in­ter­sec­tion of faith and cul­ture, in­clud­ing “A Ma­trix of Mean­ings: Find­ing God in Pop Cul­ture.”

“Now we have so much ex­is­ten­tial dread gen­er­ated by the fear in­dus­try that is net­work news and is thriv­ing in the Trump era – they’re push­ing that fear but­ton every day – that we have shows that have to wres­tle with de­spair and ul­ti­mate ques­tions,” Detweiler said.

The wildly pop­u­lar apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions of “The Walk­ing Dead,” for in­stance, are a “per­fectly ra­tio­nal re­sponse” to what feels like a kill-or-be-killed era, Detweiler said. “Or the vi­sions of the af­ter­life that started with a show like ‘The Left­overs’ on HBO and that con­tinue with ‘The Good Place’ or ‘For­ever’ in a more ac­ces­si­ble way. The ques­tions are still the same: Are we liv­ing in hell? Do things get bet­ter?”

In the face of so­ci­etal anx­i­ety, Ma­han be­lieves, TV shows that de­pict di­vine or su­per­nat­u­ral in­ter­ven­tion are a com­fort. “The genre … says God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world, God is at­ten­tive, God is jerk­ing peo­ple back from in front of the sub­way train, God has a part­ner for you,” he said.

Whether for dra­matic or comedic ef­fect (and with vary­ing de­grees of artistry and ef­fi­cacy), in trou­bled times, main­stream tele­vi­sion seems to ex­pe­ri­ence an uptick in pro­grams fea­tur­ing ce­les­tial or su­per­hu­man be­ings in­ter­act­ing with hu­mankind, or mere mor­tals wrestling with eter­nal co­nun­drums.

Since the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, for in­stance, shows such as “Kevin (Prob­a­bly) Saves the World,” “Liv­ing Bib­li­cally” and “Lu­cifer” have come and gone from net­work tele­vi­sion (al­though after Fox can­celed “Lu­cifer” in May, Net­flix has picked it up for a fourth sea­son to air next year.)

Cable and myr­iad stream­ing chan­nels have prof­fered grit­tier shows with spir­i­tual themes and set­tings to slake an au­di­ence’s thirst for meta­phys­i­cal so­lace or in­trigue, in­clud­ing “The Path” on Hulu, “The Left­overs” and “The Young Pope” on HBO, “Preacher” on AMC, “Call the Mid­wife” on PBS and “Green­leaf” on Oprah’s OWN net­work.

For the last decade or two, spir­i­tual and re­li­gious con­tent in main­stream tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming, while cer­tainly re­main­ing a mi­nor­ity, has run the genre gamut from the se­ri­ous (“Big Love,” “Joan of Ar­ca­dia,” “Sav­ing Grace”) to the silly (“Jane the Vir­gin,” “John from Cincin­nati,” “Im­pas­tor,” “GCB,” “The O’Neals”) and the earnest-if-twee heav­enly-hosts oeu­vre (“Touched…” “High­way…” “7th…”).

Most never find an au­di­ence ro­bust enough to keep them on the air for more than a sea­son or two. But some­times a dark-horse show ap­pears in the right place at the right time.

Over at CBS this fall, God is hav­ing a mo­ment.

“God Friended Me” chron­i­cles the ad­ven­tures of the athe­ist son of an Epis­co­pal priest who’s dis­patched by a Face­book user who goes by the han­dle “God” to res­cue per­fect strangers. The sup­port­ing cast in­cludes Jewish, Hindu and Mus­lim char­ac­ters. Its Sept. 30 de­but earned a 1.4 Nielsen rat­ing and drew 10.4 mil­lion view­ers – note­wor­thy, par­tic­u­larly given the show’s sub­ject mat­ter: faith, doubt and the na­ture of the di­vine (if it does, in fact, ex­ist).

It’s an un­ortho­dox pro­gram­ming mix for main­stream TV, for sure, and it’s also one of the most highly rated new dra­mas on tele­vi­sion.

For more nu­anced and ro­bust ex­plo­ration of those themes, Ma­han said he looks to pop­u­lar shows that dip into the faith arena for an episode or two, or in the sec­ondary story arc of a larger nar­ra­tive.

Think of Kathryn Hahn’s char­ac­ter, Rabbi Raquel Fein, and the var­i­ous Pf­ef­fer­man fam­ily mem­bers’ wrestling with Ju­daism and the na­ture of faith it­self in Ama­zon Stu­dios’ “Trans­par­ent,” or the earthy faith of Jenifer Lewis’ sassy grand­mother char­ac­ter Ruby John­son – “Black Je­sus, Black Je­sus!” – on ABC’s “Black-ish,” which ded­i­cated a whole episode to the John­son fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ences at a white hip­ster evangelical church.

Or the multi-sea­sonal sto­ry­line on “The Amer­i­cans” when the teenage daugh­ter of Rus­sian spies liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., rebels by be­com­ing a born-again Chris­tian and shar­ing the fam­ily se­cret with her youth pas­tor.

“I think we tend to get bet­ter episodic deal­ing with re­li­gion than we get from the shows that have a big com­mit­ment to prov­ing that re­li­gion, par­tic­u­larly Chris­tian re­li­gion, is good,” Ma­han said.

What you rarely find are se­ries that re­volve around a re­li­gious com­mu­nity (al­though “Call the Mid­wife,” set in part among the nurse-mid­wives and mem­bers of an Angli­can re­li­gious or­der in 1960s Lon­don, is a no­table ex­cep­tion) or with a lead char­ac­ter or char­ac­ters who are cler­gyper­sons or for whom faith is the ground­ing mo­ti­va­tion for how they live.

The mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion, then, is why not?

“It just doesn’t rate – not a big enough au­di­ence,” said Julie Piepenkot­ter, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of re­search for FX Net­works.


Bran­don Micheal Hall stars in CBS’s com­edy, “God Friended Me.” He plays an athe­ist whose life is dis­rupted when he re­ceives a mes­sage on so­cial me­dia from God.

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