TV and Religion

Apart from being Coma Week on Glee, this was Religion Week on U.S. broadcast TV. At least three shows, including two of the biggest hits, had stories revolving around issues of religion and spirituality: first Glee, then Modern Family, finally Community (which has another religion plot coming, according to episode descriptions). When three shows deal with religion in three days — on three different networks, yet — something has to be in the air, particularly when you factor in the rampant religious overtones on many science-fiction/fantasy shows. It’s like religion episodes ae to 2010 television what Soviet defector episodes were to 1980.

Nearly all TV episodes about religion wind up offering the same message: “Everybody has to believe in something.” It’s done in different ways on different shows, of course: on Glee, it was presented sort of seriously (people need something “sacred” in their lives even if it’s not God); on Community, which is a genuine comedy, it was comic (everybody is entitled to their insane beliefs). But it usually comes down in the same area; even if the creator is an atheist or a believer in a specific religion, the episode will end up telling us that a) Everyone believes in something more or less spiritual and b) It’s all good.

Part of this is, of course, the middle-of-the-road tendency of all Hollywood entertainment, the need to be fair to both sides and all sides. The “everybody believes in something” message on religion is of a piece with the message of most TV episodes about politics, which is that all the political parties are essentially the same and it doesn’t really matter who you vote for — but you should still vote. It’s hard to use an expensive, collaborative, advertiser-supported television episode for advocacy, even if this were desirable, and I’m certainly not saying it is.

But I think this genuinely reflects the thinking of many people in Hollywood. Hollywood, remember, is a place where a large number of people do believe in a generic “something.” It’s not a very religious town, but the number of outright non-believers is still pretty low; non-traditional religious beliefs run rampant, and people who don’t believe in religion may take up some vague form of spirituality. The idea that you have to have some form of faith may not just be a truism, but what Hollywood writers frequently believe themselves. Part of the point of that Community episode was that you have to live and work with people even if they believe in nutty, cultish things; that’s undoubtedly something you have to accept to work in Hollywood (or anywhere, really, but especially Hollywood, where your co-worker’s beliefs may be known to the entire world).

And, secondly, Hollywood is a place where a lot of people really do consider themselves middle-of-the-road, centrist, open to all views. That seems like a strange thing to say, I know. But because it’s their job to please the masses, Hollywood people can become convinced that they do in fact represent the midpoint between the extremes. Jon Stewart isn’t “Hollywood” geographically, but his “Restore Sanity” rally is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: there are people out there on the left and right who are equally bad, and here I am, the voice of centrist sanity. Given that many show business people think of themselves this way, it’s not surprising that their views on religion, as expressed in their work, tend to be very vague.

This kind of thing has a long history in Hollywood, of course. After the power of the Catholic Legion of Decency was broken in Hollywood — meaning that writers and producers no longer had to be on the side of Christianity at all times for fear of risking a boycott — anti-religious views became more common than they are now, but pretty rare unless they were balanced out in some way. By the end of the ’70s, with the rise of generic spirituality (celebrated most famously in Star Wars, the ultimate “you have to believe in something really vague” movies), we were moving toward the modern status quo where devout religious belief and convinced disbelief were rare on TV.

So for example, in this episode from 1980, the year of Russian Defectors, there’s only one character who doesn’t seem to have at least a bit of religion. And her lack of belief his soft-pedaled by having her say that she believes in some non-religious, humanist conception of God.

Outright TV atheists still continued to exist into the ’80s (Maddie on Moonlighting came out as one), but there was almost some kind of spiritual belief attributed to them. What’s rare on TV is the opinion expressed by Dwight MacDonald in response to Ingmar Bergman’s religious angst: “I don’t believe in God and am not much interested in whether I am right.”

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