Thursday, April 23, 2009

Accurate Moments in Televised Religion (caution: spoilers)

A category that sprang to mind while re-watching Carnivale last night. These aren't the best moments necessarily, but after cringing nearly every time religious faith or practice, or just the ordinary lives of believers, is portrayed on television (or movies), it's wonderful when, every couple of years, you see a moment that makes you say "Aha--they got it."

1. Brother Justin Crowe, the Methodist minister in Carnivale. Not just that the writers had the creativity to make the demonic preacher neither fundamentalist/evangelical nor overwrought Catholic, but an ordinary Methodist revival preacher; but they got the historical details right, too. Methodism has changed over the last seventy-odd years, but the nitpicky details all seem to be correct. And they don't even mention the word "Methodist"; [I'm willing to be corrected on this point]; you have to figure out for yourself who in the 1930's would have a pulpit in the middle, wear a cassock, have a bishop, and do revival preaching. A wonderful job.

In fact, bonus points for the writers noticing that most churches do have an organizational structure, and if strange things start going on, the bishop (or whoever) is going to be paying a visit pretty promptly.

2. David Caruso's character, in the first season of NYPD Blue, confessing to his parish priest. This may be the first and last time I've ever seen Catholic confession on TV or film that wasn't in a little dark wooden box and behind a screen, with some startled and horrified priest, who clearly doesn't know the penitent from Adam, listening to it all. Caruso's Detective Kelly, despite not being portrayed as a religious zealot, actually knows his priest (shocker!), and confesses while the two are outdoors, in a way familiar to most American Catholics who went to confession in the '90's: somewhat casual but reverent, face-to-face, and actually sounding like a real confession rather than a cheap device for narrating the plot or making the priest or penitent seem weird or threatening.

(Unfortunately, fifteen years later, I've never seen another realistic confession on the screen. My favorite bad TV confession was Scully's hour-long stint in the box, as a framing device for that week's plot. A real priest would have said in the first two minutes, "So, do you have an actual sin to confess?" Or "If this is going be very long, would you please make an appointment? Mass starts in fifteen minutes and there are eight people in line after you.")

3. Andre Braugher's Detective Frank Pembleton in Homicide, upon discovering his clueless "spiritual but not religious" partner took Communion when he went to a wedding Mass:

Pembleton: You're not Catholic and you took communion?
Bayliss: Yeah. Is that wrong?
Pembleton (smiling): If my God wins, you're screwed.

Non-pious banter about religious practice among laypeople! Nary a devout nun nor earnest priest in sight!

4. X-Files snake-handlers vs. mainliners. "Signs and Wonders": Deep South snake-handling fire-and-brimstone preacher out of central casting, played against the tolerant, educated, mainline Protestant minister who is quietly despairing at the credulity and unsophistication of the local yokels. This doesn't really belong on a list of "most accurate" portrayals, except in the sense that the final twist shows that some writer actually paid attention to the idea that a certain kind of progressive Christian theology denies or finesses so much as to be anti-Christian, and that the fundie preacher's insistence that Christ "demands our very lives" is, in fact, the genuine Christian faith.

5. Carmela tells off Father Phil in The Sopranos. When everyone else whips up a "bad priest" character in seconds by making him some combination of (a) gay, (b) predatory, and (c) vow-breaking hypocrites, the Sopranos writers knock it out of the park with Carmela's epiphany of what's wrong with the (technically) chaste but spiritually immature Father Phil:

"I think that you like the whiff of sexuality that never goes anyplace.... I think you have this m.o. where you manipulate spiritually thirsty women. And I think a lot if it is tied up with food somehow as well as the sexual tension game."

Ouch. It hurts because we've all seen it, or some variant of it.

Any others?


Anonymous yahmdallah said...

I know I've seen one recently, but I can't recall what it was. And it was just a small thing.

Essentially the Christian character wasn't the token evil character, and their expression of what a Christian is was accurate, too.

The larger point, though, is dead-on: you just don't see it anymore.

1:03 PM  

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