Jude Law in The Young Pope (2016) (Photo: HBO/IMDB)
Artillery Row

The new televangelism

The best US television drama has a strong religious dimension

Concerned by their lack of religious programming, this year the BBC designed a Year of Beliefs strand, including a reality show where light entertainers Les Dennis and Debbie McGee went on a pilgrimage to meet the Pope and confess their quiz show sins. But if the BBC really wanted to put religion back at the heart of their broadcasting, they should look to American TV, where almost every major mainstream channel  has a religious element.

Some shows in the current schedule address religion directly (including HBO’s The Young Pope and its John Malkovich-starring sequel The New Pope and Oprah Winfrey’s Greenleaf, set in a megachurch). Others are horror thrillers with religious dimensions (Supernatural, where the gates of Hell have opened and our only protection is a pair of wise-cracking brothers, or Lucifer, in which a somewhat-smarmy Devil runs a nightclub and solves mysteries in L.A.). 

It’s astonishing how much airtime is devoted to two theological questions: why is there evil in the world and am I going to Hell?

For those who find these shows too silly, there are emotionally driven dramas such as The Leftovers, which follow the lives of those left behind after a Rapture-style event, or smart theological comedies such as The Good Place (a small group of oddballs die and wake up in what seems to be Heaven). But irrespective of which form it takes, it’s astonishing how much airtime is devoted to two theological questions: why is there evil in the world and am I going to Hell?

The first question is addressed directly in new American drama, Evil. It’s the brainchild of married screenwriters Robert and Michelle King, a couple lauded for their ability to come up with aspirational shows aimed squarely at a well-heeled, intellectual audience that still deliver the procedural requirements without which a programme is unlikely to be a cross-over network success. Wayward talents, the couple had a huge hit with their Chicago-set legal drama, The Good Wife (which ran for seven successful seasons and inspired an equally successful sequel, The Good Fight), then ran aground with a notable flop, BrainDead, based on a silly premise where extra-terrestrial insects start eating the brains of Washington politicians, prompting ever loopier behaviour. 

Their new show is more promising. Evil was inspired by conversations between the devoutly religious Robert and his atheist wife. Wanting to find a way to dramatize their differences, but also win over a mass audience, they’ve come up with a contrived but engaging set-up. Taking inspiration from The X-Files, the main characters are an odd couple female forensic psychologist and a Catholic priest-in-training who team up to investigate unexplained mysteries. These include, in the first two episodes, working out whether a serial killer is possessed by a demon or is simply a psychopath, and discerning whether a seemingly dead patient who wakes up on the mortuary slab is a medical miracle or the grounds for a malpractice suit. 

It’s hard to be certain from early episodes whether this show will blossom into appointment television or descend into camp silliness, but it’s certainly an arresting mix. Behind the engaging but relatively conventional stories-of-the-week, there is a complicated mythology. Sixty demons, which may or may not be real, have somehow escaped from wherever they were previously contained and are having a malign influence on the world via TV shows, dreams and visitations. These demons dress in rubber bodysuits, have English names like Gerald and Roy, speak in Latin and like to urinate in women’s bedrooms and render them immobile so they can remove their underwear while they’re sleeping. 

Even those British viewers still amused by the tired old trope of American TV villains generally being played by British actors may feel this is de trop, but given how self-aware the Kings are, it’s hard not to suspect that they’re setting this up mainly to play with later. There is a slight sense of smart people slumming, but this is balanced by a giddy excitement about the storytelling potential in this baroque set-up. Alongside these otherworldly demons and supernatural evil, the Kings also want to say something about regular earthly evil (TV now serving the same purpose as church in keeping people in line), which they suggest is increasing in the current age. In this, it resembles the Kevin Bacon vehicle The Following, another bizarre show from earlier in the decade which began with an English professor and novelist obsessed by Edgar Allan Poe who murdered fourteen people, but which reached such a state of hysteria in its three seasons that it ended up suggesting that almost anyone could be a serial killer in the right circumstances. In Evil, the Kings similarly posit that the world is full of psychopaths who want to empower others to commit ever more serious crimes. 

Often more compelling than the shows where it’s obvious who we’re supposed to root for are the programmes that make us wonder whether the protagonists we identify with are deliberately — or maybe even unthinkingly — evil. This conceit pops up in everything from cartoons (Homer Simpson selling his soul for a doughnut) to mainstream sitcoms (a recurring theme of the long-running American sitcom Two and a Half Men was whether the lead character, advert jingle-writer Charlie, played by the troubled celebrity Charlie Sheen, was simply an irresponsible womanizing playboy or a genuinely wicked man). In one notorious episode, witches showed up to declare him a warlock, something that Sheen subsequently seemed to believe had actually happened to him in real life. 

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is so attracted to this trope that not only has he used it several times on his main show, but has also returned to it in his new cartoon Disenchantment, in which his protagonist Elfo dies and goes to Heaven, only to upset God and be sent downstairs, where he is rescued from eternal damnation by a kindly demon named Luci.

The attraction of seeing the inner workings of Heaven and Hell is also much of the charm of the aforementioned The Good Place, which has a cartoon-style reality where characters can be killed over and over and yet still show up unharmed in the next episode. In the early seasons of this show, this felt quite bracing, puncturing taboos about death in a way more usually found in literature than television. In most TV shows, even high-end ones, there is a deliberate distinction between expendable characters (often referred to as “redshirts”, after the thus-attired personnel in the original Star Trek who rarely survived to the first commercial break) who can be dispatched in a hail of bullets without us being overly concerned, and those we’re supposed to care about, who are usually as close as a character can get to being immortal. 

The set-up of The Good Place is unusual in that the characters have mostly died at a young age — in order to have a youthful and attractive cast in Heaven — and in absurd ways. The protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop is run over by a truck containing erectile dysfunction drugs after dropping her margarita mix in a supermarket carpark; her philosopher friend Chidi Anagonye dies after an air conditioning unit falls from the sky onto his head. But as the show has continued, the dark humour and philosophical conundrums that made the sitcom so original have been replaced by a single humanist question: whether individuals are genuinely capable of acting in anything other than self-interest.

The question is also a concern of short story writer-turned-scriptwriter Jim Gavin, who talked to me about his show Lodge 49, currently midway through its second season. Gavin’s series, about an ex-surfer named Dud who joins an ancient fraternal lodge in America, combines amiable comedy with the suggestion of something deeper and mysterious at work in the universe. Gavin believes the religious element in much mainstream US drama is due to “an ancient and lasting wish to transcend this world, to get beyond time and death.” For Gavin, the main driver of his stories is not so much the battle between good and evil, but what it means to be good. “That might be the only question I’m interested in as a writer,” he confessed. “We cater to the madness of kings. Evil, for me, is the absence of empathy, which has expressions large and small.” 

A religious element is baked into the very structure of American TV shows. Before scriptwriters get the green light to produce their programmes, they are usually asked to create the “Bible” for the show, a lengthy document that contains everything the producers and co-writers will need to know about the characters, location, storylines and philosophy of the series, alongside evidence that the programme has the juice to stay on air for several seasons. 

As part of this Bible, show creators are asked to focus on the “stakes” for the character. There is a paranoia that audiences won’t care about characters unless these stakes are sky-high — if at all possible, involving the end of the world — and that the main character is someone very important who is good at their job, which is why there are so many shows about American Presidents (Designated Survivor, Commander-in-Chief, The American President). A British version of this, from the estimable novelist-turned-screenwriter Ben Richards and featuring Robert Carlyle playing a British prime minister, Cobra, is coming from Sky in early 2020. 

Having mainly worked in British TV, Richards believes that the main reason why American shows are far more religious than British ones is because Britain is a far less religious country and less prone to extremes of abstract thought. British shows tend to revolve around good workers who are responsible for their own agency, so involving unseen angels or demons is considered a bit of a cop-out. 

In his shows he is concerned with themes of Christian morality such as justice, compassion and forgiveness rather than religion itself. “Chiefly because I prefer realism, even if it is a heightened realism,” he told me. He shies away from shows with supernatural elements although he admits, “as a child I was absolutely terrified of the devil — mainly because of his appearance.” This fear lives on in his villains. “I think they are imperative to every good drama and literature in general. I like my villains to be attractive and funny.” But not supernatural.

Jim Gavin is less concerned with human antagonists, noting “compared to other shows they’re not very important at all. If we have villains, they are struggling and insecure and, for the most part, still very human and ridiculous. Essentially, our show takes place in a comic universe.”

While the cosmic has always been a part of American TV, whether in shows such as The Twilight Zone that pushed at the boundaries of space and time or more directly religious programmes like the long-running 1980s series Highway to Heaven — in which an angel wanders the Earth helping people — it’s become more significant as American TV drama has grown in ambition. The most artistically successful American hits of recent years have all had this religious dimension.

For Gavin, the best of these was Lost, the series that began with a group of strangers stuck on a desert island after their plane crashed, trying to solve the mystery of where they were and if they were alive or dead. He liked it as much for the smaller details as its approach to the big questions. “Seeing a reference to a Flann O’Brien novel in a major network show,” he enthuses, “I mean, come on!” 

For me, the three strongest are The Sopranos, which had a strong Catholic element (Carmella Soprano always running off to meet with her beloved priest, a dynamic repeated in subsequent, and lesser, Catholic crime shows Ray Donovan and City on a Hill), Mad Men, which revealed Don Draper’s darker side by having him reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach and surrounded him with so much heavy symbolism throughout the series that the audience began to imagine worst fates for its characters than those the scriptwriters had devised. Arguably the best of all, though undeniably uneven and erratic, was Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Still from Twin Peaks (1990) (Photo: ABC/IMDB)

In a more elevated manner than addressed in the Kings’ Evil, director David Lynch is also preoccupied with questions of theodicy. He had the protagonist of his cult classic movie Blue Velvet address this question directly, with Jeffrey asking his prospective girlfriend Sandy, “Why is there so much evil in the world?” But in Blue Velvet, for all its symbolism, the evil was very much human, although there was a suggestion that there was something about the American suburbs that allowed this wickedness to thrive. 

When Lynch expanded his canvas from a two-hour movie to an opened-ended series, he began to ask grander questions, moving from the show’s initial murder mystery (who killed Laura Palmer?) to a much broader concern (what is the true nature of evil?). 

The series has never resolved the central question of whether Laura’s murderer, Leland Palmer, is an evil man because he is possessed by a malign creature named “Bob” or whether he has been possessed by the malign Bob because he is an evil man. 

It returns again and again to the site of Laura Palmer’s murder and layers it with ever-deeper layers of significance each time. On occasion, he’s used Christian iconography (angels, etc), but then rowed back, offering us potential explanations for the inner workings of the universe, before adding contradiction and obfuscation to make us question everything he’s told us so far. 

The mythology of Twin Peaks has grown so large and tangled that a significant portion of the Internet is devoted to amateur essayists trying to explain it, which seems to miss the point: the beauty of the show lies in the individual scenes and the freedom Lynch has a director to experiment, which can only happen if he resists the story coming together into a completely coherent whole. Twin Peaks works best if you can accept the cosmic questioning, even if you see its theological dimension as merely a way of infinitely generating questions without answers. 

Such questioning is necessary for an ambitious TV show to survive (in soap operas, the questions asked are much simpler, who slept with who and when), and to draw in a large viewership. Long-running shows need to postpone the resolution of their stories for as many seasons as possible, but they also need to keep us perched on the edge of our seats, convinced that this episode will be the one where we finally get the answers we’ve been waiting for.

Programmes that engage with the religious dimension allow us to feel we’re investing our time in front of the screen

Unlike procedural shows, where effort goes into coming up with stylish murders and a happy conclusion where the murderer is safely in jail and the policemen can head off to a bar for beer and pizza, programmes that engage with the religious dimension allow us to feel we are not wasting our time in front of the screen but investing it, counting the hours to the next instalment and convinced our low-level version of Pascal’s wager will finally pay off.

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