A few weeks ago here I was griping about a bit of simple-minded stereotyping of a Christian character in the TV series Endeavour. Endeavour, in case you aren't aware of it, gives us the early life of Inspector Morse, whom every fan of British mystery stories knows; I found it disappointing but interesting. The stereotype was a cold and malicious Christian woman crusading against dirty words on television; according to the rules of this game, she had to be exposed as being not only ugly and self-righteous but a monster to her own family. [yawn] It was so crude and such a cliche that I couldn't even be much offended.
I was, however, a bit surprised, because I had some notion that this sort of thing has been done so often that writers are tired of it, and that portrayals of Christians and Christianity have tended recently to be more interesting. Well, I don't know how I can venture to make such a broad statement, as the number of movies and TV shows I see is very small. But for what it's worth, here are two instances of what I mean. Both are long and complex made-for-Netflix shows.
First, Bloodline. This is a combination family saga and crime drama set in the Florida Keys (which are photographed with exceptional beauty, so that I want to live there, hurricanes or no hurricanes). I think I watched the first episode out of curiosity, Netflix having recommended it to me, without really knowing what to expect. One episode was enough to hook me. It is very well done. There's a lot of first-rate acting in it, especially on the part of Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn.
The Rayburn family runs a successful hotel, but--you know how this goes--Behind The Facade Of The Happy And Prosperous Family Lie Dark Secrets. Mendelsohn's character, Danny, is a sort of black sheep son who has been absent for a while and whose return sets in motion a chain of bad things. Chandler's character, John, is a detective in the county sheriff's department. The bad things play out over three "seasons" of a dozen or so episodes each.
I read somewhere that the writers had originally envisioned five seasons, but that reviews and ratings declined steadily after the first season. At any rate the third season was the last. I can sort of see why, because most of the original story had run its course by then. But some strange and interesting things appeared toward the end of that last season. In particular there's a scene where Sally Rayburn, the family matriarch (played very effectively by Sissy Spacek), in desperation seeks out a Catholic priest for counseling and/or confession. The family is not Catholic and there's been no presence of religion in the show before this point (except for a funeral or two). Sally's troubles are of course all mixed up with her children, and the priest says something to her that really made me sit up and take notice:
You know who God is? A parent with insanely violent and destructive children. He had two choices: destroy them or die for them.
Now that's the real deal. I don't expect or even want TV and movies to preach Christianity to us. But I do want it to recognize the existential situation we face, and, if it deals with the faith, to understand that it is a serious response to a serious question.
(Later it appears that this encounter may not have really happened, and that a character named Ozzie, who has heretofore been a pretty frightening criminal lurking around the family, has become--or may have become--a sort of weird Christ figure, or maybe an angel or prophet. May have--it wasn't at all clear to me. I'm going to watch the last three or four episodes again and read some reviews and see if I can make sense of it.)
I recommend Bloodline, with a fair amount of qualification. The first season especially is very painful to watch in many ways. It's not sensationalistic--not a lot of violence etc.--just painful.
The other show, The Killing, is not as good, and I don't really recommend it. This is the American version of a Danish series which Rob G has recommended to us here a number of times, but which is hard to find in the U.S. I think I started watching it out of curiosity (and impatience at not being able to get the original). I won't say I was hooked after the first episode, but there was enough what's-going-to-happen pull to make me continue. There was a lot about it that I really disliked. It is very dark, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively: it's set in Seattle, and if I were to take it as a realistic portrait of the city and its people I would be astonished that anyone could live there. It's almost always dark and almost always raining. Even the rare bit of sunlight is pale. The people are miserable. They never really turn on the lights in their houses, apparently making do with a few 40-watt bulbs. And the crimes depicted are dark, sometimes gruesome, and heartbreaking: the third season (there are four) involves the murders of teenaged girls living on the streets, and the mere fact of teenaged girls living on the streets is heartbreaking.
I expected the murder which happens in the opening scenes to be solved at the end of the first season and if it had been I would have stopped there. But it wasn't. It took two seasons to solve that crime, and by then I had gotten so interested in the two detectives working on the case that I wanted to follow the rest of the series just to see how things would work out for them. They are Sarah Linden (just "Linden" most of the time) and Steven Holder (just "Holder" most of the time), played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. As tends to be the case in contemporary crime stories, the detectives themselves have major personal problems of their own.
Anyway--to get to the point, since I'm not recommending the series--Holder's biggest problem is that he's a former (recovering?) meth addict. (Do they really let former addicts join the police?) Throughout the series there's always the fear that he's about to fall back into using. At one point, fairly late in the series, when a number of things have gone very badly wrong for him, he and Linden are driving around Seattle and he abruptly demands that she stop and let him out. She thinks, as do we, that he's off to buy drugs. But where he actually goes is to the church of a women's monastery/convent which I think is called Our Lady Queen of Peace. Like Sally in Bloodline, he's not Catholic. But also like Sally, he is in desperate need, and that's where he goes. He sits--maybe he kneels, I can't remember now--while the nuns chant from behind a screen. Nothing magical happens. But he isn't back on the needle.
An episode or two later he returns to the church, this time in even more desperate need. This time he's falling apart. After a minute or two he begins to storm around the church, yelling "Where is he?! Where is he?!" He goes over to the nuns' screen and beats on it, yelling; they are frightened and scurry away.
Again, nothing happens. For all I know the writers intended to say that all that God stuff is meaningless. That's alright. The significant thing to me is that those scenes give us the question, the hard question, and a Catholic church as a place which at least might have the answer, ought to have the answer, and to which one naturally looks for it.
Perhaps the entertainment industry has gotten some of the simple-minded attacks and stereotypes out of its system and there is some kind of a trend toward intelligence and seriousness in treating Christianity. It would not be surprising. And this is suggestive for what seems to be a darkening cultural future: the darker the night, the brighter the light. As they say, it's science.
By the way as far as I can tell the Seattle monastery is fictional.
Actually, now that I think about it, the intelligent-serious view of religion was present these many years ago in The X-Files. My all-time favorite line from that show, in an episode where suburban satanists have gotten themselves into grave danger: "Did you think you could call up the devil and make him behave?" An epitaph for our times, maybe.
Another line from The Killing that struck me: "To love a child is to open yourself up to all the hurt in the world."
As of 12:32pm Friday Sept. 22 I have essentially completed a first draft of my book. I know there are several places that need to be filled out further, but it's just a matter of paragraphs here and there. More dauntingly, there's a huge amount of sculpting to do on what's a fairly shapeless mass right now. But a presentable manuscript is within sight, although still distant. I should be able to get it done by the end of the year at least, if I don't get lazy and/or distracted. Next week I'll post an excerpt.
I saw this goose about to take off and pointed the phone ahead of it and pressed the button several times. I didn't really expect to catch it but I guess I got lucky.