Pop Culture Primer: Television

Donna Bowman

A great television show—like a series of novels—takes its characters through changes, doubles back to pick up old threads for new stories, ventures beyond its initial premise, and picks at every assumption of that starting point, unraveling and knitting each of them up again. The longitudinal arc of television gives us not tidy packages, but messy, open-ended, episodic journeys. When it comes to faith, we can be tempted to dwell too much on the doctrinal aspects of theology, where abstractions dominate over lived experience. Meanwhile, we forget that the gospel often emerged from Jesus’ daily encounters with people and was driven by the narrative of his life and parables. The following five TV series, I posit, use the power of narrative to explore themes that recur in Scripture, that Jesus made the heart of his message, and that we struggle to reconcile with the human condition.

5. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

According to the the Belgic Confession, “humans are nothing but the slaves of sin.” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan portrays this enslaving, evil force in the tragedy of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), which plays out against the backdrop of the barren American Southwest. Facing death in light of a recent terminal cancer diagnosis, ignored by the high-school chemistry students he teaches, and belittled by his boss and customers at the menial second job he’s taken to make ends meet, Walt makes a snap decision. He’ll throw off the bonds of the law and suburban respectability, and with the help of a drug-dealing former student, cash in on his scientific knowledge by selling high-grade methamphetamine to Albuquerque’s burnouts.

Over and over again, Walt justifies this move as a selfless sacrifice for his family—making sure that if he has to leave them fatherless, he at least won’t leave them broke. But from the very start it’s clear that he’s motivated by wanting to take control of his own fate. Backed up against the horizon of death like a prisoner facing the firing squad, he feeds his lust for power with the memories of the injustices he feels have been done to him. In one of the show’s most iconic scenes, Walt’s wife (Anna Gunn) takes him to a storage locker where she’s piled up all the cash they can never spend. “I gave up counting it,” she says, as the camera circles the waist-high block. Money becomes an end in itself, a tangible symbol of power, worthless in terms of what it can buy but perfect for keeping score against a world that has failed to give Walt his due. He’ll show them. He’ll show them all!

Gilligan famously describedBreaking Bad as “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface.” But what could possibly cause such a downwardly spiraling transformation? We see it in Walt’s hesitation to turn a passed-out, choking woman onto her side and save her life, when letting her die would solve one of his problems. That’s what Christians call sin—not just a list of personal transgressions, but the kind of self-indulgence that warps the soul and sends us through the looking glass. Violence is love. Theft is justice. Poison is nourishment. Betrayal is loyalty.

4. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Exodus, the book and the concept, lies at the heart of the Bible. The familiar narrative of escape, wandering, and eventual homecoming provides a framework for Christ as well. Jesus is the “stranger from heaven,” the pillar of cloud and fire that shows us the way from the present wilderness to our milk-and-honey destiny.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the sense of American malaise that followed the turbulent counterculture years led to a number of pensive TV series about perpetually wandering heroes, from Kung Fu to The Incredible Hulk. One of the most ambitious was the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, created by devout Mormon Glen A. Larson. Here an entire people, the last survivors of a 1,000-year war with robotic Cylons, set off on a quest for the mythical planet Earth, which according to faith and legend was the home of the “thirteenth tribe” of humans. Its 2004 reboot, created by Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Ronald D. Moore, examines in minute detail the possibilities and risks involved with being such a sojourning people.

In the survivors’ fleet, faith is constantly tested, as individuals and families grapple with the immaterial nature of the promises they’ve inherited. Does Earth even exist? Are their leaders sincere or manipulative? Do the ancient texts and periodic oracles from the gods of their former home lead them somewhere, or nowhere? The Cylons, too, have a divine mandate—theirs from a single god, the lord of all. Their religious quest to exterminate or assimilate the human survivors echoes an all too familiar apocalyptic enthusiasm.

Over the course of its four seasons, Battlestar Galactica takes its characters through many dark nights of the soul, and its leaders deal with grumbling, restless masses, as did Aaron and Moses. They argue about whether to exterminate all foreigners or join forces with some of them. Skepticism, mysticism, scientism, and new religions exercise powerful compulsions over them, each in their turn. Take the flawed, venal Gaius Baltar (James Callis), whose visions from a beautiful Cylon inspire a breakaway sect. Paralyzed by his ecstasies in a hidden part of the ship, he reclines like a saint struck with rays from heaven, surrounded by fanatic devotees. As when Moses disappeared into the clouds atop Mount Sinai or Jesus left the disciples on watch at Gethsemane, these unruly exiles seem to have infinite resources for creative heresy. They struggle to shore up a modicum of faith with old stories, rapidly fading memories of mountain-top experiences, and increasingly empty disciplines demanded by their leaders.

Like Battlestar Galactica’s wanderers, we live in the in-between days, as the letters of Paul make clear. The kingdom of heaven is both here and now, and not yet. Christ is risen, but has not yet returned. We try to figure out how to spend our entire lives on the way, with no idea of when (or whether) we will arrive. That makes us vulnerable to people who seem more certain—who claim to have already seen or attained—and to people who aim to debunk the whole endeavor and substitute a different picture of reality.

Like Battlestar Galactica’s wanderers, we live in the in-between days.

3. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)

When Donald Trump was asked during the 2016 presidential campaign about his favorite Bible verse, he came up with “an eye for an eye.” That notion of justice—the righting of wrongs, with clear villains and innocent victims—certainly has its place in TV history. The satisfaction of many a cop show or courtroom drama (or both at once, as in the Law and Order franchise) is in seeing people get what they deserve.

But Christianity insists that our just deserts are not nearly so simple. Jesus constantly questioned the idea that lawbreakers should be punished harshly (as when he saved the woman caught in adultery) and challenged the concept that those who suffered were merely reaping their just reward (as when he said that congenital blindness is not the result of anyone’s sin).

Based on journalist David Simon’s nonfiction book about Baltimore homicide detectives, Homicide: Life on the Street sought to portray the humanity on both sides of the thin blue line. There’s not much idealism to be found. Munch, Pembleton, Lewis, Howard, Bayliss—all of these law-enforcement officers approach their job differently, with varying levels of cynicism and commitment. But what they have in common is the knowledge that justice on the streets of Baltimore is nothing simple. Perps, victims, and suspects alike live in conditions that often make a mockery of the notions of guilt and innocence. Poverty, victimization, drugs, gangs, and violence surround them. At times their city seems submerged, and their attempt to ride the waves for the purposes of a system that demands closed cases feels willfully obtuse.

Efforts to turn Christianity into a similar system of laws fly in the face of Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus raged against the injustice that such legalistic systems always produce. Homicide follows the humans who form the gears of such a machine, grappling with the work they have to do. It’s no coincidence that the characters often go up to the roof of the precinct building, closer to heaven, when they have some truth to tell to each other. Down in the rolling swells of day-to-day existence, clear answers are almost impossible to find.

2. Mom (2013-present)

The Baptist church of my childhood taught me “once saved, always saved.” That’s a neat solution to the problem of continuing to exist in the world after being sanctified by grace. Backsliding? Don’t worry too much about it. When God chooses you, you stay chosen. From our human perspective, though, the disconnect remains—and it never stops being troubling. After all, we’re the ones who have to get up and live a redeemed life, day after day. The best analog for this experience is that of the recovering alcoholic. And the stunning comedy Mom, still going strong on CBS, may be the best show about recovering alcoholics television has ever produced.

Addiction is no joke, but it seems that those in recovery have to laugh at themselves to stay sane at the absurdity of their condition. On this show, single mom Christy (Anna Faris) and her mother Bonnie (Allison Janney) fight their way through the detritus left behind by the drugs-and-booze-fueled difficulties of their past—including their relationship with each other. They are also battling money troubles, hanging onto low-security jobs, and fighting back the ever-present temptation to have a drink to take the edge off. The show is often funny, and also tragic. Take the episode this past season where a new guy attends Christy’s Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She remembers waking up beside him after he raped her while she was passed out drunk. Many viewers regard the three-camera, live-audience sitcom as an antiquated form, but these small, crowded sets trap these characters in unbearable proximity to their pasts, while the open “fourth wall” of the format invites us to witness and empathize.

Being in recovery means being simultaneously an alcoholic and sober. Christians, similarly, are redeemed sinners who still struggle each day, anticipating the life to come. The women of Mom are no saints, and they look back on their days of gleeful indulgence with nostalgia. What keeps them going—well, most of the time, when they can—is that they choose the part of that two-fold identity that they have a choice about: the sober part. And not just once for all, but every day thereafter.

Christians are redeemed sinners who still struggle each day.

1. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001)

Anyone who grew up watching Mr. Rogers knows what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s welcoming. Personal. Profoundly interested. Intimate. Curious. A place and time set apart from the workaday world, made special and holy by the ritual of putting on sneakers and a cardigan that was hand-knit by your mom. It’s a realm of answers that honor the questions, of delight in the very simplest things. There we discover that we matter, that we are seen. There we find love that puts to rest our dread that we are unlovable.

It’s no coincidence that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was created by an ordained minister. In the vast wasteland he saw on television, Fred Rogers built a house next door, where a friendly face looked directly at you and took you seriously, where the gulf between children and adults collapsed in an instant, and all that was left was love.

The word “neighbor” may be the most homely word that is also a profound theological concept. Jesus defined it as someone who acts with compassion toward a fellow human being. Neighborliness, in the gospel, isn’t a status; it’s an action. The question in the parable of the Good Samaritan gets turned inside out. “Who is my neighbor?” requests a test we can use to figure out whom we should love. But Jesus answers: look for the ones loving. They are the ones who are making themselves neighbors to all of humanity.

During the frightening hours after the May 2017 bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, Anthony Breznican posted a series of tweets about the time in college when he met Fred Rogers. Breznican, reeling from the death of his grandfather at the time, had found solace when he came across Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood playing on a TV in his dorm’s common room. A few days later, he had a chance encounter with Rogers in an elevator and mentioned the experience to him. Instead of hurrying on, Rogers sat down with him and asked what was upsetting him. Breznican poured out his heart to that listening ear, and then apologized for delaying the great man. “Sometimes you’re right where you need to be,” Rogers replied.

It’s a story that strikes me as truly heaven on earth. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood portrayed the power of kindness, a power we tend to forget as we grow older. Adulthood, we think, requires us to harden ourselves against the disappointments of reality. And then someone greets us with kindness, and the miracle that can happen every day—the neighborly ushering in of God’s kingdom—happens again.

Editor’s note: You can download the entire Pop Culture Primer ebook here.

Topics: TV