From “Greenleaf” to “Transparent”: Finding God on the Small Screen

Clockwise from left: Keith David in “Greenleaf”; Michelle Monaghan in “The Path”; Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project”; and Jay Duplass in “Transparent.” (Credit: Oprah Winfrey Network/Lionsgate; Hulu; Amazon Studios)
Clockwise from left: Keith David in “Greenleaf”; Michelle Monaghan in “The Path”; Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project”; and Jay Duplass in “Transparent.” (Credit: Oprah Winfrey Network/Lionsgate; Hulu; Amazon Studios)

The drama “Greenleaf” was the most successful new series in the history of OWN, the cable network begun by Oprah Winfrey, and one of summer television’s success stories. It got attention for Ms. Winfrey’s return to TV acting, but it was equally distinctive for its subject matter: a Christian megachurch and the travails and power struggles of the family that runs it.

As important as religion is in the lives of many viewers, television has had a tentative relationship with it. Often, faith has been relegated to syrupy treatments (“Touched by an Angel”), used as a vehicle for supernatural plots (see Fox’s “The Exorcist,” coming this fall, and Cinemax’s “Outcast”) or ignored altogether. It’s rare to see the kind of immersive depiction that a series like “Greenleaf” makes possible: religion as a way of life, a means for good and bad and struggling people to engage with existence.

Given the sheer number of series in the age of peak TV and the recent focus on diversity of all kinds, there should be room for religion and religious diversity, too. But are things changing, and how? Here, the New York Times critics Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozik survey how television’s congregation has expanded and where there’s still room for improvement.

MARGARET LYONS I just watched all of Netflix’s community-college football doc “Last Chance U,” and I loved it and found it engrossing, informative, complicated and often surprising. One small thing that stood out to me is that the players say the Our Father together. There’s also a brief scene in which one of the coaches leads everyone in a Scripture study. If you watch this and don’t think about the pilot of “Friday Night Lights” — when a little kid asks Jason Street, “Do you think God loves football?” and Jason answers, “I think everybody loves football” — I don’t want to be your friend.

Prayer on TV is sort of a pet project for me. I’m always on the lookout for it because it’s something that’s extremely common in life but comparatively rare on TV. According to a Pew Forum survey, 55 percent of American adults say they pray at least daily. And 77 percent say that religion is either very or somewhat important in their lives. I don’t in any way expect or even want TV to be a strictly representative portrayal of society, but this strikes me as something it is particularly unlikely to depict. (“Last Chance U” is a documentary, so it plays by different rules than scripted programming.) Is it something you keep an eye out for?

JAMES PONIEWOZIK It’s interesting you bring up prayer, because that points up a basic question: What does it even mean to incorporate faith into a TV story? I’m not sure it really counts as a treatment of faith simply to know that a character celebrates this holiday or that one. So prayer, at least, is one kind of external marker.

Why does this kind of representation matter? Because religious diversity is not getting any less important in public life. Because good stories are specific, and personal faith (or the conscious lack of it) is as specific as it gets. And because religion tries to answer some of the same questions that art does, about human frailties and emotion and dealing with the knowledge that you will die someday.

That can be a bummer! So TV networks have viewed it as a subject that gets you in trouble. You might get a sunshiny picture of it — the “7th Heaven” approach — or, occasionally, you got religion treated as an “issue,” in controversial, short-lived series like “Nothing Sacred.” Or it would be a device to signal that things had gotten real, as when President Bartlet tore into God on “The West Wing.”

All of which can be legitimate — some people do turn to a higher power only when things get rough. But there’s also religion as a routine, even dull part of daily life. “Friday Night Lights” did this well: Christianity (this was small-town Texas) was a steady part of life from Sunday church to Landry’s speed-metal garage band. (Crucifictorius forever!) But it was an exception.

I had my issues with “The Path,” Hulu’s drama about a we-swear-it’s-not-Scientology cult, but I was fascinated with how it explored the crunchy culture of Meyerism — delivering babies in birthing pools, the teenage son saying that his family listened only to ’60s and ’70s songs because “contemporary music brings darkness into the world.” And “Greenleaf” on OWN, a soapy-sincere melodrama set in a megachurch dynasty, has the kind of 3-D depiction of faith you can get only from a family whose life is religion.

Still, these are exceptions, whether because of nervousness or plain old secularist bias. Which areas of TV do you think are doing well by religion now? And do you find it sneaking in any places you wouldn’t have expected?

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozik

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