Monday, August 29, 2011
This got me thinking. Is TV designed as a tool for us from whence to get our morals, or is there something more at work here?
Instead of getting our morals from television, why not apply our morals to it instead?
A properly formed conscience, using the revealed truths of the Church and Christ, is the best way to judge an act or action. We have this great thing in the faith called morality, and it is not a grey area. We know what is right and wrong, we know what a sinful act is, and we can figure out when a person is acting morally, immorally and possibly even amorally.
If I were to use the reverse, and if I were to actually get my morals from TV, I would believe the following:
Moral relativism - Diff'rent Strokes. This is from the theme song along, "What might be right for you, may not be right for some." We know of the great evils of moral relativism because we live in a Hollywood society in which sex is an icebreaker, but it doesn't matter, because one day, I might find my spouse at a trendy club and marry them. And if it doesn't work out, then we'll just get a divorce and we can marry someone else for forever/5 years. And all because Arnold didn't know what Willis was talking about.
Proportionalism - 24. Jack Bauer made a living off of saving the world. Which would seem like a good thing if he didn't execute his boss at a train yard in order to save hostages. Or kill a guy and then cut off his head with a hacksaw in order to gain entrance into a secret organization. Or let his daughter get eaten by a cougar.
The ends justifies the means - Dexter. Who doesn't love rooting for serial killers? Showtime has been asking us to cheer for Dexter Morgan for 5 years, a serial killer who kills serial killers. Why? Because Dexter cannot control his urges to kill, and rather than kill innocents, he only kills those who deserve to die because of their criminal lives. Nevermind that he is the prime example of a vigilante, taking the law into his own hands. He kills so these people won't kill again. Sounds like the justification of a mad man to me.
Animal Cruelty - Garfield. Every time Odie was standing on the edge of the table (why he would stand here, I have no idea), Garfield would push him off. And not just push him, he would actually kick him in the behind, sending him flying off the table and onto the ground. Couple this Garfield's constant shipping of Nermal to Abudabi, and we get the idea that violence to animals is not only ok, but is quite funny.
On the other hand, if you take the morals you already have and apply it to the worlds that television creates and provides, you will be able to enjoy all that it has to offer to a much great degree. You will know what is right and what is wrong, and more importantly, you will be able to discuss why it is so.
Studying sins and vices does not lead you to a life of the same, but rather can lead you to a life in which you understand your faith and your values better. An understanding of the truth sometimes requires a glimpse into the falsehoods of the world, and this offers, too, an appreciation of the objective truths by which we live
Friday, August 26, 2011
But there are also those shows that depict a higher being, a higher life, and the ramifications of those beliefs on their people.
Before taking ill-advised turns and plot-twists, Lost was a prime example of a show with religious under and overtones. One if its main themes was the idea of faith vs reason, and free-will vs. destiny. Jack embodied the idea of reason and choice, while Locke was the chief proponent of faith, basing his decisions on the idea that the Island has a living entity, guiding him to his proper end. The two were in constant conflict, not just for island leadership, but for their own individual ideals.
The show also featured a Catholic priest (albeit with questionable legitimacy), the building of a Church and missionary work, sin and repentance galore, and even a very vivid Baptism scene.
At the same time as Lost was airing on ABC, SciFi (before revamping their advertising and renaming themselves SyFy, which is clearly more appealing to the masses. Now they won't know they're watching science fiction) was airing Ron Moore's superior reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. Never one to shy aware from any issue, from war to terrorism, abortion to politics, Galactica always had the issue of religion and deities at the forefront.
The humans were of the belief that the ancient gods of old were leading them and guiding their actions, so they built temples to them and wrote their prophecies down. The human made robotic Cylons, however, considered themselves to be advanced beings, and thus they believed in the one God, who was the true God. This created an interesting dichotomy, where a race, considering themselves more evolved, saw the belief in one God to be an example of their advancement (never mind that they nuked an entire civilization, reducing the human population from millions to 49,000.
Once both shows ended in 2010, it left a void in the television universe, with no great shows tackling the theological questions. There is plenty of great television, but what will end up being the next great religious show?
Religion is much more difficult and riskier to depict because of the strong opinions of people on the subject. It can be much more polarizing than catching criminals or dating your boss. Almost everyone in the world has an opinion about religion, whether it be positive or negative. It is difficult for a network to take a gamble on a show knowing that there is already a group of people who will be against its subject matter and thus not watch it. Shows with no viewers rarely survive.
That is why fantasy and sci-fi genres are the perfect ground for religious shows and shows with faith-based elements to land. By nature, they are already in a world in which the normal rules of the universe don't apply, whether the setting be on a mysterious island with its own set of rules, or in a galaxy far, far away. The character are human, but the worlds they inhabit are most decidedly not earth. Under the guise of these worlds, the writers and creators of the show are able to introduce whatever thematic elements they want; one of the most popular is how do people deal with the question of God and his existence.
Because of the universal nature of God, his presence can be discussed on Caprica, in Sunnydale, in places where the Alliance runs amok, in outer space and deep under the sea. The people are the same, but the background is not. This allows for an almost fresh take on the subject, and rarely seems like religion and God are being shoved down our throats.
We are not taught what to think or what to believe, but rather we are presented with new questions that we may have thought of in our own lives. We are also able to relate better to certain characters if we find they have similar beliefs to our own, or even similar ideas. Television is meant to attract viewers to shows, and faith is a great way to keep people interested and also to challenge them and enrich their lives.
So where does the next great faith discussion come from? Game of Thrones dabbles in the gods of old vs. new, but non-book viewers do not yet know where that discussion will lead. Terra Nova has the makings of it, but time will tell if God and modern religion follow the people back in time to hang out with Earl Sinclair. Mad Men and Breaking Bad both deal with sin and causality, but neither directly with God's role.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
At first glance, and every other glance after that, Walter White is an immoral man. A former high school science teacher, Mr. White has graduated into the lucrative business of the production of methamphetamine, to be sold and distributed on the streets of Albuquerque, NM. He respects the chemistry of it, the purity of the combination of elements in such a way that the end result is a crystalline blue substance that, when ingested, leads to the best possible artificial expansion of the mind.
Walt is bankrolled by the leader of a South American cartel, who also doubles as the owner of the local fast-fast chicken joint.
His partner is a high school educated slacker who has not only been kicked out of his parents house, but lowballed his unsuspecting parents on a bid for that same house, claiming it used to be a meth house. The bit he didn’t tell you about is that he was the one cooking that meth.
He has lawyer protection from a man who changed his name to sound more Jewish, figuring that the public would trust one of God’s chosen people more.
So how is it possible to watch this show knowing the premise, knowing the characters, and knowing that Walter’s actions lead to the increasing addictions of children and families?
Because we always have hope.
Walter didn’t become the meth king of New Mexico because he was bored, or because he had nothing better to do. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, given just months to live. Working part time at car wash as well as teaching at a high school did not give him the economic stability to support his family should he die. Refusing to just let his family suffer, he sacrificed his ownself so that they might live and survive.
“"When you have children, you will always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man…a man provides. And he does it even when he is not appreciated – or respected…or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it…because he’s a man.”
Does Walter’s end of supporting his family justify the means by which he goes about it? Absolutely not. But what it does is allow us, the audience, to see that Walter has not gone completely mad; he has not entered the realm of the sociopath. He is misguided and he is confused. But he is not evil. We did not hope that Luke Skywalker would simply kill Darth Vader. We wanted Luke to bring out the good that was still in him, to save Vader, and to have Vader turn away from the Dark Side.
This is not to oversimplify the magnificent Breaking Bad, because the whole show is not about cheering for Walt to make the right choice. If Walt continues to make every wrong decision out there, if he continues to cook meth and make millions of dollars at the expense of drug addicts everywhere, the show will still be great. It is currently one of the most creative shows on television, with stellar writing and stellar acting, garnering awards at every Emmy’s ceremony.
The brilliance of television has always been that you can show evolution of a character and maturation of story. The Sopranos really ushered in this new era of television, bringing with it the idea of an anti-hero, the character we watch in whom we take such delight in their evil deeds. This person usually surrounds himself with characters of similar ilk, because let’s face it, we all like people with similar interests. Cooking meth, collecting gambling debts, serial killing, watching According to Jim. Even bad guys like to have friends.
What this new era has shown to a new, mature audience is that we as people are capable of some pretty sick things. CBS has made a living depicting these crimes, all solved by a crack team of investigators with billion dollar labs. We know the good guys will do good things, we know they will make the right decision, and we know the bad guy will be caught. And we want the bad guy to be caught. Why? Because he’s the bad guy!
But to us, the television viewing audience, a far better outcome than the bad guy being caught is if, right before he is caught, he runs into a burning orphanage (that he probably lit on fire) and saves all the kids. Or he jumps into the Potomac to save a box full of puppies (having fallen out of his truck after he robbed the pet store). We want to see a glimpse of humanity, to see this person who has spent the last 12 hours tormenting the public, release his hate and throw the Emperor into the depths of the Death Star.
Is Walter White a moral man? No.
Is Breaking Bad a moral show? That question does not have such a succinct answer.
It is easy to look at the show, see the fall of Walter White into the shadows of greed and corruption, and write both his character and the show off. It is easy to say that this is filth, that this is trash, that this is a further example of the degradation of society, a contributor to the culture of death.
The show is not written to be a rulebook by which we can live our lives or a guide to our morality. As far as I know, only one institution is solely responsible for our salvation.
The show is designed to tell a story, and that is the story of Walter White. He has a wife, two children, and he cooks meth. Walter White is not a moral man, he does not do moral things. But as with any choice, every decision he makes affects those people around him. We the viewers see how these people react to Walt, how they behave, how their decisions reflect themselves, their beliefs and their own lives.
In the end, we want Walt to give up his life of crime, stop cooking meth and start cooking spaghetti for his family. We want Walt to stop cheating his family out of a supportive father; we want Walt to show his love by playing hide and seek with this kids, not hiding rolled up twenties in his daughter’s diaper bag.
We want all this to happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Just like there is no guarantee that all the drug dealers in the country will become a part of the DEA and clean up the streets.
But we can hope.
None of those are good questions. Well, I guess only the last one is a bad question, so I'll proceed to answer the others.
First of all, television is great. I make this statement as someone who both owns a tv and watches it frequently, and watches many of its fine programming. From the soccer game on my tv right now to old reruns of the Simpsons. From past greats like Lost, Battlestar Galactica and the Wire, to current faves Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, I have watched my share of the small screen.
Gaudium et Spes tells us we are not to hide from this world and the advancements it offers, even though our true home lies in heaven. Television has fast grown to be a medium full of the creativity and production values normally reserved for movies. It offers rewarding storylines, evolutionary characters and sharp writing, all in the comfort of your own home.
What the television community lacks, and the Catholic community, is a place that offers a unique perspective on TV, one from the point of view of a faithful Catholic.
I am not here to tell you what to watch or not watch. I am simply offering the opinions of someone who knows about television and who knows about Catholicism.