They say that God works in mysterious ways. As proof, look no further than a recent story in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which praised Homer Simpson for being a "true" Catholic. The publication cites The Simpsons for using "Christian faith, religion and questions about God" as recurring themes.
At first glance, it seems odd that a child-choking, beer-swilling glutton who has embodied all seven deadly sins could be considered a shining example of a man of faith. Then again, as the Vatican paper explained, the Simpson family "recites prayers before meals and, in their own way, believes in the life thereafter." Even Melissa Henson, director of communications for the Parents Television Council, says, "The Simpsons is one of the more balanced treatments of faith-based characters that you'll see. Flanders seems like a dork, but he's sincere."
It's one thing for a satirical series like The Simpsons to take on spirituality. Most people expect it to be reverent about the topic, and it's a pleasant surprise when it is. But few things are more personal, or divisive, than matters of faith, so it's no shock that shows might shy away from specific story lines that deal with it. Identifying a particular character as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or any other religion could potentially alienate followers of that faith (or those who aren't) if the plot isn't handled well, so why even wade into those controversial waters?
More often than not, audiences respond to characters who aren't afraid to show their faith. But while Henson cites Special Agent Booth on Bones as a positive portrayal, she adds that there is a paucity of other examples in prime time. "We've found that religion, to the extent it's dealt with at all, gets negative treatment," she says. "Primary characters tend to be skeptics or agnostics. There is a large community [of viewers] active in their church or synagogue or mosque who want to see a more positive portrayal of their belief system on television."
Catholic League president Bill Donohue couldn't agree more. While he's "not expecting Bing Crosby-style" wholesome programming, he's also still reeling from what he saw as "unrelieved hostility" toward Catholicism in a recent House episode about a patient who is crucified every year as part of a deal with God to keep his daughter cancer-free. "The evidence is overwhelming that there's a major, disproportionate gap between the Hollywood elite and John Q. Public when it comes to matters of religion," he says.
Viewers, to some extent, agree. A recent TV Guide Magazine poll found that 59 percent of readers believe religion and faith-based characters aren't being treated fairly on prime time. As one respondent put it, "So often, religious people (read: Christians) are portrayed as crackpot, hypocritical, ultraconservative nutjobs." But it depends on what you're watching. "TV does reflect America's values, and part of that is religion," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who particularly praises Glee and Mad Men for their portrayals of Jewish characters. "I don't think you see, in mainstream TV, an attack on it. Sure, people get upset about stereotypes, but overall, I'm comfortable that religion is treated with respect."
Earlier this season, one Glee episode began goofily — with Finn seeing Jesus' face in a grilled cheese sandwich — but ended with Kurt being moved after attending Mercedes' church. Nearly every week on Supernatural, the heroic Winchester brothers are caught in a battle between heaven and hell. Hellcats has spent much of its first year exploring the struggles of Savannah, a devout Christian.
Community is one of TV's most inclusive sitcoms. Shirley is a devout Christian, and while she is the butt of plenty of jokes, her faith is never a target. Despite Abed's Muslim beliefs, he helped Shirley produce a YouTube video about Jesus, and his religion was gently tweaked in the recent stop-motion Yuletide episode ("What do you care about Christmas, Abed? You're Muslim," chided Pierce, an avowed Buddhist. "Don't your people spend this season writing angry letters to TV Guide?"). Rounding out the study group, Troy is a Jehovah's Witness, Annie is Jewish, Jeff is an agnostic, and Britta is atheist, but they all came together to celebrate the holidays.
Another kind of community gathered to worship in last May's Lost finale, which ended with all the characters inside a sanctuary. "As we approached the end of Lost, we felt like there were issues that were central to the show that deal with spiritual or religious themes, like redemption," says exec producer Carlton Cuse. "It felt hollow to ignore the spiritual dimensions of our story."
Cuse says he's a firm believer that TV writers have a duty to reflect the values of society, where the majority of people have some form of spiritual belief. The key, says The Middle star Patricia Heaton, is for shows to incorporate religion as they do on her ABC comedy, where faith "is just a part of the fabric of [the Heck family's] lives." Whether it's praying for her daughter's cross-country team to disappear or taking in a foreign exchange student via their church, the notion that her character believes in God slips in without preaching.
Religion isn't so easily accepted by all TV families. In a recent episode of The Good Wife, Alicia appeared taken aback upon discovering her daughter kneeling in prayer. And last season she flat-out asked her husband, Peter, if he was becoming religious after he took on a pastor as a spiritual adviser. According to cocreator Robert King, the show is interested in depicting questions about belief. "The Florricks go to church twice a year — Easter and Christmas," he says of Alicia and Peter, "but [their daughter] is much more committed." Disgraced politician Peter "thinks he needs to get better in his soul," and that working with a pastor might help him to make a change. "Religion is a struggle; it's not an absolute," King says, promising the show will continue to grapple with faith.
For more about the role of faith on TV, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 6!
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