459: Spiritual Side of Television from Battlestar to Saving Grace and Sopranos

IN THIS NEW MILLENNIUM, which is barely a decade old, Dr. Diane Winston finds that television is not the wasteland that critics once claimed. In fact, in a new book for Baylor University Press, Diane finds that television dramas since 2000 have been wrestling with some tough and timely spiritual questions—in remarkably creative ways!
    Since last year, ReadTheSpirit has recommended Diane’s Web site at the University of Southern California through links from our own OurValues.org Web site, produced by the University of Michigan’s Dr. Wayne Baker.
    ALL THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is exploring creative ways to see our world in clearer, more compassionate ways. Monday we recommended an important PBS film, “New Muslim Cool.” Tuesday, we told you about “You’ll Never Know,” a WWII memoir. Meanwhile, OurValues.org has been breaking down stereotypes about Arab-Americans in a special series.
    TODAY, our Wednesday Conversation With Diane shares some of the major findings of “Small Screen BIG PICTURE: Television and Lived Religion,” a BIG new book (535 pages) from Baylor that’s a great idea-starter for writers, teachers, preachers and for the men and women who leader the nearly 1 million small discussion groups in congregations nationwide.
    Between these covers, Diane collects 15 chapters by various scholars—offering provocative viewpoints on the spiritual side of TV series including: “Battlestar Galactica,” “Deadwood,” “The Wire,” “The West Wing,” “Everwood,” “The O.C.,” “Sleeper Cell,” “Heroes,” “Lost,” “Prison Break,” “Saving Grace” and “Sopranos.”
    Members of your small group almost certainly are fans of TV series covered in the book. So, check out what Diane has to say today—and think of clicking on the Amazon link to her book, below …


    DAVID: A lot of college students will be reading your new book. I’m guessing it’ll show up in classes about media, religious studies—perhaps psychology, philosophy and American Studies, too. But, the reason you and I are talking today is because I think this also is a great book to spark small-group discussions in lots of places across the U.S.
    Millions of people are fans of these TV series.
    DIANE: Yes, this book will be used as a reader for college students. But it’s also a book that will interest people in any group that talks about religion and culture. Anyone who watches TV may want to take a look at this.
    DAVID: We’re taking TV seriously in this conversation today, but some readers are likely to ask: What’s the big deal? TV shows are really just popular entertainment, aren’t they? In the opening pages of your book, you answer this question. One reason it’s a big deal is: “Television tries to find common ground.”
What you’re describing is how TV still represents this vast superhighway of American culture. Am I describing it correctly?
    DIANE: Yes. There’s no question that television is in the process of changing and that 10 years from now—or even sooner—all of us will be watching television on our computers or our iPhones or some other personal device. But, for so many years, television has held a special place within our families. Some people have called the television a family altar.
    It’s a place, a space within our homes, where people come together and watch entertainment and reflect on it. We’re exposed to new ideas together by watching television. Television is the place where we meet to let the outside world come into our homes.
    Because television does that through moving pictures, it has much more impact than newspapers or radio. Television is the central storyteller for millions of people. It has penetrated 99 percent of American homes, which is way more homes than get newspapers or magazines—or even have computers, at this point.

    DAVID: People don’t know much about the actual shape and size of American media. For example, you’ve mentioned magazines. One of the biggest commercial magazines is still Reader’s Digest and its circulation is only 8 million. But, television is in virtually all American homes. It’s almost impossible to describe television’s enormous influence.
    Take “Sopranos,” which you explore in your book. The Mafia characters in the TV series talk frequently about how their lives match up with gangsters in Hollywood movies. Then, a few years ago, I remember transcripts released by the FBI from wiretaps of gangsters in Michigan. These were real transcripts of real gangsters.
    Among other things, these transcripts revealed that real-life mob figures are fans of “Sopranos”—and these guys talked on the wiretaps about how their own lives matched characters in the “Sopranos.”
    Amazing! This was a TV series imitating Hollywood’s imitation of real life gangsters—then real life gangsters imitating TV’s imitation of Hollywood’s imitation … You get the idea. This is just one small example, but it shows how people get caught up in these dramatic TV series and it shapes their lives! It becomes this big cultural cycle.

    DIANE: Some TV series are even larger than their actual viewing audiences. “Battlestar Galactica” never had any more than 2 million or 3 million viewers but it was referred to so often in print magazines, National Public Radio and in so many other places that millions more people had at least some idea of this TV series. The same is true of “Sopranos.”
    Think about a series like “House.” The creator of that series says he tries to integrate ethical issues into every episode. So, millions of people are watching “House” and seeing the hospital staff subject their patients to all kinds of experimental treatments and invasive procedures, trying to keep the patients from dying. On some level, I think people start thinking: Is this something I want to happen to me? Are all of these tests necessary? Is doing all of that to keep a person alive the best possible outcome?
    I think shows like “House” do affect our thinking as Americans. There’s a lot to talk about in a show like “House.”

    DAVID: TV dramas shape the public debate in America. After so many years of “CSI” shows, it’s now a standard part of courtroom procedure in some places to tell prospective real-life jurors that they’re not going to see “CSI” wizardry in the evidence presented in a trial. “CSI” shows millions of people every week these exotic forms of evidence—and a whole lot of police departments and court systems don’t have access to some of that stuff. Nevertheless, millions of potential jurors now expect it—because of “CSI.”
    DIANE: I remember a study just a couple of years ago about “Will and Grace” that concluded the audience did become more accustomed to homosexuality and homosexual relationships from watching the show. Television has a way of normalizing things for us. Things become more familiar to us because we’ve seen them on TV.

    DAVID: You point out that there are some things we don’t want to turn into “familiar” parts of American life—like torture.
    DIANE: “24” is a good example. I think “24” helped people think about the terror-torture debate. It actually may have influenced some military folks—and it also helped spark the critical public conversation that we had here in the U.S. about the nature of torture, how much torture is justified—and whether it works. This might have happened just through our news media, but “24” made the issues more comprehensible to millions.
    DAVID: In your book, you only write about dramas that aired after 2000. Why is that?
    DIANE: I think 9/11/2001 had a profound impact on the national psyche. A lot of shows right after that dealt with mortality and what happens after death. A lot of shows dealt with heroism—believing that we can become bigger and stronger than life. Some shows were only blips on the national consciousness after 2000; some shows disappeared. But seeing these kinds of TV shows pop up made me curious about the way Americans were thinking through the meaning of 9/11.
    DAVID: You also point out that this involves more than television. Now, TV audiences form communities around their favorite shows. Not just old-fashioned fan clubs, but real communities that get to know each other and create things together—like special photo images and ongoing stories. The Internet already is reshaping television in powerful new ways.
    DIANE: Yes, the Internet has become a big factor. Audiences now can go online and discuss their reactions to shows with other people. So, when we’re talking about these issues, we not only want to look at what’s in the shows themselves on TV, but we also want to look at these big online communities of people talking about what the shows mean to them.

    DAVID: The famous “Last Supper” picture from “Battlestar Galactica” in 2008 was an online part of the show, for example. In your book, you look at this other life of TV series—this ongoing Internet life.
    Tell us a little bit about why you’re so fascinated by “Battlestar.”
    DIANE: Well, first of all, when I meet someone who hasn’t seen “Battlestar Galactica”—I envy them. I know how many hours of excitement, pleasure, drama and thrills they have ahead of them if they start watching the series. I think “Battlestar Galactica” is truly one of the most provocative, spiritually rich series that’s ever been on television. It’s something we can keep coming back to and enjoy—and talk about with other people.
    DAVID: When the new season started last year, we had several journalists interested in writing guest pieces for ReadTheSpirit about “Battlestar.” The main one we published was by Tammy Audi, who also is a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal. It’s a very complicated story, but describe it in broad strokes for us.
    DIANE: The very basic premise of the show is that there’s a war between monotheists and polytheists—a religious war, an Armageddon. That’s a deeply religious drama: a fundamentalist monotheistic civilization attacks a polytheistic civilization for not living up to its commitment to God. The monotheists say that this other civilization broke the covenant with God and they’re going to be punished for it.
    At the heart of this drama are questions like: What is God? What is our responsibility to God? Are we being judged for our responsibility—or lack of responsibility—to God?
    The polytheistic civilization is annihilated in an attack from the monotheists—and there is this dramatic Exodus story that starts the series. These folks have to come to terms with how they can possibly reconstitute their civilization. There are many battles, love stories and adventures that put them all to the test—and question what’s really important in life and what we should believe in.

    DAVID: And there are lots of other specific questions in the series right out of today’s headlines.
    DIANE: There are questions about abortion, terrorism, suicide bombers, water boarding—lots of things come up in the series.
    The great thing is that it’s not done in a heavy-handed way and, because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t seem like stories we see in the newspapers. The series dramatizes the ethical underpinning of these issues. There are some characters who are called by God and don’t want to accept the mission. There are characters who think they are God—or who think they are prophets of God. There are characters who do terrible things to other characters—then have to live with what they did for the rest of their lives. The show is awash in spiritual questions. And it’s done very smartly. It’s not goofy.
    Folks who are prone to asking these spiritual questions glommed onto the series—and they love to discuss it with other people.

    DAVID: I really like the way you define spirituality in your book.
Regular readers of ReadTheSpirit know that we frequently describe “spirituality” as answering three questions: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How can I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, did anything I do really matter? And we’ve explained to readers that these really are questions that go back through Tolstoy and a host of other writers to the ancient questions about life.
    You’ve got a nearly identical definition of spirituality.
    DIANE: To me, the most basic spiritual questions are: What am I doing here? How can I make a difference? And, what happens when I die?
    Those three questions are a great starting point for getting a discussion going in your small group about “Battlestar Galactica” or “Sopranos” or many of these other series.
    DAVID: I’ve become a big fan of the “Sopranos” and I’m actually watching the series again this summer on DVD. While “Battlestar” plays out these questions on a giant stage—“Sopranos” explores them all in just a few families. The families happen to be headed by mob bosses, which heightens the drama a great deal—but they’re also American families.
    DIANE: In his family life, Tony Soprano is a caring father and tries to be a good provider, even if he’s not exactly a good husband per se. But, professionally, he’s a Mafia bad guy. How do you make sense of his life? He’s not either all good or all bad. Having the psychiatrist in the series work with him on his problems develops our sympathy for him.
    Where does Tony find meaning in his life? Where do we find meaning in our lives—especially when some of the things we do are wrong?

    DAVID: If you can find spiritual wisdom in almost every TV series you watch, Diane—even tough shows like “Deadwood” and “Sopranos” and “The Wire”—is there anything that you would say is objectionable in TV dramas? Anything just too troubling to watch?
    DIANE: There are a lot of shows I stop watching because I find them reprehensible. There’s the “Law and Order” show that depends on assaulting and killing or mutilating women over and over again in the series.
    DAVID: You’re talking about “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Yes, I love the original series, but I find the “SVU” spinoff tough to watch. I’ve only seen a handful of “SVU” episodes.
    But I’ve got to tell you, Diane—condemning that series is likely to lose us half our audience here! Millions of viewers watch that series.
    DIANE: What I object to is that the series represents violence against women week after week in an entertainment series. These are TV shows that are in the business of making money. I don’t like that idea of that much violence against women week after week for our entertainment.

    DAVID: All in all, considering this first decade of TV dramas—the first decade of the new millennium—are you hopeful? Or worried? How do you feel about this historic first decade of dramas overall?
    DIANE: I am amazed at how many smart people are making television now. In the classes I teach on religion and television, I’ve invited writers and producers to come and talk about their shows.
    I’ll admit that, at first, I thought Hollywood people were mostly commercially minded. I thought they were mainly looking to capitalize on whatever trend was up in the country. I thought most of them were just thinking about the bottom line.
    Those things are true, but it’s also true that a lot of very smart people are truly engaged in the questions of life’s meaning—spiritual questions—and they see television as a medium for exploring them and bringing these questions to the public. The writers and producers of these series are very thoughtful about the stories they bring to us.
    DAVID: That’s great to hear. Then, overall, are you encouraged or worried about what you’re seeing in these series after a decade?
    DIANE: I think that question is one that we all should answer.
    I am encouraged about television, because it’s a space for people to find some smart, sensitive programming and then talk about these spiritual, ethical, moral issues that are so important to all of us.
    But, I worked on this book because I really want to get a lot more people talking about life’s biggest questions.


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