Faith, Media & Culture

Sorry for the unscheduled hiatus.  Another writing gig required some extra attention. But, I’m glad to be back and here are today’s dispatches from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

1. Memo to Hollywood: Don’t insult your customers. From The Hollywood Reporter: Wanna make money in Hollywood? Release patriotic movies that promote conservative values and do not denigrate Christianity. For two decades, that has been the message that Movieguide has been pushing, and on Friday when it celebrates its 20-year-anniversary with an awards show airing on The Hallmark Channel, the organization will present a 76-page report designed to back up its assertions…The report praises such 2011 releases as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Battle Los Angeles, Moneyball, We Bought a Zoo and Hugo while heaping scorn on the likes of Super 8, Red State, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bad Teacher and Happy Feet Two.

Comment: I think the group makes a compelling case — but, at least positive and faith-based film makers are making inroads at the theaters and in DVD where product really rises or falls based on how well it actually connects with the public. As a result, we are seeing an increase the production and distribution of such movies.

I, for one, would like to see a similar cultural shift take place on television — where demographics and a cable system that brings networks and programming into your home whether you want them or not (while relegating traditionally-themed channels like Hallmark to the outer limits of the dial) have so skewed things in favor of the so-called “edgy” that distributors (which is where the real power lies) are shielded from actual market forces.  Demographics, for instance, are manipulated in a way that declares little-watched shows (with the right politics and “attitudes”) to be hits while higher-rated shows are deemed to be not reaching the right audience. The idea that one sliver of the audience can be declared more important than another is kind of creepy to start with but it’s a useful tool for those whose agenda may not involve actually pleasing a large audience. Through the use demographics,  elitist 1-percenters can get richer while still  subtly (and, increasingly, not-so-subtly) bashing free-market capitalism  and traditional values.

A network-by-network breakdown of current pilot orders for next season, I think, illustrates my point.

ABC: The network of GCB (aka Good Christian Bitches) and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (yes, the B stands for Bitch) has ordered up a pilot called 666 Park Avenue, which is apparently about a devil-possessed building in New York City. Meanwhile The Futon Critic reports that a pilot order has gone out for a show called Antichrist which is described as a “drama about a young astrophysics student who learns his destiny lies not in science but somewhere between heaven and hell.”  Whatever that means.  So, while the network’s tone this year involved the excessive deployment of the crass and demeaning-to-woman “B” word in series titles, it seems next year could bring a pair of shows that would seem to have decidedly dark religious themes. I, personally, would prefer shows that actually focus on God and not the devil.

Meanwhile, Zero Hour, another drama in development at the Alphabet Network is described by The Futon Critic describes  as being about “a skeptical everyman who gets swept up in one of history’s greatest conspiracies: a spectacular mystery surrounding the Twelve Apostles.”  Who knows where this one is going but you can hardly help but suspect that, if picked up,  it will probably be, let’s say, “controversial.”

CBS: The network that one season ago brought us Captain Kirk in the Twitter feed-based sitcom Sh*! My Dad Says, according to The Futon Critic, has a pilot order out for romantic comedy comedy called Oh F—, It’s You (and, yes, the F stands for what you think it does). For the record, it’s reportedly about “a notorious womanizer who, after surviving a health scare, realizes that ‘the one’ is his ex-turned-gal pal/business partner who’s already engaged to a nice guy.” While the concept sounds pretty old school, somebody at the network apparently feels the reference to a coarsening word makes it sing.  That the “F” word in the title is apparently a turn-on and not a turn-off to network executives is unfortunate and not, I think, reflective of mainstream audiences.

NBC: The network’s comedies include a Roseanne Barr vehicle called about a trailer park community downbeatingly-called Downwardly Mobile. The name strikes me as a vague put-down of people who actually live in trailer parks. “Trailer trash,” unfortunately, remains a politically-correct pejorative. If the show actually presents its characters with dignity it could be better than its condescending title suggests.

Friday Night Dinner, meanwhile, is an adaptation of a British sitcom about a Jewish family that gathers for weekly Shabbat meals. Depending on the tone, this could actually be good. I hope the Jewish faith is presented with respect.

Meanwhile, traditionalists probably won’t be happy with the sitcom The New Normal which The Hollywood Reporter describes as about “a gay couple and the woman who becomes a surrogate for them as they grow their family.”  My advice is don’t get upset by this one. Christians, I think make a mistake when we go off on anti-gay tirades (like the, in my view, bigoted attempt to get JC Penney to fire Ellen DeGeneres as it spokesperson). Christians should not be anti anybody. Specifically, when it comes to television, our focus should remain on pushing for uplifting programming that supports (and, at least doesn’t demean) traditional faith, as well encouraging shows that uphold the positive values of love, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance and personal responsibility.

BTW, that doesn’t mean everyone has to endorse homosexuality as a healthy lifestyle. People, for example, can personally oppose cigarette smoking without hating smokers. Though, to be honest, even as a non-smoker I find some of the vitriol directed against smokers to be over the top. Just as not everyone finds Catholicism (my particular religion) to be psychologically healthy, they can hold their opinion without hating me.  What we all owe each other is not necessarily agreement but the basic tolerance and respect that we desire for ourselves. That’s the Golden Rule. But I digress.

Save Me, another NBC potential sitcom, stars Anne Heche as a woman “who lets herself go in a broken marriage (and who) transforms into a version of herself and creates miracles along the way.” There would seem to be some faith elements at play here but it’s hard to tell the tone the show will actually take.

NBC’s potential dramas include the potentially-exploitive Bad Girls (about life in a women’s prison) and Chicago Fire which will, hopefully, give firefighters the heroic treatment they deserve.  County, meanwhile, is a gritty hospital drama about the moral comprises that occur at an LA medical facility. While I wouldn’t write this one off, I hope it also finds an NYPD Blue-esque balance between grit and actual idealism.

Other NBC prospects include The Frontier (about American explorers of the 1840’s), Mockingbird Lane (a re-imagining of the 196o’s sitcom The Munsters that seems to draw its inspiration from HBO’s dark vampire drama True Blood) and J.J. Abrams’ Revolution (about a future world where all forms of energy mysteriously cease to exist).  Depending on their tones, The Frontier and Revolution hold promise.

FOX: It’s hard to believe that the conservative Fox News Channel and the hyper-edgy broadcast home of shows like The Family Guy share the same parent corporation. That said, the broadcast network’s programming has gone a little more mainstream in recent years.

From the pilot descriptions, the most obviously questionable show on its roster is a thus far-unnamed Kevin Bacon vehicle about a serial killer who uses technology to create a cult of serial killers. It’s unclear to me whether Bacon is playing the killer or the FBI agent pursuing him.  In any event, I am very tired of the whole serial killer series genre. To me, that fact that Showtime’s multiple murderer-as-hero drama Dexter ever got greenlighted is evidence of exactly of how far away from idealism television has actually strayed.  And I applaud Mandy Patinkin’s courageous decision a few seasons back to leave the lurid crime drama Criminal Minds.

When it comes to crime dramas, I’ll take shows like Columbo, The Rockford Files, Kojak and NYPD Blue any day over shows that wallow in violence to the point of, in some cases, even making protagonists out of killers. There’s enough injustice in the world as it is.  I think I’m fairly typical of the general public in wanting to come home after a hard day’s work and enjoy an hour watching good guys catch bad guys.

The CW: To my point above, the merged descendant of The WB and UPN has a pilot called Cult.  The Hollywood Reporter description reads “An inquisitive, young female production assistant on a wildly popular television show joins a journalist blogger in investigating the show’s rabid fans. Together, the duo finds the fans might be recreating crime scenes from the show in their real lives — behavior that has lead to a rash of disappearances and a likely murder.”  They’re building an entire series around this?

Cable: Lifetime is considering a series based on its TV movie Sworn to Silence that stars Neve Campbell (Party of Five) as a police chief whose jurisdiction includes an Ohio Amish community.  It sound like it has potential. Meanwhile, still in the script stage (not yet ordered to pilot) an untitled drama from Martha Williamson (Touched by an Angel) about a hospital chaplain. If Lifetime fails to pick it up, I’d advise one the broadcast networks to take a look at it. It could be a huge hit. That’s, of course, if they’re actually interested in a faith-based hit that actually connects with the mainstream audience.

Finally, TNT seems to be taking a cue from box office results with many of its pilots appearing to have genuine mainstream appeal. They include Gateway (an Gunsmoke-meets-Bonanza TV western about three lawman brothers) and Scent of the Missing (about a canine search-and-rescue team).  Both shows harken back to the days when TV series featured heroes audiences actually rooted for.

Still awaiting a TNT pilot order is the untitled Mitch Albom drama about a man who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Detroit to manage a radio and try to breathe new life into his struggling city. Albom, of course, is the author of such bestselling inspirational books as Tuesdays with Morrie and Five People You Meet in Heaven, both of which were turned into successful TV movies.  The It’s a Wonderful Life-like premise suggests a potential sleeper hit.

Oh, why won’t someone let me run their network?!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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