Idol Chatter

This is a story of gratitude, and that’s why I am excited about “Little Children.” Not that the story has anything to do with gratitude; it’s a hilarious, biting social satire about suburban boredom and grown men and women acting as much like the title’s “little children” as their offspring do. The novel, by Tom Perrotta, is wonderful, and the movie is getting amazing reviews. But that’s only part of why I am excited about it.

No, the gratitude in question here is more personal: Tom Perrotta was my college writing teacher, and it’s no exaggeration to say he is the reason I’ve chosen the career I have. He was that teacher for me, the one I will always remember, the one who inspired me and pushed me and made a difference. Though he is a novelist and I opted to go the nonfiction route, he remains my greatest professional influence. He taught me to write, and more important, he gave me confidence in my writing, without which my life would have looked vastly different: I would likely have followed the pack to law school, ending up much better paid (um, thanks a lot, Tom), but far emptier inside, where it really counts. Come to think of it, I could’ve ended up not unlike the desperate characters of “Little Children.” But I digress…

What was remarkable about Tom is how patently clear it was that he didn’t want to be where he was, teaching college writing courses: He just wanted to write, but as he waited and waited for his writing to proffer a paycheck, he did what so many others have done, taking thankless adjunct-type positions to pay the bills–not that they really even did that. Despite that, though, he never showed the least bit of bitterness or resentment, and managed to have a profound influence on his students, even as he strived to succeed in the literary world and say good-bye to grading papers. He stuck to his dream, refusing to give up, believing in himself, even as he and his wife started a family and he hit his mid-30s. In other words, long past when a lesser person, and a lesser writer, would have given up and gone to Wall Street (or law school). And in the end, his tenacity and sacrifice paid off, and his succession of novels has reached ever-larger audiences. It couldn’t have happened to a better person.

Though I dreamed of it, I never had the cojones to choose that sort of life of struggle and poverty for the sake of my writing. Luckily, I had good teachers, who gave me the skills to succeed as a working journalist. And that’s why I can’t wait to see “Little Children.” Thanks, Tom.

If you’re an evangelical Christian wondering about how you’re being perceived in popular culture these days, you might be planning to see “Jesus Camp.” Change your plans. Watch “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” next Monday night instead.

“Jesus Camp,” with its stark representation of Christian fundamentalists at the margins of mainstream evangelicalism, offers an intriguing but uninformed view of Bible believers in America. Aaron Sorkin’s engrossing “Studio 60” offers something far more complex. Not only does Sorkin have a bigger stage and a longer reach, but–if the first three episodes are any indication–his views on evangelicals are more comprehensive, substantial, and intelligently critical than anything in “Jesus Camp.”

In the series pilot, the narrative about the show-within-the-show is launched when a studio executive orders a skit called “Crazy Christians” to be cut so as not to offend (crazy) Christian viewers. The show’s producer responds with an on-air tirade against the neutering of culture at the hands of these conservative religious sensibilities. In come our heroes, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), and Dannie Tripp (Bradley Whitford), whose heroism lies not just in their creativity and willpower to rescue the show-within-the-show, but also in their willingness to stand up to the Christian conservatives who have scared the show into a stupor. By the third episode of “Studio 60,” our heroes have aired the offending skit, called the bluff of a Christian boycott, and been rewarded with an unprecedented gain in Nielson ratings.

Some viewers have complained that we never actually see the skit “Crazy Christians,” but really, we don’t need to. Crazy Christians are fore-grounded again and again in “Studio 60” as we learn that part of the daily grind of a television executive is putting up with the conservative Christian press (Rapture Magazine!), Christian affiliates, and Christian picketers outside the studio lot. Crazy Christians are referenced routinely in the show’s smug dialogue:

Jordan: “I wanna know how Rapture Magazine gets credentialed for an NBS press conference!”

Shelly: “You think it should be the policy of this network to exclude religious publications?”

Jordan: “We’re not talking about the Christian Science Monitor. How many whack-jobs read Rapture Magazine?”

Shelly: “It has a circulation four times the size of Vanity Fair.”

Jordan: “Are you kidding?”

Shelly: “No, I’m not.”

Jack: “I’m a little surprised myself, Shelly.”

Shelly: “You shouldn’t be.”

Jack: “The rapture is what I think it is, right? The world comes to an end, believers go up in a spaceship?

Jordan: “It’s not a spaceship; it’s Jesus Christ.”

Dialogue like this is a Crazy Christians skit. Again and again in “Studio 60,” we’re reminded that crazy Christians are a part–an annoying and unavoidable part–of American life.

But “Studio 60” contains a giant caveat to its ongoing critique of evangelicals: Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), the evangelical Christian star of the show-within-the-show. She’s hip, she’s hot, and she’s hilarious. She’s a credible, likable character, and she’s a Christian. When, on last week’s show, Harriet argued to Matt that a particular joke should be taken off the air so as not to offend the small town that was the joke’s butt, I wanted to stand and cheer. That’s the kind of thing a good person–not just a good evangelical–would do. And letting an evangelical be a good person and a good character… well, it’s enough to make us think that Sorkin might have talked to a Christian or two rather than just read about them in the newspaper.

More importantly, Harriet is an accurate representation of a fact rarely mentioned: Evangelicals aren’t just (and aren’t all) politically active home-schoolers and megachurch-goers. They are also people who live and work in every aspect of the marketplace, including (gasp!) the entertainment media. That’s right: When you’re watching “That ’70s Show,” attending a Broadway play, and listening to a favorite indie pop song, you’re often being entertained by evangelicals, unawares.

I mention this not as a triumph of evangelicalism (perish the thought), but just to note that Sorkin is making sense of the poles of religion in American life. What seems aggravatingly abnormal in some instances–crazy Christians–has an astonishingly familiar, and more congenial, face in other instances. Sorkin seems to understand that evangelicalism is more than the sum of its parts. Thus far in “Studio 60,” he’s achieving something resembling a fair representation of evangelicals: They are those boycotters, those megaphones of moral values; but they are also men and women whose personal expressions of faith are more complicated and nuanced than the big picture reveals.

The re-release of Warren Beatty’s 1981 film “Reds” has put the star in the usual rotation of magazines and TV interviews. My favorite so far is Premiere‘s wonderfully entrancing interview, in which the recollections of Beatty’s friends and co-workers are spliced into the q&a. At one point Beatty adds dimension to earlier comments that his strict Southern Baptist upbringing led, by a sort of whiplash effect, to his famously rampant pursuit of women as an adult. Asked why he lost his virginity at the late (in the interviewer’s judgment) age of 19, Beatty responds, “Principles. I was a sort of self-enforced Southern Baptist as a teenager, from about 13. My parents didn’t push me in that direction at all.” He adds, “That’s all I have to say on the subject, particularly today when there’s so much selling of religion.”

That not all Beatty has said on the topic of his childhood faith, of course. Religion, apparently, has motivated more than his sexual adventures. Last year, at a time when it was rumored he would run for California governor, the longtime Democratic political activist told graduating students at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, “As a Southern Baptist in Virginia, I was taught that good public policy was, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I was taught ‘Love one another’ was the point.”

It looks like he took this as gospel, and not only in his public life.

The third season “Lost” premiere opened with the most shocking five minutes since Desmond’s self-revelation about causing the plane crash. For the first time, viewers see the mid-air crash of Oceanic Flight 815 from the perspective of the Others. As we see the spectacular explosion of the plane, we also see how “the Other” half lives–in a strange “suburb” located in a grassy plain on the island. We also see the ringleader of the Others, Ben (a.k.a. Henry Gale), quickly bark out orders to his followers (Ethan and Goodwin) to infiltrate crash sites as plane survivors.

The fate of Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are also quickly revealed, each one waking up in a confined space suitable for test animals. Jack, of the analytical and scientific mind, is enclosed in a room with a glass wall, as if being prepped for probing beneath a microscope. Sawyer, primal and rough-around-the-edges, is enclosed in a rusty cage once used to house bears. Kate, walking the line between good and bad, is first granted a civilized shower, a meal, and a beautiful dress but is eventually locked up in another rusty cage across from Sawyer.

Viewers also learn more about Jack’s messy divorce from his wife, and see more of Jack’s descent to the bottom as he becomes unable to find the ability to save his marriage, his relationship with his dad, and his growing desperation for normalcy.

New characters are also introduced: (1)Juliet, the seemingly sympathetic, soft-spoken Mary-figure who tries to befriend Jack; and (2) a mysterious teenage boy who, originally locked up in the cage across from Sawyer, attempts to escape and is caught.

This third season will be tantalizing, as we discover more about the Others, who may or may not be past volunteers/test subjects for the Dharma Initiative, and more about the foreshadowed trials that will soon face Jack, Sawyer, and Kate. Plus, instead of seeing the ring leaders of the plane survivors manipulate each other out of self-interest, we’ll see the Others probe and manipulate them to get what they want…