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TV Guide on Faith on Television

posted by Nell Minow

Craig Tomashoff’ has a thoughtful article in TV Guide about the portrayal of religion and spirituality on television. It has some surprising examples. The often-outrageous animated series “The Simpsons” was praised for using “Christian faith, religion and questions about God” as recurring themes.Ned_Flanders.jpg

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.”

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Most prime-time elevision shows are designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience and producers worry that identifying characters with a particular religious faith will be controversial, offending both those who share that faith and those who do not. The result is a pervasive cynicism on television with regard to faith and people of faith.

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.”

community.jpgThomashoff points to “Community’ as an example of inclusion and “The Middle,” “Lost,” and “The Good Wife” as shows that grapple with questions of faith in a sincere and respectful way. “Hellcats” has a Christian character whose faith leads her to decide not to have sex with her boyfriend. And Will Scheffer of the polygamous HBO drama “Big Love” says, “Faith is our main theme. All our characters will be struggling and questioning, but in a way that won’t be off-putting to viewers, whether they be atheists or true believers.” Stories — whether drama or comedy — are about conflict. When television writers and producers portray the struggles of their characters to find meaning and direction, questions of religion and spirituality provide an authenticity and connection to viewers.

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