Idol Chatter

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.

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