Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Crazy Christians"

After watching the first episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," I think that the critics who have proclaimed it the best new show of the season may not be far off the mark. It has an interesting premise (the goings-on behind a semi-fictional "Saturday Night Live" type of show), excellent writing, and great acting.

But from a theological standpoint, it also offers promise. Not the promise of "Touched by an Angel" type preaching, but the promise of provocative, nuanced, and challenging exploration of the role of religion in American (and Hollywood) culture. The pilot episode revolves around a censor's decision to forbid the airing of a skit on the late night variety show. The title of the skit? "Crazy Christians."

Matthew Perry plays the newly re-hired headwriter who penned the controversial skit. His comments throughout the show reveal him to be fairly antagonistic towards Christians as a rule. What saves this from becoming another example of Hollywood's irreligion is the revelation that his ex-girlfriend, who also happens to be the star of the show, is a devout Christian. That she was in favor of airing the skit shows that this will not be a simple pro-Christian/anti-Christian debate. Rather the interplay between these two characters will no doubt provide many intriguing layers to explore. As Linda Richman might say, "Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic. Christians are neither crazy nor sane. Discuss."

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Fall TV Season

There are three new shows on television this Fall that I am excited about watching:

1. Heroes: In what seems like a take-off on "The X-Men", a handful of individuals around the world suddenly manifest superhero-like powers. The question of course is: whatever will they do with them? Plus, the very idea of a high school cheerleader who becomes indestructible is pure genius.

2. Jericho: A small Kansas town is cut off from the rest of the world when America is attacked with nuclear weapons. Are they the only survivors left, we are meant to wonder? It is a blatant attempt to do Lost in small town America, but should be interesting nonetheless.

3. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: I've always been a fan of "Saturday Night Live" and this attempt to do a series showing what takes place behind the scenes of a show like that sounds fun. Plus, it comes from the mind of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) so it should be thoughtful as well as entertaining.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

#1 "Once More, With Feeling" -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001)

It probably comes as no surprise that my number one favorite television episode comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor should this particular episode be a surprise to those who are Buffy fans as it tops many best of lists.

To get straight to the point: "Once More, With Feeling" is a musical episode. Now I must admit that when I heard the show was doing a musical episode, I was skeptical that they would be able to pull it off. Adding to my skepticism was the report that Buffy mastermind, Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode had no distinctive musical training and had never written songs before. Nevertheless, he wrote all of the songs for the episode and made all of the cast members do their own singing. The stage was set for abysmal failure.

But then when I watched it for the first time, I was stunned. In my biased opinion, it was the best single hour of scripted television I had ever seen. Now a musical episode might seem like a gimmick to attract ratings, but this was nothing of the sort. It made perfect sense within the overall arc of the narrative and actually tied up many story lines while creating new ones.

The gist of the story is this: a musical demon comes to Sunnydale and causes its citizens to spontaneously break out in song - typically in elaborately choreographed numbers. The trick is that when people sing, they sing the truth of their feelings. Thus, many hidden secrets get revealed and genuine emotions are laid bare.

"Once More, With Feeling" is a good partner to "Hush", my number three listing. Both deal with communication. In "Hush" people communicate best through silence and nonverbal means; in "Once More, With Feeling" we see how emotions are often most truthfully conveyed in song.

Now admittedly, one of the things that makes this episode so powerful is the way it deals with the characters on the show and propels certain long-running plot points. Consequently, one who is not a regular viewer of the show may find its impact to be less. But given the general demise of the musical in our culture today, "Once More, With Feeling" resurrects the genre with distinction.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

#2 "Cross Examination" -- Picket Fences (1993)

Anyone who thinks that all television is mindless, dumbed-down entertainment hasn't been paying attention lately. And I'm not just talking about shows that are all the rage today like Lost and 24. Smart television has been around for awhile. The early 90's gave us a good example in Picket Fences, a show that was not only smart itself but gave viewers a serious mental workout each week.

"Cross Examination" is a Christmas episode. But the first hint that this is no traditional holly and eggnog approach comes in the opening scene where the camera follows the path of snowball sailing through the night sky, as nearby carolers sing "Away in a Manger," until it hits a statue of Jesus square in the head.

At issue in "Cross Examination" is the nature of faith. There is so much going on this episode that a little summary is required. Jimmy Brock, sheriff of Rome, Wisconsin and father of the aforesaid snowball thrower, pulls a car out of an icy lake. Inside is a young woman, who is soon declared dead. As the coroner later prepares to begin the autopsy, she revives. Is this a genuine miracle? For many shows, that question alone would be enough to sustain an hour. But we have barely begun. The young woman, Dana Marshall, is in a coma and her doctor, Jill Brock, wife of Jimmy, announces that she is four months pregnant. How can this be, the coroner objects, since his initial examination of the body revealed her to be a virgin?

The townspeople, no mental slouches themselves, quickly make the connection between Christmas and a pregnant virgin. Are we about to witness the birth of a messiah? A second coming of the Christ? The reactions of various townspeople to this event present a study in the contours of faith. The town clergy try to stay out of the fray -- on the one hand not wanting to shut the door on the possible birth of the messiah, but on the other fearful of looking foolish should it turn out to be a hoax. Science and religion clash in the persons of Carter Pike, the coroner, who discounts any possibility of the miraculous and determines Dana Marshall was delusional and concocted a way to impregnate herself and Dana's gynecologist, a religious man, who chalks it up to a miracle. More interestingly, science and faith are engaged in a battle within the mind of Jill Brock herself. As a doctor and a scientist, she is reluctant to accept a miraculous explanation, but as a person sensitive to religion, she does not wish to discount it either.

Jill seeks advice from her husband, asking him "Do we believe in God?" (interesting use of the plural). He assures her the answer is yes, but then confesses he does not really know what that means. He wants there to be a God, but is not sure he wants to be in the same room with him. Further complicating matters is that the Brock's oldest son, the snowball thrower, decides that this is the time to tell their youngest son that Santa Claus does not exist. The parallel is obvious as the show juxtaposes the question of Santa's existence with that of God, essentially questioning the extent to which faith in one differs from faith in the other.

Further complicating things, as though that were necessary, Dana Marshall contracts pneumonia in her coma and so the pregnancy endangers her life. Her father asks for an abortion to save his daughter's life. The clergy, finally deciding to make their presence known, seek to stop it. Thus we move to the courtroom. On the stand, Jill Brock testifies that she cannot believe the pregnancy to be of miraculous origin; yet when cross examined and asked if she believes Mary had been a virgin when she conceived Christ, she confesses "yes" (but appears visually embarrased to do so).

The judge, Henry Bone, must make a difficult decision: does he abort a child to save the mother and in so doing possibly kill the child of God? Before announcing his decision, Henry Bone enters a church to pray. But alas, we never get to hear the verdict. After all, it doesn't matter what the show tells us to think, but what we ourselves think.

As it turns out, Dana's gynecologist had artificially inseminated her without her knowledge. When asked why, the religious doctor said he wanted to give hope to people all over the world. This raises another question about the nature of faith: is a false hope better than no hope at all?

The episode leaves us with a hint that the world is a mysterious place and that the arrogance of science is best tempered by the humility of faith. Dr. Jill Brock informs Dana's father that there is virtually no hope of her coming out of the coma and it is best to let her die in peace. At that moment, however, Dana cries out and revives. Later, Jill tells her husband, as though trying to convince herself, that such occurrences, as rare as they are, do sometimes happen. Yet, we the viewers, are left to wonder if the citizens of Rome, Wisconsin received their miracle after all.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

#3 "Hush" -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1999)

As the story goes, Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was supposedly annoyed at critics who attributed the success of his show to the clever and witty dialogue between the characters. In order to prove that his show was much more than just scintillating conversation, he wrote and directed a "silent" episode, largely absent of any dialogue. And so "Hush" was born -- one of the most frightening and well-crafted episodes in the Buffy catalogue. He proved the critics wrong and garnered two Emmy nominations to boot ("Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series" and "Oustanding Cinematography").

"Hush" is a modern fairy tale. Several fairy tale monsters known as The Gentlemen come to Sunnydale in order to steal seven hearts. Before doing so, they steal the voices of everyone in town. Thus a hush falls over Sunndyale. The episode opens with a creepy dream of Buffy's in which a little girl pleasantly sings a chilling rhyme:

Can't even shout
Can't even cry
The Gentlemen are coming by
Looking in windows
Knocking on doors
They need to take seven
And they might take yours
Can't call to Mom
Can't say a word
You're gonna die screaming but you won't be heard

As a fairytale, Buffy of course fulfills the role of the princess who defeats The Gentlemen and saves the town. But what this episode is really about is communication. In the early part of the episode, while everyone can still talk, we see characters miscommunicating with each other right and left. Sometimes it is due to innocent word choices; other times deliberate deception. Some miscommunicate as a defense mechanism, afraid of revealing their true feelings. The point is that we often use words, ironically, to avoid communicating with one another. We use language to misdirect and conceal the truth.

But when the characters' voices are taken, suddently they have to learn to communicate in a new way. Whedon has said that "Hush" is about how when you stop talking, you start communicating. Without words to hide behind, the characters reveal their true feelings and motivations. They are able to be honest in a way they avoided before.

Newly dating couple, Buffy and Riley, have both been keeping secrets from each other, concealing them with words. Yet in the silence, both of those secrets come to light. The episode ends with Riley coming to Buffy's dorm room (Stevenson Hall, by the way!). As they sit on the bed, their voices now restored, Riley says, "I guess we need to talk." Buffy replies, "I guess we do." Then the camera holds on them for what seems like an eternity as they sit in silence. Communication was much easier when words didn't get in the way.

This episode is a masterful creation because of the challenge of making a silent episode interesting and captivating in our current cultural climate. Whedon employs a variety of devices and crafts such a compelling story that watching characters interact in silence is engaging rather than boring. I could have more to say but as "Hush" demonstrates, sometimes it's better to stop talking.

Friday, September 01, 2006

#4 "Abyssinia, Henry" -- MASH (1975)

MASH was a series capable of reaching great heights of inspired jocularity and goofiness. That such humor was set against the backdrop of the Korean War made for a curious juxtaposition. In the early years of the show, the humor tended to dominate through the antics of Hawkeye, Trapper John, Hot Lips Houlihan, Major Frank Burns, among others. Colonel Henry Blake was the leader of this motley crew, a mild-mannered and gentle man who ruled the compound by the sincerity of his spirit as opposed to an iron fist.

In "Abyssinia, Henry," Henry Blake receives his orders to return home to the United States. His tour of duty is over. He and the camp rejoice, and we viewers rejoiced with him. If any of them deserved to make it home to their families, it was Henry Blake. The episode concludes with the MASH team in the operating room, joking and conversing as they set about their grim duty. Then Radar O'Reilly appears in the doorway and announces that Colonel Henry Blake's plane was shot down and there were no survivors. After a brief pause, the surgeons and nurses, this time in silence, return to their work. The business of death goes on, you see.

As a nine year old kid in 1975, I tuned into MASH each week for the humor. This episode was the first television episode I ever saw that stayed with me awhile. It was a pointed reminder of the reality of war. This episode set the stage for the remaining years of MASH, which increasingly incorporated the serious into the silly. As a series, it illustrates how life is a tenuous balance of light and dark, joy and grief, life and death,

#5 "The 23rd Psalm" -- Lost (2006)

"The 23rd Psalm" gives us the background to one of Lost's most enigmatic characters, Eko. Having come off of a 40 day vow of silence, Eko and Charlie make a trek into the jungle to find a downed plane. In flashbacks we learn that Eko, as a child, killed a man and allowed himself to be kidnapped by Nigerian drug dealers in order to spare his brother the same fate. Thus two very different paths emerge: Eko's brother, having received grace, grows up to become a priest, while Eko grows up to become a ruthless and murderous drug dealer.

Drug Dealer: It is true what they say about you,
Eko: And what is that?
Drug Dealer: That you have no soul.

These words are spoken shortly before Eko kills the man. Such scenes add a whole new level of gravity to the giant stick that Eko carries around with him on the island.

But the Eko on the island is a different man indeed. He carves Scripture onto that giant stick. When he gives advice to others, he draws it from biblical stories. "The 23rd Psalm" reveals to us how such a life-altering change could occur in such a despicable individual.

The Eko who as a child sacrificed himself to save his brother a life of misery later learns what it means to receive grace when his brother, to whom Eko had just done a horrible thing, gives his life to save Eko's. For reasons too convoluted to explain, Eko's brother's body ends up in the plane that crashed on the island and Charlie and Eko find it. Before they do, however, Eko has an encounter with the "monster" of the island -- an amorphous column of black smoke in which images flash before Eko. The final image shown to him in the smoke is that of Jesus on the cross. That image of forgiveness and grace through sacrifice now governs Eko's new life. On the island, he is reborn. After he and Charlie find the plane, Eko removes the cross necklace from his brother's corpse and puts it around his own. Charlie, who has been trying to decipher the mystery that is Eko, asks, "So, are you a priest or aren't you?" Eko replies: "Yes,I am" and then proceeds to recite the 23rd Psalm.

It is a rare show that can take well-worn religious themes like redemption, forgiveness, and sacrifice and bring them to life in a new way.