God on TV: Don’t Skip the Issues

Hazel Lawrence 3 May 2014

In any of my top ten television show lists, The West Wing will make an appearance. It's smart, well-paced, engaging, deftly characterised and at times (rather surprisingly for a political drama set in the White House), it is hilarious. However I have often wondered whether I, like the rest of the European cohort of West Wing fans, have had a different experience of the show to our American counterparts. The reason for this is that the politics in The West Wing is almost a non-entity to me. Being totally honest I am still a little hazy which party President Bartlet’s a member of (and that seems like it should be important). When various politicians are debating about money for hospitals or foreign aid I am not concerned for America, I’m usually thinking “who are these cretins disagreeing with the lovely Josh Lyman?”. I imagine that were I emotionally or even intellectually in agreement with one party or the other, the dialogue would hold different meanings and I would certainly not enjoy the show if I disagreed with its politics altogether. Disagreement over core beliefs can sour even the best writing.

Religion on television can have the same effect. Regardless of the treatment, if the writers don’t share our beliefs, it is easy to view the writing as absurd. Either that or it simply becomes unwatchable and we switch off. A particularly prickly genre is comedy. Perhaps this is why on this side of the pond we have ended up with sit-coms set in religious communities that do not address the issue of faith at all, comedies like Rev, The Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted. They focus instead on the comedic opportunities provided by the eccentric characters surrounding the central figures. It’s like Blackadder, but with dog collars. This approach certainly sidesteps contention but it veers towards avoidance and that seems like unusual territory for comedy to me. I love those shows, but occasionally it feels like there’s a big religious elephant in the room.

The polite rule for dinner parties (in case you needed one) is ‘no religion or politics’. Translated to TV comedy it seems abundantly clear that religion’s controversial cousin, politics, is dealt with by facing its absurdity head on. Yes Minister, Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week, Spitting Image, The Thick of It, Veep, need I go on? But it’s not just politics that’s a little weird, life itself is absurd, and religion or non-religion is attempting to make sense of the madness. Obviously en route to meaning are a lot of wrong paths, badly judged attempts and just plain face plants falls. Can the same creatures who make bogeys and diarrhoea really co-exist in a community, whatever it is, where the standards are nothing short of moral perfection? Surely that’s comedic material.

One of my favourite moments in the aforementioned Father Ted is when the writers break their silence on religious behaviour. Ted gets into a moral dilemma when seducer milkman, Pat Mustard, moves into town. After discovering that there are lots of new (hairy) babies in the area since Mustard started ‘doing rounds’, Ted warns Pat to be careful, and is challenged on whether he is recommending artificial contraception. Ted responds like the true man of God he is “Yes, I… well… if you're going to be… of course you will… JUST FECK OFF!” Its funny because when you’re backed into an intellectual corner and you respond like a child you look ridiculous. Explaining your beliefs to anyone can be tricky, and sometimes you just say some plain stupid things. Its observational comedy and as such it the self-recognition gives rise to that heartwarming feeling of realising you’re not alone in your failed attempts to navigate life successfully. Sometimes, Ted’s response seems a little too close to my internal monologue when I’m challenged on my arguments in supervisions, and being able to exchange the situation for another often means its a shared human experience. Bold, honest, and mature portraits are the best way to look at religion in comedy and by far the funniest.

That is why I love South Park.

I will admit that South Park does not always treat religion objectively, particularly if you are a Mormon or Tom Cruise, but one episode ‘Red Hot Catholic Love’ boldly rushes in where comedy angels fear to tread and overwhelmingly succeeds. It manoeuvres through legalism, abuse of authority, the purpose of religion, the place of faith in communities, and health advice based on “absolutely nothing”. It probably stands as one of the greatest examples of addressing controversial issues with comedy and getting to some serious conclusions. In one plot line the local priest investigates the loss of faith instigated by the child molestation in the Catholic church and in the other Cartman starts a new health craze where people defecate out their mouth. At the end, in true South Park manner, plot lines collide, and humanity’s theological quest for meaning brilliantly merges with toilet humour. Maxi the priest looks at the South Park inhabitants and concludes some of the deepest comedic words ever to grace the small screen, “when they have no mythology to live their lives by, they just start spewing a bunch of crap out of their mouths”.