Monday, April 29, 2019

Western TV Church Month Goes to the Black

Firefly ("Jaynestown," 2002)

For the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at churches and clergy on westerns (Bonanza, The Big Valley, Deadwood), and we're concluding with a program some not might think of as a western at all. They're right; Firefly, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, can quite correctly be classified as science fiction. But if you look at the themes of westerns -- lawlessness vs. civilization, independence vs community, frontier living -- Firefly's a western even though it takes place in space.

Firefly lasted only one season, from fall 2002 through spring 2003. I was among the few watching the show, but there weren’t enough of us to keep the show on the air. After the series ended, the show gained cult status -- first through DVDs and then through streaming. The fan base became large enough for Universal to invest in a feature film, Serenity, to wrap up some of the show’s unresolved plot lines.

Firefly, set sometime in the distant future, is the story of an outlaw band who take whatever work they can find (legal or otherwise) to keep their spaceship, Serenity, moving. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the captain, cast from the western mold of a tough guy with a heart of gold.

Also on the ship, though not part of the crew, is the traditional western hooker with a heart of gold, Inara (Morena Baccarin). She's a passenger who, because of her status as a very respectable "Companion," provides the entire enterprise with a degree of legitimacy. Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the ship’s pilot and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) her mechanic. Zoe (Gina Torres) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) provide the muscle for Mal’s jobs, which, in the western tradition, included a train heist and a cattle drive.

The most interesting passenger on the ship -- in the view of this blog, anyway -- is a pastor, Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass). Book doesn’t have an official capacity on Serenity, but pays his way to travel. “Shepherd” is apparently the honorific of the future, replacing “Reverend," "Pastor," or "Father" (though folks do call him "Preacher" on occasion). Captain Reynolds often claims to have no use for religion, but he seems to genuinely like and respect Shepherd Book. Actually, pretty much everyone on the ship seems to like and respect Book.

Though the episode “Jaynestown” doesn’t give Book a role central to the plot (which deals with Jayne returning to a mining planet where he has inexplicably become a folk hero), Book’s secondary plot line is great fun. The other two paying passengers on the ship, Doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau), are fugitives from the government forces which made River a human guinea pig. The experiments gave River some extraordinary abilities in addition to her own remarkable intellectual prowess but left her mentally unstable. 

In this episode, Shepherd Book agrees to watch River while Simon joins the rest of the crew on a mission on the mining planet. (“Go out, son, see the sights. I can watch your sister. I think the two of us have established a rapport. Go on. I’m a shepherd after all. I can look over a flock of one.”)

When he checks up on River, Book finds her with a pen marking up his Bible. He quietly approaches her.

Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?

River: Fixing your Bible.

Book: I, um… What?

River: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics, doesn’t make sense. (She continues to mark things up and rip out pages.)

Book: No, no, you, you, you can’t…

River: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.

Book: Really?

River: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5,000 species of animals on the same boat.

Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.

River: It’s broken, it doesn’t make sense.

Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something. And letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.

I loved this interaction. It creatively placed an argument about the authority of Scripture in network prime time and allowed each side of the debate to make decent points in a creative way. Usually, if there's any debate about theology on television, there is a good side and a bad side, and only one side gets to come out looking good.

A little later, River is terrified when Book, after washing his hair (which is usually pulled back into a tight ponytail) looks up with his long white hair loose -- looking a little like pictures of Albert Einstein. Apparently not cutting his hair is a part of the vows of Book’s religious order. In fairness, Zoe admits to being alarmed by his hair, too.

Later in the show we see River reading the Bible. Book stops, but River says, “Keep walking Preacher Man.” Perhaps his words touched her troubled mind.

One of the things I love about the portrayal of Shepherd on this show is that he is a man of the Book, as his name implies. He is most certainly a Christian pastor in a futuristic setting. (Some creators working in science fiction imagine other, more "advanced" religions in the future. But Whedon chose to make Book a Christian.) He is a man of good humor, kindness, integrity, and strength and earns our highest rating of 4 Steeples.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Deadwood: Did they really say that back then?

Deadwood -- "Plague" (2003)
If you wanted to see the contrast between old and new television, how things have changed over the last half century, there would be no clearer division than an episode of any classic Western series -- something like NBC’s Bonanza, ABC’s The Big Valley, CBS’ Gunsmoke, and any episode of HBO’s Deadwood.

The West of the broadcast networks was a picturesque landscape on which to enact clear-cut morality plays. The West of premiere cable was a dirty, sordid place where it was never quite clear who you should be rooting for from episode to episode. Sure there were killings (a lot of killings) on network Westerns, but not the bloody, gruesome slayings found in Deadwood (and I’m nearly positive Matt Dillon never got rid of a body by feeding it to the pigs). There’s also the nudity and the sex and the profanity… There has never been a program with as many F-Bombs, along with S-Bombs and C-Bombs, as Deadwood. Yeah, we’re not on the Ponderosa anymore.

Deadwood is about the founding of a small, lawless town in what would become the state of South Dakota. Most of the characters are based on real people such as Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) who are well known in Western lore, along with lesser known characters such as Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), who have were also part of the early days of the real community. What matters most for this blog, though, is the Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), the town preacher of the first season who is also based on a historical figure.

The pastors we've looked at so far in Westerns were one episode wonders, but the Rev. Smith is a minor figure throughout the first season. He's based on a real resident of early Deadwood, Henry Weston Smith, a Methodist minister from the East. Most people came to the Black Hills for riches from mining for gold, or riches earned from gold miners. Smith came to save souls. He was the first minister of any denomination to serve in the Black Hills. Previously he had served as a doctor for the Massachusetts 52th Infantry in the Civil War.

In 1876, Smith moved to Deadwood and began street preaching, working odd jobs to make his way. He seems to have been a respected member of the community, though he died that same year. There is controversy about how he died -- according to an account by Seth Bullock, Smith “was killed by Indians," but there were rumors that he was killed by thieves and other rumors that he was killed by owners of the casinos or saloons or brothels who may have feared Smith’s preaching would hurt business. In HBO's Deadwood, he's killed in a very different way for very different reasons.

On the program, most seem to regard the Reverend H.W. Smith as a nuisance, though he does serve an important function in the community. After the death of Wild Bill Hickock (and if you want to complain about spoilers, you really should read more history), Smith pesters Bullock and Seth’s partner Sol Starr (John Hawkes) about what hymn and Scriptures he should use for the funeral service. He finally decides on “How Firm a Foundation” and I Corinthians 12.

The show’s creator, David Milch, has admitted that he considered that passage from the Bible central to the theme of the series itself. In that Scripture, Paul wrote to the Church about the Body of Christ to remind them that every person has an important role to play. Milch believed that the miners, shop keepers, and innkeepers had a role to play in Deadwood, but the town was also shaped by the prostitutes, gamblers, and gunmen.

The Rev. Smith of the show is suffering from some kind of brain tumor -- he’s dying. In the "Plague" episode, Smith is called to join the leaders of the town facing an outbreak of smallpox. Swearengen, a saloon keeper, takes charge, asking business leaders to contribute funds to get a vaccine from a neighboring town. He tells the newspaper publisher, A. W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) to publish an issue to quiet any panic. The Rev. Smith says that he’ll quell any apocalyptic fears and try to prevent sufferers from being stigmatized.

At the end of the meeting, the Reverend has a seizure and passes out. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) takes care of the pastor. Smith describes seizures he’s had in the past (“I smelt a peculiar smell, as if something was burning.”) But the doctor gives the reverend clearance to help care for patients in the quarantine tent. The Doc asks, “Are you sure you’re up for this?” and the Rev responds, “Oh yes, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

I won’t tell the end of the Reverend’s story on the show, because that isn’t historical and would involve spoilers. But throughout the show he is presented as one of the few truly good people in town, putting the needs of others before his own. Therefore, I’m giving the Reverend H.W. Smith our highest TV Churches rating of 4 Steeples.

Two bonus bits of business about Deadwood. In 2016, Mindy and I were able to visit the town of Deadwood and see a monument to the real Reverend Smith. And this year, 2019, HBO will release a new Deadwood movie, which might tie up some plot lines that were abruptly left hanging when the show was canceled after three seasons in 2006. Sadly, unless they add a supernatural element, I don’t see the Reverend Smith making an appearance.)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Big Valley: Brother Love

The Big Valley: "Brother Love" (1967)
Back in the 1950s and '60s when Westerns ruled American TV, preachers occasionally showed up as heroes (as we saw in last week’s Bonanza episode). At times, a different kind of clergy would cameo -- the Elmer Gantry model. You might wonder how, back in the day of TV censors, shows could get away with portraying a clergyman as a confidence man, but they found ways to make it work. They didn’t get too specific about doctrine, and they always found a way to redeem the bad preacher.

At least that's how things worked out in this 1967 episode of The Big Valley, which featured Robert Goulet in the title role of "Brother Love."  

The Big Valley certainly had similarities to Bonanza, but instead of a father living with his three sons on a large family ranch in Nevada, it was about a mother living with her four sons (and a daughter) on a large family ranch in California.

In this episode, Heath (Lee Majors) Barkley and his (half) sister Audra (Linda Evans) visit town (Stockton, CA) and see what Heath calls a “sky pilot. He remarks, “They come out every spring.” 

Brother Love is playing an organ on a wagon in the middle of the street, singing a song about “Brotherly love, neighborly love” (but strangely not about God’s love).

As Brother Love speaks, two men, one on crutches, approach him. The “lame” man introduces his “deaf and mute” brother. They ask Brother Love if he can heal them, and Love says he’ll do what he can at his outdoor revival meeting the next night at 7:30. He says they may be healed if supported by the prayers of the good people in town.

Brother Love then makes a stop at the local saloon, where Heath happens to be having a drink. Love looks around in disgust and loudly proclaims, “So, this is Satan’s saloon, Lucifer’s lair, Beelzebub's banquet hall…” (Love seems to believe alliteration confers moral authority.) He proceeds to dump the drinks of men at the bar. Heath advises him not to mess with his drink, and surprisingly, Love complies. Love heaps scorn on the women working in the bar as scarlet Jezebels, then, with this winning approach, invites all in the bar to attend his revival meeting the following evening.

In a move of astounding tactical sloppiness, Brother Love meets the men who asked for healing in an alleyway in Stockton. The audience can see that Love is a con man, as his compatriots ask what took him so long to get to town. (“I needed to console one of my converts. She turned out to be as soft as a mouse’s ear.”) They discuss how much money they can make off the town, and Love says that to make the big bucks, he’ll have to win over the rich family in town, the Barkleys. He reveals his plan to woo Audra Barkley.

Love sets his plan in action as Audra drives her carriage to visit a local orphanage. Hidden in the woods, Love uses a rifle to shoot at the feet of the carriage horses. When the horses run wild, Love “rescues” Audra. He then accompanies her on a picnic with a couple of the orphanage children. Audra accepts his offer to attend the revival meeting.

There are a few dozen people at the torch lit meeting. There is a sign for the “Revival Under the Stars”. Love has a rather good opening to his sermon. He asks people to pick up rocks, then he admits he’s a sinner. He challenges people to throw the first stone if they are without sin. When no one does, he says, “Now that we know where we all stand.” The sermon goes downhill from there as he launches into hellfire and brimstone. 

I believe preaching about hell has its place. Jesus preached about hell. But Brother Love preaches about hell without drawing upon Scripture. He even at one points goes on about the River Styx, which comes from Greek mythology (as well as being an awesome ‘70’s band.) And he doesn’t present the Gospel hope that comes through Christ. He never so much as mentions Jesus throughout the whole episode.

The big climax of the meeting comes when the “lame” man, Mace (Gavin McLeod), comes forward to be healed. Love says he’ll heal the “deaf and dumb” man, Fludd (Strother Martin), the next night (“I’ll heal him or sell my soul to the devil.”)

But the next day Heath goes to Brother Love’s campsite and finds the two shills. He tricks Fludd into revealing he is faking his affliction, then goes back home to tell Audra.

Audra goes by herself to confront Love, but she finds the henchmen. Mace shoots her, grazing her head and she passes out.

Love returns to camp and is upset to find Audra injured. He drives his men off. Audra awakens, but she says she can’t see anything. This upsets Love greatly, so he prays, “It’s time we had a heart to heart talk. I’m not asking for me, but for her… I’ve got a thousand dollars. It’s all I have in the world, but you can have it.” (I’m sure He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills is thrilled.) He promises to serve God, if God heals Audra. Audra awakens and can see.

A “reformed” Brother Love is forgiven by local law enforcement and promises to return later and build a church in Stockton, starting a new work. Of course, Brother Love never appears on the show again.
So what steeple rating should we give to Brother Love? Obviously, preaching as a confidence man, brazenly making empty promises of healing to a widow with a blind child, he would earn our lowest rating of one steeple out of four. But we aren’t too thrilled with the reformed Brother Love at the end of the episode either. There is a reason Paul (in I Timothy 3) puts forth qualifications for a church leader as someone of good character. 

Do we really think that this one incident of the “miraculous” healing of Audra will cure Love’s greed and lust? I think he’ll continue to struggle with these things -- and standing in front of an adoring congregation is not the best place to work out these issues.

So we’ll stick with that One Steeple rating.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Back in the Day of the Special Guest Star: Bonanza

Though Bonanza was often the #1 show on television during its 14-year run (1959 - 1974), I probably need to introduce the show to many readers. When the show began, Westerns dominated television and the show lasted into the era when detectives dominated. It was one of the first color shows on television and featured beautiful location scenery filmed at Lake Tahoe (along with very obvious studio filming).

The show is the story of a father, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), whose ranch, the Ponderosa, is on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. His three grown sons; Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon) run the ranch with him. Every week members of the family face a different adventure, usually combined with a moral dilemma.

As you watch the "Mighty is the Word" episode, you can’t help noticing how television has changed through the decades. This episode's former gunslinger turned pastor made me think about the way TV used to feature “special guest stars.” While modern shows tend to have recognized actors added as new characters somehow related to the central cast, old shows often had one-shot featured guests -- actors who sometimes appeared again and again on the same show as different characters.

On this particular episode, guest star Glenn Corbett plays the Rev. Paul Watson, a former gunslinger who entered the ministry. Watson talks about how the Cartwrights have been his biggest supporters, providing financial and moral support -- though Watson is never mentioned or seen in any other episode of the program. 

Even odder, Paul’s wife, Sue (played by Susan Randall), is said to be the daughter of the foreman of the Ponderosa. Little Joe says that as he and Sue grew up together, they were like brother and sister. And yet she also never appeared on the show before and never appears again. In a modern show, such characters would probably continue to be at least mentioned in the continuity, but not in the old world of television.

We first see the Rev. Paul in a Virginia City bar, arm wrestling all comers. He's betting contenders to earn money to build a church. Little Joe and Hoss come in the bar and find him winning match after match, but the preacher declares, “I never bet more than a dollar.” We later learn from Paul’s wife, Sue, that the Reverend has been spending more time at the bar than at the church. (As someone who wrote a book about hanging out in churches and bars, I appreciate this philosophy of ministry.)

Another person in the bar doesn’t see the preacher, though. Cliff, one of the Cartwrights' hired hands is introduced to the Rev. Paul and says “There’s a gunfighter by that name.” Paul admits he is one and the same, a former gunfighter. 

Cliff says, “The next time you see me, have that collar off, and a gun on.” We later learn that in the Reverend’s gunfighting days, Paul killed Cliff’s twin brother.

Paul admits as much to Little Joe and Hoss, but tells them the fight was fair. He didn't murder Cliff's brother -- which settles thing for the Cartwrights. I do think that if a church search committee these days heard that a pastoral candidate had shot someone dead, it would most likely disqualify them from the position, even if it was a “fair fight.” But Paul didn’t have a search committee to deal with. 

He came on his own to Virginia City plant a church, though he did have help. We learn the Cartwrights have been supporting him financially, including promising to buy an organ for the church.

Hoss and Little Joe also work alongside Rev. Paul as he builds the church building. Paul is a good carpenter, acknowledging that he is following the example of the carpenter from Galilee. He is also a hard worker, driving the Cartwright brothers to work harder. Hoss says Paul’s hard work is so convincing, “You’ll almost get me to convert.” (Which made me wonder why Hoss was helping if he wasn’t a Christian. Is he an atheist, perhaps Jewish? Or maybe just doesn’t belong to Paul’s denomination, which is never named?) 

Paul talks about the Cartwrights as being his biggest supporter and his best friends. (Though according to IMDB and as mentioned above, the Reverend Paul never appears on the show again.) As the men work on the church, Cliff the hired hand approaches Paul and asks why he isn’t wearing his gun. Paul responds he no longer fights that way. 

Cliff slaps Paul, calls him a coward and says he will make Paul again strap on his gun. Cliff begins a campaign of harassment to force Paul to fight him. Cliff bad mouths Paul as a killer in town, tears down the frame of the new church, and tears apart the store run by Paul’s wife, Sue.
Throughout these attacks, Paul refuses LIttle Joe's encouragement to take up his gun. He says, “It’s our duty to walk in our Lord’s footsteps, who faced indignities.” But when Cliff hits Sue, Paul does take up his gun. 

He shoots Cliff in a gunfight, but purposely only with a flesh wound. He refuses to kill Cliff, though the man asks to be killed. Cliff is won over and comes to Paul as he is rebuilding the church saying, “What I’m trying to say is, I’m a pretty good carpenter. And I’d like to attend services.”
Apparently, in the Westerns of this time, every man must eventually take up a gun, because that’s what real men do, you know. And after Paul’s nonfatal gunfight with Cliff, the church prospers. I still don’t see gunfighting becoming a part of any modern church growth plan.

Still, for his admirable efforts to reach out to others for the Gospel in this pioneering community, we’re giving the Reverend Paul Watson our TV Church rating of 3 out of 4 steeples.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What we're really doing here...

The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Forever by Alan Sepinwall

The day before yesterday was the first official post here at TV Churches. Sure, last month we shared a couple of posts about television from our other blogs, but that post was the first one written specifically for this blog.

You might have noticed, though, that it was posted April 1st. Not everything in the post was strictly -- well -- true. For instance, I said that reading is always better than television, and I don’t really believe that. We like television very much. We also enjoy books, though, and a regular feature in this blog will be reviews of books about TV (and TV novelizations).

A major theme in Movie Churches, our other blog, is how the depiction of clergy and churches has changed through the years. In the days of the big studios and the production code, clergy were almost always shown in a positive light. With the end of the production code and the beginning of the rating system in the 1960s, the portrayal of clergy (and the church) became much more critical.

A similar change happened in television, and that change is chronicled in Alan Sepinwall’s entertaining book, The Revolution Was Televised. Sepinwall features twelve different TV series (while mentioning many others) and describes how these shows led to more complex and adult drama on television. Back in the days of, say, Jack Webb (Dragnet, Adam 12, Emergency), characters in television were either good or bad, heroes or villains. Every problem was solved in the 30 to 90 minutes allotted by the sponsors. In the 1980s, programs such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere showed cops and doctors who made mistakes and weren’t always pure of heart.

Sepinwall claims the shows he features (Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad) took television to a higher level of quality and allowed for a more sophisticated examination of human nature --which also allowed for a more complex portrayal of issues of faith and religion.

The book is an in-depth examination of the content of these groundbreaking programs and features interviews with creators and producers. The first shows examined were on HBO, so censorship wasn't often debated, but later cable and network shows faced challenges about what language and behavior could be brought to the small(er) screen.

Generally, when people think about censors and television, they’re thinking about sex, violence, and profanity. But the networks were also sensitive to the portrayal of religion on television (for example, CBS was leery about letting Linus read from the book of Luke in the Charlie Brown Christmas special).

Is the portrayal of church and clergy better or worse in this new, 21st century age of television? That’s what we’ll be trying to figure out by examining TV programs before and after Sepinwall’s revolution.

This month, we’ll be looking at preachers in Westerns from the wholesome days of Bonanza to debauched West of Deadwood. Rest assured, we won't just be reading about television. We'll be watching it as well. (And contrary to what we wrote yesterday, we expect to enjoy the watching.)

Monday, April 1, 2019

TV Churches Inaugral Post

Why write another blog about TV?
For years (around 5, I believe) I’ve been writing a blog entitled Movie Churches which focuses on how clergy and churches have been portrayed in cinema through the decades. Ever since the beginning, people have mentioned TV shows that portray a church and/or clergy, and we’ve had to explain that television was outside the purview of that blog. With today's official launch of TV Churches, we no longer have any excuse for not writing about television shows. But on this first day, we must be clear about the two basic principles that will guide this blog:


And yet


I don’t think we need to provide much to back up principle #1, do we? Obviously, smart people read. Dumb people watch television. On one side, there’s Shakespeare, War and Peace, and Jane Austen. On the other, My Mother the Car, The Bachelor, and that HBO show with naked Lena Dunham.

The government supports this view: Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in 1961 said about television, “What you will observe is a vast wasteland.” If the government says so, you know it’s true.

So why, you may ask yourself, is someone like myself, who has a prominently posted “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on his minivan, starting a blog about television?

The simple answer may surprise you. Every once in a long while, there is something of merit on television, something wholesome that the family can watch together. Something that will absorb them, make them laugh, and maybe, perhaps, learn a little something. Such a treat was produced by NBC in the early 1990’s: The Father Dowling Mysteries.

This is a blog about the presentation of the church and clergy on television, and a priest was never enacted with more brilliance than by Tom Bosley as the good Father who also solved mysteries. People who only remember Bosley as the bumbling boss on Charley's Angels, that smutty program from the 1970’s, will be surprised by something all new. And people who think of nuns as rigid penguins will appreciate Tracy Nelson’s portrayal of a nun who is not only cute but also spunky.

And there are lessons are to be learned from the show, such as the importance of being nice and the perils of being mean. And that murder is really bad.

In the months to come, we’ll look at the good, the bad, and so much ugly of television’s portrayal of congregations and clergy. But don’t worry, we will also celebrate something of value -- books. Every month, we’ll examine a book about television (because obviously, as stated earlier, reading is better than watching TV).

So if this new blog accomplishes nothing else, at least while you read these words you're not watching TV. Mission accomplished.