There are many ways people are passing time with staying home during the pandemic. Some are taking up new hobbies. Some are exploring virtual museums. Some may even be preparing for a neighborhood sing-along out their windows. But many people are turning to television to provide entertainment, comfort, and/or escape. Since the late 1990s, as television offerings have generally expanded, so too has there been a boom in television that explores the ultimate meaning, especially shows in which the answers to the big questions of life are mired in tension and doubt. The following shows use the tropes, stories, and themes of religion to explore the tensions among what we do to each other, what we owe to each other, and what it all really means. These are questions that a lot of us are asking with renewed necessity.
Battlestar Galactica (Syfy, miniseries 2003, series 2004-2009) starts with catastrophe and keeps pushing its characters to the brink, distilling their humanity and highlighting the importance of connection throughout. Set in a sci-fi world in which humans worship Hellenic deities and human-like robots called Cylons wage a holy war against them in the name of their singular God, the series broke new ground by placing questions of religious belief at the core of a grounded and complex political drama. Influenced by—but not devoted to—the War on Terror, Battlestar Galactica worked through both immediate and eternal questions of meaning in the safe displacement of reality allowed by science fiction and the niche audience of a cable channel. The monotheism-polytheism divide shaded much of the major dramatic arcs and shaped the culmination of the story, but at its core the question of faith was more about the people we believe in than the god(s) we pray to.
The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-2017) presented viewers with a world in which a kind of a rapture—the “Sudden Departure” of two percent of the human population—happened years ago and the titular leftovers sought meaning in this new reality. Some characters redoubled their devotion to their traditional faith, some joined one of the many cults that cropped up after the event, some merely tried to survive their grief, and others joined the “Guilty Remnant” to present a continuous reminder and confrontation of the event. Later seasons expanded the scope to include the residents of Jarden, Texas, a new mecca for spiritual tourists because no one was taken from the town in the Sudden Departure, and the show leaned even further into the cruelty and hope, weirdness and familiarity, faith and faithlessness explored through the characters’ ongoing quest to find meaning when the universe has made you feel meaningless.
Rectify (SundanceTV, 2013-2016) used its Southern setting to weave one of the most nuanced representations of devout White Christianity into its story of a wrongfully convicted man released after nineteen years on death row. Praised by critics as “meditative” among other plaudits, Rectify was deeply engrossed in the inner lives of its characters, especially its laconic lead, Daniel (Aden Young). Throughout the first season, Daniel’s freedom from jail leads to intense isolation as the world and his family had moved on without him, but through connecting with his step-brother’s wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) and her faith, Daniel briefly finds peace. The salvation offered through faith and Tawney’s kindness present Christianity as a true solace for some and a thoroughly entrenched part of Southern culture. Although the focus somewhat fades from a specific religion as the show progressed, the questions that religion seeks to answer persist and continue to yield deep explorations of human connection and purpose.
The Good Place (NBC, 2016-2020) is your best option if you want a show that tackles questions of religion, faith, human nature, and the design of the universe head-on—in contrast to the shows discussed above that weave it in through genre conventions or setting—and that will make you laugh while doing it. Set in an afterlife that has a “good place” where you will get everything you could ever want and a “bad place” where you will be tortured by demons for eternity, the cosmic design of The Good Place takes the familiar notions of Heaven and Hell and gives them contemporary twists such as: no one in the good place being able to swear, bad place tortures often involving the worst aspects of social media, and a character who is not-a-girl and not-a-robot but knows everything and can do almost anything to help you find your reward or be tortured. Throughout its four seasons, The Good Place used moral philosophy, religious concepts, and character development to answer the question of what we owe each other simply: we owe each other to try.
Although these four shows present an interesting constellation of television programs that feature religion as a means of tackling the big questions of existence and humanity, there have been many others. Approaches range from the comforting episodic drama of Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven to the fantasy stories featuring battling angels and demons like on Supernatural and Good Omens or the individual religious paths explored on Jane the Virgin, Ramy, and Enlightened. For a topic that was once seen as verging on taboo, religion on television has become a fascinating and varied subject of popular entertainment over the last 25 years, plenty to keep anyone engaged with these stories, characters, and questions while facing more time at home.
Featured image by Jorge Zapata via Unsplash