What I’m learning from the serial dramas

I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine about how I use pop culture. It was interesting to reflect back on TV shows that I watch and how I use them for the sake of Jesus. I certainly enjoy the media for entertainment value, but there’s more to the story. I learn a lot about how people relate by what they consume. In fact, it seems like Netflix captivates people more than the living God does sometimes, so certainly there is something to learn in that. For one thing, I learn that people desire connection. They want to relate and they want to belong. It is not so easy to find that. In Downton Abbey, so much of the identity of both the aristocrats and the servants in rooted in the grand estate, which is not adapting to the new British economy. They enjoy their lives because their lives are Downton. When Downton ceases to exist, what kind of existential crisis will they face? For Christians, we find our hope and identity, not in something as fleeting as an estate, or a church, or even our jobs. We find our hope in Jesus. As the aristocrats and the servants who are nominally connected to the Anglican church (God seems to be a character that’s totally missing from Downton’s plot) try to find hope in what will fade, I think our hope is in Jesus and our belonging is in his body. I hate to be so negative, and I love Philadelphia, but I’m not here for craft beer, cheesesteaks, and its incompetent sports teams (all of them after Chip Kelly’s free agent moves this year). I’m here because Philadelphia is where I have a home, a community, and a mission. Certainly, those things could go away, but the Lord led me here, not an estate. Another thing I notice is that people actually want faith. In The Americans and House of Cards, it seems like God compels the characters quite a bit. Paige, a daughter of Russian spies in The Americans, is beginning her faith journey, much to her atheist parents’ dismay. But they are finding a common ground, particularly in their anti-U.S. military thoughts. In House of Cards, even the heinous Frank Underwood, questions God and how to lead like Jesus, even as President. It seems to me like the writers of the show are tapping into the fact that people are made to relate to God, and it shows even in these simple examples. Moreover, people want another chance. Don Draper in Mad Men and Walter White in Breaking Bad are trying to reinvent themselves—become new creations, if you will. Don Draper is literally becoming a different person (and dealing with the cost of not repenting as a path to transformation). Walter White wants so bad to be respected and affirmed, and take vengeance on his old opportunistic partners, he breaks bad, selling meth to make ends meet as he slowly crawls to his cancerous end. But, far and away, more than anything else that I notice in pop culture is that it helps me understand social construction. These days, that is the rule of society. I just mentioned Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but coupled with Walking Dead, The Americans, and House of Cards, there is no clear protagonist in the story. Everyone is hateable, yet still likeable. We fall for characters and accept them for who they are, not who they are becoming. They create their own realities. We are sympathetic and justifying of a drunk cheater in Draper. A sociopathic meth dealer endears us because of his earnestness and because of the evil of his enemies. Two Russian spies who are ruthless killers inspire us because of their patriotism (not to mention that the entire show is reconstructing the Cold War). I find myself rooting for Frank Underwood mainly because I have gotten to know him. We are inspired not by stories of transformation, but stories of acceptance. Though some of us cringe at Draper and Walter White, these manboys, who are not truly grown up, still entertain us and as a result, we accept them. Ironically, our most discerning quality as we consume all of TV is how entertaining it is. I suppose that is the ultimate barometer for our consumption. We look at aggregate review websites, get friends’ recommendations, so that we are assured that our experience is as best as possible. Whatever it does to our minds and souls, well, that might just the cost of the fun of the television. I want us to develop critical eyes for what we are watching, at least that is the start. Rather than mindlessly consuming what the advertisers and executives tell you to, why not think about it? Try writing a little about the shows you watch. Talking about them with your friends, or even listing out what you liked and didn’t like, what reminded you of God and what isn’t can be helpful too. I think you may find some good reason to know what the culture is consuming, and it might make you a little more relatable.

3 Replies to “What I’m learning from the serial dramas

  1. Great post. I might disagree with the idea that a story of acceptance cannot be a story of transformation, though. According to my understanding of the moral universe that Vince Gilligan creates in Breaking Bad, Walter White is actually transformed by his acceptance that he is Heisenberg, the menacing character that he thought he created. In season 1, Walter says all the time to himself “This isn’t me.” He says that he is just doing it for the money for his family. His transformation comes when he is able to understand that he was doing it for himself. He says to Skyler: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really alive.” The great sin of Breaking Bad’s moral universe is dishonesty, which Walt is throughout the entire show. When Walt learns to be honest about his journey, that he was doing it in order to meet some primal need for pride and danger, he’s transformed in Gilligan’s eyes. The problem is that the moral universe of Breaking Bad is rooted in the Law. There is no redemption in the show, only reaping whatever is sown. It’s equal parts Leviticus and Newton’s Third Law. Walt is honest with himself, faces his punishment, and what happens, happens. Thankfully the moral universe we live in is defined by graciousness, not some unyielding cosmic penal system.

    1. Aaron, you are a great analyst. Great interpretation of Walter White’s character. Interesting take, really. Walter White becomes his own sin. I suppose I just disagree with that idea–we don’t have to become our wrongs. He was right: that isn’t him. We are more than our sin and there is hope for us.

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