Thursday, May 10, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

       Because of the nature of the entertainment industry, my friends and I consume entertainment produced primarily by non-Christians, which means it will contain chaff that needs to be separated from wheat.  Not surprisingly, the three of us disagree on what is chaff, and how much is acceptable. The Walking Dead of Modern FamilyBreaking Bad or The Office?  Mad Men or Men of a Certain Age?   
     What follows in a discussion as "iron sharpens iron." It is not the end of the matter.  Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

A. Weber: When it comes to entertainment, I like John Stonestreet's template:
  • Is it true (does it show the world honestly)?
  • Is it good (is it of high quality)?
  • Is it noble (does it make us want to be better people)?
    There are some other questions that follow from those three questions: With whom/what does the story want us to identify? What is the source of redemption? Does the sin tempt us, distract us, or appall us?What are the assumed messages about the world? A couple examples:
  • Though I am drawn to Game of Thrones, it doesn't fit this template.  The writing was good (high quality), and the story was true (actions have appropriate consequences), but even though I  wanted to be Ned Stark, I felt in some way dirtied by the amount of evil in the book, like I had wallowed in a world from which I emerged a little more hardened, a little more disillusioned, a little more broken than before. That's not noble.
  •  The first two seasons of The Walking Dead mostly fit.  Though the quality of the writing has dropped, the series has been mostly good (especially Season 1), true (it shows how the evil and the good wrestle within all of us) and noble (I can clearly see good and bad characters and their actions, and I cheer or jeer appropriately).  Based on how Season Two ended, I'm not sure my opinion will hold.
  • I'm almost done with Season Two of Men of Certain Age.  It is very good; it is largely true, but it's "hit and miss" handling sin in a way that always enobles me.  The characters played by Ray Ramano and Scott Bakula sleep around and gamble, but if I see real world consequences, and I'm not seduced into their weaknesses with them, I'm okay with those situations being portrayed.  As Season Two winds down, I would say the show overall contrasts the emptiness and pointlessness of sin with the reward of commitment, faithfulness, and character.
K. Meszaros: Those criteria are fine, but you are picking and choosing your examples.  Saw, Boogie Nights and Show Girls could be made to fit the above criteria depending on how you define your terms.  I suppose they were all done well to some degree; each one said something true about the world, and I don't think anybody walked away wanting to be a serial killer, porn star, or stripper. They even be more determined not to be any of those things than before.  I would go with some criteria like this:
  • Does the writer intend for us to root for the bad guy or for evil to prevail?  (The Oceans movies, Pirates, or The Godfather)
  • Are there consequences for evil actions?  (Ben on Lost)
  • Is there a lot of nudity? (Basic Instinct, Show Girls, or Boogie Nights)
  • What is the trajectory of the main characters? (Do they get worse or better?  See The Shield or Sopranos)
  • Is redemption a key part of the show? (Lost or Star Wars)
  • Is sin viewed as desirable? (The American Pie movies or any daytime soap)
  • Is evil an unbeatable force? (Constantine or just about any slasher film vs. Stephen King's Desperation)
  • Given that we have almost limitless entertainment choices, if something is iffy, can I find a cleaner substitute?  (Why watch Transformers when I could watch Thor?)
S. Smith:  I'm not sure how you conclude that movies that entertain with torture, porn, and stripping can be in any way noble.  Do you really think people walked away better people for having seen it? Sure, they can claim they do, but I think simply viewing the subject matter undermines whatever decision they make to not be like that or treat people that way. I think Stonestreet's criteria does exactly what you want it to.

KM: Okay, take the question, "Does it make me want to be a better person?"  In Saw, the killer is torturing people because he is dying of cancer and they are taking life for granted.  It’s actually a pretty in-depth story, just with bloody torture.  One could easily say, “Saw makes me appreciate the blessings God has given me - including life.” Sure, the presentation is pretty awful, but doesn't AW's  criteria of nobility only ask about the end result?  And I don't think his view automatically excludes nudity.  That would, for example, exclude Schindler's List.

SS:  Is it possible that some people could take something positive from Saw?  Maybe, as long as Saw doesn't provide a justification or create sympathy for torture and violence.  But what about just the idea that it uses torture as entertainment?  Perhaps "nobility" should not be measured just what you do when you leave (the end result), but by what's happening to you while you watch (the process).
    Same for Showgirls and Boogie Nights.  There might be a story arc with a form of redemption, but let's be honest: they make us want to see more naked women. This does not promote truth or nobility, no matter how good I may think it is, or how hard the filmmaker is trying to send a positive message.

AW:  Here's a different example (and a little less extreme).  I don't like Pretty Woman because it does not make me want to be a better person. It makes me want to find a stunning hooker in need of rescuing and rescue her, and I don't mean with the help of Jesus.  I don't think the movie is true on two key points: assuming all I have read is true, prostitues are not as happy as Julia Roberts; and relationships that start like theirs do not work in the real world.   Pretty Woman may have been "good," but it was not true or noble.

KM: So what do you do with sitcoms?  As much as Joey should come down with HIV on "Friends," he can’t because it ruins the situation which makes the sitcom work.  And in order to be funny, the characters have to warped.  You’re not going to find many role models on sitcoms, because by nature they are not trying to be real people; they are creating stereotypes to satirize both good and bad things. This may bother you, but it doesn’t me because I know they are not trying to show real life.  So, it's not "true" at all, but can't it still be good and noble?

AW:  The fact the sitcoms reset is one thingI dislike about them. People start to think they can live episodic lives, and their real world lives are becoming disastrously fragmented as a result.  This does not mean individual episodes do not contain good things, but the medium sends a message.  When life is broken down into unconnected episodes, that is part of a worldview that people absorb. Sure, they can be noble and good, but it's tough for them to be true (though that's probably the case for everything on television simply because of the medium).
    My bigger concern with today's comedies is that they make me laugh at things I shouldn't. The Office is funny, but should I really be laughing at Oscar and Dwight?  Good, true, noble entertainment should make my emotions match the real world. I want to laugh or cry at the right things, otherwise life gets very confusing.

KM: So what funny things can Christians watch?   Tommy Boy makes fun of drug addicted gluttons.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles makes fun of another overweight dude.  Jim Carrey spends Dumb and Dumber trying to get laid.  Every comedy purposely distorts the world and makes fun of sin.  I don’t know how you get around it.  Sometimes, laughing at serious issues helps to change our perspective in a good way while our guard is down - it's the spoonful of sugar.  Isn't that why God gave us a sense of humor?

AW:  If the Bible were a long-running TV show, would it be acomedy, tragedy, or both? Perhaps you are right about comedies; I can see  Ecclesiastes working great as an Old Testament version of Men of a Certain Age.  On the other hand, I'm pretty certain King Saul would star in an early version of Breaking Bad. Either way, the genres would have to capture how honest, deep, whimsical, dark, light, beautiful, true, noble, good, and hopeful the Bible.  I'm trying not to settle for less from my TV.


  1. Boy! I don’t really have time to comment this morning, but it’s a fascinating topic and I have an initial response. First of all, I will say my responses come an attitude that is as “holier than thou” as I can muster because I have never seen many of these shows. 

    For me, female nudity is a heinous lure. (I noticed you guys didn’t make a gender distinction, but hey, that’s another issue.  ) But the lusty element within me doesn’t need nudity to be enticed. There is something deviantly attractive about maybe seeing a nipple bump on a tight shirt or revealing contour of a bathing suit bottom. In real life and on the screen, these can be very fleeting moments that can catch an insatiable eye. Part of the problem is our media choices allow rewinding, pausing and slow motion.

    When I am being a “good boy” and/or I am watching something with my wife or daughters, my choices are impacted.

    Most times there is a significant intent to entertainment. I have no problem with some of the befitting content in “Rob Roy” because the strong theme of the movie is about honor. Being a man raised by 4 daughters, I was attracted to “Glee” because I thought it would be about high school teens finding accomplishment in the arts. By the second episode I could see it was going to applaud promiscuity, present the deviant as admirable and give excuses for sinful adult behavior in an immature populace. In addition, it provided no moral consequence and everyone “lives” in a world where God doesn’t exist. At least that’s what the commercials and articles I read indicate. I stopped watching it before episode 2 ended.

    For me, the bottom line has to do with producer intent and the affect the material has on me. I am also concerned about the impact it has on society. “Hollywood” has done a very effective job endorsing promiscuity, unfaithfulness, homosexuality, teen rebellion, drunkenness and criminal violence. Its influence can be easily seen in our culture, especially the young. It would take a lot to convince me it hasn’t impacted me or the church, or even those involved in this conversation.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.