TV Shows

Amazon Prime's The Boys: Super Unheroes Among Us
Amazon Prime put a lot of hype into The Boys. I really, really like the superhero genre, so I geared up for this show with some anticipation.

The main plot line is driven by superheroes
very unlike those to which you have become accustomed. I thought this meant it would be a little more edgy. It was that, to be sure. I just didn’t realize it meant throwing moral caution to the wind to the degree this show does (and from what I understand, it’s tamer than the comics).

It's Not About The Zombies. It's About Us.
I was talking with a friend recently about monsters and the prevalence of zombies on our screens. For better or worse, this got me thinking. There are three types of fantasy monsters that keep recurring in our cultural storytelling: vampires, werewolves, and zombies. The history of these legends and the ways in which the stories change over time is a fascinating study on its own. I’m more interested about what is happening right now in American culture, and what our take on the stories - particularly the zombie genre - reveals about us.

The Haunting Of Hill House
When I used to watch and read a lot of horror (that's a long story for another time), one thing became clear: there is a huge difference between a story that bathes you in blood or offers a nihilistic punch in the gut vs. a story that uses horror elements to tell genuinely thought-provoking stories about the world. I would have bailed on Hill House if it were one of the former. It's not. I'm not saying the show is perfect - as a Christian, I would have done some things differently if I were directing the series. Some elements could have been toned down without losing the impact of the story. But as far as using the horror genre as a vehicle for discussing something much deeper, The Haunting Of Hill House succeeds admirably in comparison with many of its horror peers.

The Punisher
Netflix’s The Punisher is one of the most violent TV shows I have seen. You can read review about the plot and the quality of the show elsewhere. I want to jump right in to a discussion that's been swirling around this show: the level of violence.

Plenty of reviews have suggested that the timing is bad considering the recent mass murders from which the United States is recovering. That's a valid question, but I think they are wrong -and I think this show might be more timely than ever precisely because it unveils the terrible nature of violence.

I Am Negan: The Walking Dead, Season 7
Season 7 of The Walking Dead had some ups and downs. Ratings were low, likely because of a combination of violence that was extreme even by TWD standards, the death of some crucial characters, and a sense of “same story, different setting.” However, the character development and the moral complexities remained.

Season 7 featured a character named Negan, a dictatorial megalomaniac with a remarkable capacity for violence. One of the most chilling aspects of his cruel rule is how he forces all those who follow him to identify themselves as Neegan. “I am Negan” becomes a phrase that we dread.

That chilling phrase keeps ringing in my head. There is something about it that captures the true horror of The Walking Dead: not the undead, but the living who had died inside long ago.

S-Town: John B, Aural Literature, And The Battlelines Inside Our Hearts
S-Town (from the makers of Serial and This American Life) has become something of a global phenomenon, and rightly so. It’s a remarkably well done series: the storytelling is fascinating, illuminating and heartbreaking; the editing is superb; the way in which it reveals a compelling and eccentric cast of characters in small town Alabama is riveting.

It’s also deeply disturbing. The language is coarse (almost entirely from recordings of people in their own words), the topic is sobering if not heart-breaking at times, and the revelation of the vagaries of human nature is epically tragic – and often very hard to listen for all the reasons listed above. It will shock you. It will move you. It may well crush you at times.

The Santa Clarita Diet
I watched Santa Clarita Diet based on all the buzz surrounding the recent Netflix offering. I like Timothy Oliphant and Drew Barrymore; putting them in a zombie satire skewering modern suburbia seemed like a formula for success. Turns out it was a formula all right, but whether or not you think it’s successful has a lot to do with the moral lenses through which you view it.

Longmire (Seasons 1-5)
My final impression? Longmire has become a very compelling morality tale. I’m not sure where Season Six will go, but I hope it offers something that right now is missing: hope. There is still a chance for Season Six to pull them out of the muck and mire of their life's failures and set their feet on a path toward redemption.

The Good Place
The Good Place shows us people who want to be good – or at least avoid the consequences of being bad. They aren’t there yet, but we hope they will be. We want to see bad people become good and see good people rewarded. We turn the TV off with a little more desire for the good life and a little more disdain for the badness that permeates the world. In addition, I found myself also longing for grace. Eleanor is Sisyphus rolling a moral rock up a hill made of her own imperfections, and she is never going to make it to the top. But I want her to persevere; even more, I want someone to offer her mercy, forgiveness, and a way out of her seemingly insurmountable dilemmA.

The OA
At one point, one of the characters says, “I want to taste the truth. I just want to walk out of the dark.” Me too. Hopefully Season Two – if there is one - will make that possible by showing us the value of truth, and by telling the story in a way that enables us to avoid the moral darkness on which The OA attempts, with mixed results, to shine the light of goodness and hope.

X Misses The Spot: The New X-Files In A New Entertainment World
We've had 14 years since the original run to watch skeptics and believers wrestle with reality. We now have (thanks to the internet) more conspiracies than we can track, and a few of them are probably true. Before there were a bazillion cable shows and the internet had to be dialed, the X-Files was where conspiracy nerds got their fix. Not any more. Now there are 50 X-Files clones on 500 channels. Mulder doesn't need to convince people they should believe. Most of them already do. I hate to say it, but the new X-Files feels like Kobe's All-Star appearance: it's cool to remember the glory days, and there are moments when we see flashes of the legend continuing, but at the end of the day somebody else is taking home the MVP.

The Walking Dead and The Problem Of Gratuitous Evil
I need to be clear - The Walking Dead does not intend to portray a world where God is divinely orchestrating or redeeming events. Robert Kirkman is an atheist, albeit one who has created sympathetic and complex Christian characters. Kirkman has created a show that mines the depths of ethics, morality and human nature, but he is not intending to point viewers toward God.  It is no wonder, then, that there are other times in the show when really bad suffering has no apparent meaning even when the Big Picture is in place.

Scream Queens
When I first started watching Season One, I saw potential for a clever morality play. Showing us someone who doesn't want to learn, doesn't think she needs to be redeemed, and does what she wants to do instead of what she ought to do is not a bad idea - if the story is told in such a way that holds these things up for our instruction and not just our amusement. Not everyone is convinced that Mr. Falchuk's attempt at cultural commentary through characters such as Chanel was effective.

Wayward Pines
Wayward Pines gives the best a humanist approach to life has to offer - we are the answer to the problem of ourselves if we can commit together to saving ourselves. It identifies the problem clearly (broken human nature), then offers an oddly incongruous solution – human nature. Humanity is devolving – until it’s not. How do we save ourselves from ourselves? By being…ourselves, just better?

From Terminus to Alexandria (The Walking Dead, Season 5): 
Season 5 of The Walking Dead continued to dominate the ratings for cable TV shows. It also continued to offer a thought-provoking storyline that wrestles with the complexity of life and death.  Rick's group finally finds a city that offers safety, but not all of them are able to settle back into civilized life. They have spent a lot of time in a Darwinian wilderness. Abraham notes, "It's gotten to the point where everyone alive is strong now. We have to be. You're either strong and they can help you so you help them or you're strong and they can kill ya. So you gotta kill them. You gotta kill them and... I want to say it's never easy. That's not the truth. It's the easiest thing in the world now."

The Last Man On Earth: Becoming The Person We Hope We Can Be: "He is given what some would think is the ultimate freedom – all the virtual women and real alcohol you want, with all the time in the world to make the adolescent inanity of Jackass into a reality. We (thankfully) don’t see the porn he uses – we just see how it cannot take the place of real people. We see all the alcohol he consumes – and it’s clear he is numbing the pain. This is the existential collapse of man. Phil’s painfully honest prayers and clever attempts at killing time alternate between poignant and amusing, but his inner life is falling apart as badly as his home. It's Ecclesiastes 1: "“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” When he acknowledges that he is giving up on life, we get it."

Black Mirror: "By the time I finished Season One, I had this gnawing sense that something was missing. Though thought-provoking, each episode left me with a vague sense that there was more to be said. That will obviously be the case when one uses a television show to wrestle with the deepest questions in life, but it went deeper than that. I finally realized that my unease came from the sense that there is nothing greater or better for which the Mirrored Prophet prepared the way.Yes, we need to be aware of how our own creations may destroy us if we aren't careful. That's a warning shot that needs to be fired. But what if that shot is nothing more than a startling distraction as we continue our charge unabated?"

From Game of Thrones and Philosophy:

When Humans Lose Their Humanity: "No Sanctuary" and the Real Horror of Terminus - "I’ve been thinking about the profoundly disturbing Episode 5.1, 'No Sanctuary. Something was bothering me on a deeper level than just the visceral reaction to the horror in the story. I finally realized that The Walking Dead is (perhaps accidentally) revealing a troubling aspect of how human nature works: We have a tremendous capacity for dehumanization."

Attack on Titan - "Both the anime and manga of Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan have been absurdly popular and widely praised. Last year, five of the books in the series were in the Top 20 graphic novels in the U.S., beating even The Walking Dead;  8.3 million copies sold in just the first half of 2014 to boost its total sales close to 22 million copies in just under five years." 

True Detective - "I've heard it said that the reason we can portray evil with such depth and nuance is that we understand it. We don't know how to portray goodness with the same clarity because we don't understand it. We know what it's like to give in to the worst angels of our nature; the better angels seem to hover just off our shoulder. True Detective understands evil both horrific and ordinary. What True Detective fails to provide is an equally compelling look at the goodness needed to counter it".

Reflections on the Walking Dead (Season 4) - "The Season Four finale of The Walking Dead attracted 15.7million viewers, 10.2 million of whom were in the 18-49 demographic. It shattered previous records (the Game of Thrones season finale garned 5.4 million; Duck Dynasty reached 6 million; Breaking Bad’s Season Four finale recorded just under 2 million, and the final show of the entire series hit 10.3 million). In other words, The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon. A lot of people are turned off by the gore (and it’s certainly gruesome), but The Walking Dead offers a gold mine of philosophical, moral, religious, and cultural talking points."

From The Walking Dead and Philosophy:
  •  "Much Undead Ado About Nothing":"The Walking Dead and Philosophy opened with two essays arguing that the consideration of philosophical zombies (P-Zombies) - theoretical beings identical to human beings but lacking consciousness, qualia, or sentience - mitigates against a purely materialistic view of the world."
  • "Leviathins and Zombies: Social Contracts and The Walking Dead""The Walkers are humans stripped of what political theorists call a 'social contract,' an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. The humans who remain have a choice: head off into the woods and make do with whomever they can find, or head for the nearest city and attempt to recreate some form of government."
  • "Deconstructing Humans": "How far up the scale of capacity can one be and still not obtain the privileges and status of personhood?"
  • "Desperate Human Beings": "'Nothing is more frightening than desperate human beings.' That is frightening, true. What frightens me more are human beings who, with great articulation and artful rhetoric, try to convince us that killing children is defensible because select, elite thinkers have decided on behalf others how much suffering is acceptable, which human lives are defensible, and to what degree we should harden our hearts for the sake of a nebulous and ever changing greater good."

The 100 - " In the right hands, this story could turn into a morality tale about integrity, trustworthiness and the proper use of power. In the wrong hands, it could settle for being just another YA story about how teens will inexplicably save the world amidst copious amounts of impassioned kissing."

Good Christians and GCB - "I'm not actually very upset about this show.  It's no secret that Hollywood and religion are uneasy bedfellows. Most entertainment does not understand faith, let alone take it seriously enough to embed it realistically into the ordinary lives of characters and stories. I don't count on Hollywood to invigorate me spiritually. I long ago lowered the bar so far that I am pleasantly surprised when I find a show or a movie that takes religion seriously - and there are at least a few (and I don't mean Left Behind).On the other hand, I have talked to enough people to know that the Christian stereotypes captured by entertainment have an impact. It hard to have a productive conversation with people whose best analysis of the faith comes from Dogma or Easy A - and now this.

The Walking Bad: Zombies, Meth, and Mesmerizing Nihilism - "Two of the most popular current television shows are also two of the most grim:  "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead."  If you want to go for a trifecta, throw in "Game of Thrones," which is not yet as grim as it’s going to be... While they leave something to be desired (I’ll get to that at the end), they all borrow heavily from a surprisingly Christian view of the world.

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