Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bingeworthy: The Americans

"Only duty and honor are real, Mischa. Isn't that what we were told?"
Irina in The Americans

Happy Fall Semester, Friends!

This summer has been a whirlwind. I spent a week studying theology with a bunch of high school students, enjoyed a weekend thinking about the American church & public life with a bunch of pastors, visited my alma mater, and remodeled a 1950s bungalow. AND of course I watched Wonder Woman. Amidst the chaos, I managed to write a bit and get some research done. But I am way, way behind on t.v. watching and recommending! Mea culpa.

This spring I'll be teaching American Church history, and to prepare for it, today's post is about one of my recent favorites: The Americans.

At first glance, The Americans - a show about deep-cover Soviet spies in the 1980s who try to undermine the U.S. government while living under cover as a "normal" American nuclear family in Washington, DC -  might seem like a strange choice for class about Christianity in America. But The Americans offers watchers an opportunity to think about Civil Religion, a key concept in American religious studies, from a distinct point of view.

The term American civil religion describe the rituals, holidays, cultural events/places/spaces drawn from our national history that create a religion of America. This religion has key beliefs ("all men are created equal," citizens are guaranteed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that amount to a kind of orthodoxy, and key practices (saluting the flag, standing for the national anthem, observing Independence Day, etc.) that are a kind of orthopraxy. The idea is that to be American, one must participate in the beliefs and practices of American civil religion.

The Americans offers us a chance to observe American civil religion from the perspective of those who believe that this religion is unorthodox and in fact a great evil that must be fought at any cost.... or is it? Through the eyes of "Elizabeth" (aka Nadezhda, played by Keri Russell), we see someone who works to maintain a purist vision of the Communist Party, and who is and disgusted by the materialism, comfort, and social injustice that surrounds her. Her partner/husband "Phillip" (aka Mischa/Mikhail, played by Matthew Rhys), on the other hand is not so sure. He finds that he actually enjoys American culture and he is reluctant to leave the life he has built there. After all, what's so bad about Coca Cola & McDonald's (this is the 80s - people don't hate these institutions yet)?

The Americans is about intrigue and global political strife, and it stands up very well as a political thriller. But it is most interesting when it parses out the tensions between Elizabeth and Phillip as they wrestle with whether or not they have been fully baptized into American civil religion. Elizabeth believes that her convictions (coupled with her brutal ability to extinguish human life on behalf of the Soviet Union) are enough to create a distinction between herself, her children, and American civil religion. The equally ruthless Philip wonders if the practice of being American has made him, and indeed their entire family, true believers.

What does it mean to be religious? Is religion about beliefs? Or practices? And what does it mean to be American? Is it enough to have citizenship, or must one convert? These questions and more are at the heart of one of my favorite summer binges.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Riverdale: the Show that Never Was

Every corpse has a tale to tell. This one has a touch of evil.
Foreboding Coroner on the CW's Riverdale

Well, it's that time of year... midterms! The time of year when my best blogging intensions give way to evaluating exams and essays. But, I couldn't let the month go by without telling you about the Riverdale that I imagined and the Riverdale that I actually saw.

The Riverdale I imagined (based on the trailer): a moody, mystical take on the classic (wholesome/boring? traditional/sexist?) Archie comics. In this series, we get a grittier take on the ostensibly idilic small town. We also get a Twin Peaks-esque murder mystery complete with weird, supernatural plot twists. We get three main characters (Archie, Betty, Veronica) who subvert the typical love-triangle plot lines and negotiate their relationships with one another in surprising and insightful ways. It was a great show (in my mind!).

The Riverdale I saw (based on the pilot): a mild, fairly silly soap opera that includes a murder mystery and mean-girl negotiations (a la Pretty Little Liars) between Betty, Veronica and a really awful Queen Bee named Cheryl. Much less Twin Peaks. Much more 90210 (complete with Luke Perry!). Not bad. But not great either. Very vanilla. Very Betty.