Friends, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that I've had a family emergency that has taken me offline for the past couple of weeks. I'm going to be spending the rest of 2016 with the ones I love the most, but you can expect to see me back in action with more commentary and reviews on bingeworthy classics and new winter shows in the New Year!
Finals week: the time of year when I wear headphones and spend a LOT of time in front of a laptop. From the moment I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of Alexander Hamilton at the White House in 2009, I knew Hamilton: an American Musical would be one of my favorite finals week obsessions. There are a thousand reasons why Hamilton is a joy for fans of history, musical theater and hip-hop (and for anyone with ears), but there is a lot for students of religion too.
For one thing, Hamilton is a mediation on Providence. In the opening number, we meet Alexander Hamilton - a brilliant but penniless orphan who immigrates to what would become (due in part to Hamilton's powerful writings and political maneuverings) the United States. Why was he born with so few resources and did his tragic, destitute beginnings make him into the tenacious, creative force of nature whose ideas helped create the world as we know it? Was it divine intervention or chance?
Later in life, Hamilton meets his nemesis (and [spoiler alert!] his killer), a privileged, wealthy young Aaron Burr. The two have a Mozart-Salieri type of relationship: Burr cannot understand what makes a man like Hamilton tick. And (in one of the most tightly-written songs you will ever hear), he questions his own more hesitant nature, his place in the grand scheme of life, and what questions Christianity can and can't answer in Wait for It.
In Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, we get a poignant, understated musical finale that self-consciously critiques how we tell the story of our Founding Fathers (e.g. where are the Mothers?) and invites us to think about the afterlife in terms of legacy. Who makes sure that Hamilton lives on? Who gets to tell our stories? Do we live forever if they are told well?
SO while I'm finishing out the semester, chances are, I'll be listening to Hamilton... are you obsessed with Hamilton or some other record? Write me and let me know what I should be putting on my end-of-the-term playlist!
There are certain shows that you just have to watch more than once (more than ten times?). The more nuanced the show, the more you need to watch it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is at the top of most religion scholars' lists. Here's why we (the entire religious studies guild... I speak for all of us) need another Buffy!!!
1. Elegant storytelling: There are tons of great shows that draw theologians' attention (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, & Mad Men to name a few), but none of them beat Buffy for its simple premise and quality execution. A Big Bad wants to destroy the world. Only Buffy can save it. A simple story allows for a lot of nuance and creativity along the way (musical episode, anyone?).
2. Campy villains: We loved to hate the Big Bads, didn't we? They were always bad but still funny and they hammed up every scene. Villains today (even on shows I enjoy like Jessica Jones or Daredevil) can be scaaaaaary but they tend to be (mostly) humorless. We need another Caleb, the cheerful, creepy, misogynist, axe murdering priest (also: Nathan Fillion)!
3. Gender scholars need a muse: Feminists loved (LOVED) Buffy. She's strong! She's a woman! Bella Swan from Twilight and the (slightly less frustrating) Elena Gilbert from The Vampire Diaries are tired throw-backs to the damsel in distress. We can't leave all of the supernatural heroics to Sam and Dean Winchester!
4. It's time to revive some 90s fashion trends: Chokers are totally on point. As are overalls on grown women. And scrunchies! Let's bring those back. I think I've still got my awesome homemade scrunchy collection at my parents' house.
Yours Truly circa 1993 wearing ALL the 1990s trends you can fit on a 16 year old girl
5. And slang too: What's your damage? Don't go all Dawson's Creek on me. I can't even deal with Destructo Girl. (that was just a fraction of the awesome slang from the "D" entry in Slayer Slang: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon).
4. Academics need to justify their t.v. watching: There are philosophical, theological, linguistic, etc. treatments of Buffy. Just do a Google Scholar search and you'll see that the academic takes on the show are endless (as are the scholarly puns... we really need to put a stake in those, guys. Seriously).
Screenshots of just two of the many, many, many Buffy articles on Google Scholar
5. We need more accessible discussions of BIG ideas: Want to talk about the nature of good & evil? Of life? Of death? Of destiny? Stick with Buffy. You'll end up thinking about fate a lot, developing mixed feelings for Spike, and you'll tear up (if not all-out messy cry) when one sympathetic character dies in "The Body" (season 5, ep 16).
6. David Boreanaz: (What? Like you weren't thinking it?)
7. Cool librarians!!! Most of the nerds on t.v. these days are science-y. They are usually computer experts or crime scene investigators. Their main function is to provide blood spatter analysis or hacking. Giles the Watcher/Sunnydale librarian rescued the world with his knowledge of ancient pagan myths, and art, and literary themes; in other words the humanities. We need a show with a lead who saves us with Socrates!
"Each and every one of us is on a journey. And we feel that it's important to be on that journey with the people you love."
David in The Invitation
A few years ago I watched the haunting PBS documentary Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Told with interviews, film, and audio records, viewers experience a beautiful utopian dream slowly twisting and turning into a (now infamous) death cult. What must it have been like to witness the descent of the Peoples Temple? What must have been like to be a member? Would you know that you were being groomed for death? Would you feel the dread immediately or would it slowly, subtly build in your subconscious?
In The Invitation, an eerie, suffocating thriller-horror film, the lead character Will (Logan Marshall Green) may or may not be about to find out. Will and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) have been invited to a dinner party with old friends in a ritzy Hollywood home. Kira is eager to enjoy the evening, but Will is on edge. He's leery of the new peace that his fragile host (and ex-wife) Eden seems to have found with a group of devotees to spiritual guru "Dr. Joseph," (including the mesmerizing, menacing David (Michiel Huisman)). As the dinner progresses, Will's anxiety and paranoia increase. Is Will right to be this suspicious? The more we learn about the tragic history of this group of friends, the more we wonder whether or not Will's perspective can be trusted. And yet, something seems off about the house, its inhabitants, and the tranquility they seem to have found with Dr. Joseph....
The Invitation is a frightening psychological thriller. And its setting in Hollywood invites us to ask all sorts of good questions about new religious movements and class. Why is it that privileged folks in the American West, like those in this film, are drawn to religious innovations? The Invitation is fictional but there are many, many real-life examples of wealthy folks who join religious organizations like Scientology or Heaven's Gate. Why is it that having it all in California leaves people so soul-empty? Why doesn't 'old time religion' fill the void? And what is it about the region that allows for so much spiritual creativity?
In addition to academic questions about religious movements, the emotional and theological questions raised by The Invitation about the relationship between religion and tragedy are worth asking. Should religion always relieve grief? Should it explain sorrow away? Should religion reframe suffering in light of new spiritual understanding? Humans seem more open to spiritual answers during seasons of grief. What if those spiritual answers are dangerous? Like Will, you may find more questions than answers in The Invitation.
Holidaze: term that defines the feelings of confusion and excitement people have between Thanksgiving and Christmas; the blur one feels after/during shopping for gifts in crowded retail stores with heavy holiday traffic
- Urban Dictionary
Friends, this is the time of year when it's socially acceptable to listen to holiday music (I like it year-round but SOMEONE in my household makes me wait until after Thanksgiving). It's also the time when you might be looking for a little escape from the family - especially during this post-election insanity! I won't lie; I like a good, sappy Christmas movie as much as the next person. But what I love is a little bit of bite to my holiday watching. So, while you enjoy your leftovers, sneak away from the in-laws and try three of my favorite holiday-themed television episodes.
"A Very Supernatural Christmas"
Supernatural Season 3, ep 8
This Christmas treat is Supernatural at its monster-of-the-week best. Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester hunt the things that go "bump" in the night and protect the world from supernatural threats large and small (all while eating tons of pie and being exceedingly handsome). In this episode they are after a creature that appears to be devouring people who are decorating their homes with yuletide cheer. The brothers investigate undercover (per usual: as FBI agents with rock aliases) and they discover a truly depressing bad Santa, the legend of Krampus, and pagan threats much older than the first Noel. This episode is creepy, funny, and full of references to ancient pagan lore and its current Christianized forms. And, for Supernatural superfans, this show also includes some poignant flashbacks wherein we see what it was like for two motherless boys to be raised as hunters.
"Regional Holiday Music"
Community Season 3, ep 10
For those of you who are not Community watchers, this is a weird, inventive show. It's also very snarky and "Regional Holiday Music," is a tour-de-force in holiday cynicism. The study group of lovable losers (Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, &Chevy Chase)at Greendale Community College is thinking about their Christmas plans when they are interrupted by Mr. Rad (played in over-the-top glory by SNL's Taran Killam), the Greendale glee club instructor who is recruiting students to participate in his annual Christmas pageant. The study group rejects him initially, but through a series of holiday-themed songs that target each member in nefarious ways, the group is lured into holiday joy. Chevy Chase's character Pierce cannot resist "Baby Boomer Santa," who seems to know just what to say to scratch his narcissistic, consumer-oriented, generational itch ("Pierce! They're just trying to pander to your demographic's well-documented historical vanity. Resist!"). Alison Brie's Annie tempts Joel McHale's Jeff with "Teach Me How to Understand Christmas." Annie's song begins as a send-up to "Santa Baby" and quickly devolves into gibberish ("Boopy Doopy Doo Boop Sex!!!"); it's one of the canniest deconstructions of sexy-baby-voice femininity you'll see. Add to that a nod to Jehovah's Witnesses who struggle through the holidays and a Fundie's discomfort with anything other than wishing someone a Happy Jesus' B-day, and you have a holiday treat!
"How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"
The X-Files, Season 6, ep 6
The slow burn chemistry that X-Files fans adore between the true believer Fox Mulder and skeptic Dana Scully is on display in this classic episode. It's Christmas Eve and FBI agent Mulder inadvertently drags his partner Scully to a haunted house in Maryland. Supposedly two lovers participated in a suicide pact there in 1917 and have been haunting the premises ever since. Trapped in a nightmarish bleak house, the two encounter some pretty scary early twentieth-century ghosts as well as a few phantasms haunting their working relationship. And, they do it with plenty of holiday cheer. No show blends humor and horror quite like The X-Files - especially the early episodes like this one.
P. S. If you find yourself still stressed after these eps, I recommend the Target parking lot. That's where I'll be.
It's that time of year again - time to fly across the country and join your fellow nerds at your guild's annual conference. For me and my kind, the Big One is the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature's annual meeting (aka AAR/SBL). Once a year, thousands of religion scholars descend on an unsuspecting city and bring corduroy jackets (with elbow patches!), old-timey pipes, and all-around questionable fashion sense to discuss the latest trends in religious studies.
See a hotel full of guys who look like this? You are probably in the right place.
If you are a first-timer, it's overwhelming. So, for my first-time students, a few suggestions on how to make the most out of your academic conferencing experience: 13 Conferencing Dos and Don'ts
1. Don't be fooled - the conference begins on the plane. You never know who will sit next to you on your flight. I recommend dressing in conference attire and having a stack of business cards with you at the airport.
2. Do bring comfortable shoes. I know, I know. I sound like your mother. But one year of walking around with blisters and a forced smile during your third late-night reception will cure you of your vanity.
3. Don't build your schedule entirely around paper presentations. There are a plethora of panels at large conferences and it can be tempting to spend your time jogging from one session to the next. But, if you aren't careful, you'll end up suffering from major intellectual burnout (and, a few years in and you'll find out that some AAR-SBL panels are... boring. Painfully boring. So, don't spend all of your time running after research papers.
4. Do be strategic when it comes to food and beverages. The line for Starbucks will be LONG. Happy hours within a 2 mile radius from the conference will be crowded. Plan accordingly.
5. Don't forget that much of the real business of conferencing gets done informally. So make sure you are prepared to stay out a bit and recruit some outgoing friends to go reception-hopping with you. My usual AAR squad (Lydia Willsky-Ciollo, Carolyn Davis, Jennifer Axsom Adler, and Devan Stahl) and I look forward receptioning (this is a verb - I can assure you!) every year.
6. Do give yourself permission to sleep in the day after a night of receptioning.
7. Don't take up too much of your scholarly crush's time at their university's reception. I learned this from a mentor of mine who will remain nameless. As gracious as many of them are, star scholars are usually at receptions to catch up with old friends, not to hear you talk for 25 min. about religion and 12th century Romanian folk art. So (unless told otherwise) introduce yourself, make an impression, and exit in less than 5 min.
You never know who you will meet at AAR/SBL! My friend Melanie Trexler and I met the one and only (very gracious!) Cornel West in 2009.
8. Do remember that the religion scholar world is small... if you are gossiping at a hotel bar, you never know who is listening. You've been warned!
9. Don't get so nervous that you ignore normal social cues. Smile at people. Shake their hands. Laugh at their bad jokes. You get the idea.
10. Do take time to enjoy some local foods and take in some local sights. You never know when you'll be in that city again.
11. Don't forget to drink a lot of water. You'll thank me.
12. Do remind yourself that everyone feels insecure at these things. You aren't the only one; impostor syndrome is real. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy yourself.
13. Don't feel bad for playing hooky a bit with your friends. This time last year, while skipping out on a session, a casual conversation with Dr. Keri Day about a video of Paula White praying over Donald Trump led me toward my next research project (and predicted the bizarre political dystopia in which we now live). You never know what great ideas you'll get from talking to your brilliant friends!
For Halloween this year, my son and I went as Superman and Wonder Woman... he is a nerd-in-training! The next day, I took him to an All Saints' Day service. During the service, the priest mentioned that he thought that all of the superhero costumes from the night before's trick-or-treaters were actually in keeping with church tradition. After all, All Hallows' Eve celebrates the day before All Saints' Day, which is a party dedicated to the superheroes of the church!
So, to keep this tradition, I offer some superhero stories. Not the big, blockbuster tales (I'm lookin' at you, The Avengers), but some lesser-known gems. Enjoy!
Chronicle: It's a simple story: teenagers stumble upon superpowers; some become heroes and some become villains. What happens next? Do their powers change their nature or do they enhance their fundamental character? This is creatively told, subtly acted, unusually sensitive superhero origin story. I don't think there's been talk of a sequel, but it's one I'd actually like to see (unlike most of the superhero-industrial-movie-complex).
Bionic Woman: Reviews for this show were mixed but I maintain that it had potential. The lead actor, Michelle Ryan (who is wonderful in other projects), was miscast - especially next to the charisma-machine that is Katee Sackhoff. But the atmosphere was moody and fun and, had Sackhoff been the lead, I think this show could have really caught on with audiences.
Alphas: What would it really be like if you developed superhuman powers? Would it be a 10 min. montage where you work to define yourself and then all fun and games? Or would you struggle? Like, really struggle? Alphas distinguishes itself by imagining in detail the problems with being extraordinary. Like X-Men? You'll love this tale of genetic anomalies, abilities, and evolution. Fair warning: like a lot of good television, this show was cancelled too soon, so don't expect a clean ending.
Disclaimer: I thought about trying to make this post about religion & Halloween, but I gave up. Instead, I offer you a good horror story for your celebration of the Day of the Dead:
This year for Halloween I plan on dressing up and eating my weight in candy corn while I give sweets to my neighbor kids. If you, like me, enjoy creepy movies this time of year, add Housebound - a 2014 horror-thriller-slasher-comedy film from New Zealand - to your list.
The premise of Housebound is this: Kylie, a rebellious (and criminal) young woman has committed one too many robberies and she is sentenced to 8 months of dank and dusty house arrest with her mother Miriam and stepfather Graeme in the country. For a city girl with attitude problems, 8 short months with her doting mother and clueless stepdad feels like a boring eternity-worse-than-death.
Not to worry! Soon eerie things start happening in the house that pique Kylie's interest. She overhears Miriam calling in to a radio show to say that her house is haunted; creepy toys seem to follow her around the house on their own; a menacing next-door neighbor must be up to no good. Kylie enlists a the security contractor who oversees her ankle monitor to help her investigate. What follows are bloody, funny, and legitimately scary hijinks.
Like Scream,Housebound has just the right amount of humor and thrills. Like Cabin in the Woods, it riffs on standard horror stories and includes surprising twists. And as the plot unfolds, Housebound stands on its own as a weirdly sweet family comedy.
For fun and fright this Halloween, you'll want to stay in and watch Housebound.
What should a society do when faced with terror attacks? What should citizens do when the future of their government is uncertain? And what role should religion play in all of this?
These are tough and timely questions that should be asked and discussed in the classroom. Many educators are (understandably) nervous about facilitating theses kinds of discussions because any time an instructor takes on a controversial topic, s/he assumes a good deal of risk. Science fiction is a great vehicle for teaching controversial subjects like the role of religion in the body politic because it allows students to enter into a story and debate important issues in a non-threatening way; the society that they are discussing is far, far away from their own religious or political experiences.
If you want to generate some fantastic discussion about whether or not religious values do/can/should influence society from heads of state to the average person, I recommend Battlestar Galactica (2004).
The premise of BSG is this: sometime in the not-too-distant future, humans create robotic technology (cylons) that develop consciousness and rebel against their creators. For years, humans and cylons war and eventually come to a truce. BSG begins when cylons break their longstanding peace and destroy the many planets on which humans live (12 to be exact). The only humans who remain are a rag-tag group of space ships led by a rickety old relic from the past war, the Battlestar Galactica.
How will humanity survive? How will it thrive? And will religion play a part in humanity's salvation? These questions (and many more) are at the heart of the series. As the last remnant of humanity flees from their enemies and searches desperately for a new home, socio-political and religious divisions abound. Wealthy people from the planet Tauron clash with the impoverished, oppressed planet of Sagittaron. Humans from the planet Gemenon cling devoutly to their polytheistic scriptures and prophecies about the future of humanity; politicians from the capital planet of Caprica are not so sure that the gods have anything to do with humanity's destruction or its future. And of course all of the humans have to wrestle with what it means to have human rights (and how those ought to be protected) if there is little to nothing distinguishing cylons from their creators.
The more detailed conversations students have about the intricacies of this sci-fi world, the more real-world connections they are able to make in their own contexts. Plus, it's a ton of fun. I dare you not to root for Starbuck, Apollo, & Co. So say we all!
"For better or worse, and in this case worse, this is real history."
Professor Lucy Preston to her history students (and to us the viewers?) in Timeless
On paper, Timeless was made for me. It is about a tenure-track lady historian who discovers that she must save America (and maybe the world?!) from a time-traveling terrorist with her historian skills (and super cute colleagues). And, it was created by Eric Kripke, who created Supernatural (I love this show with a deep, abiding love). AND it stars Abigail Spencer from Mad Men, Paterson Joseph from the uneven, but overall-worth-thinking-about The Leftovers, Matt Frewer (Dr. Leekie!) from the truly wonderful Orphan Black, and Malcolm Barrett from the under-watched Better Off Ted. AND the pilot takes viewers to the WWII era.
Why, why, WHY don't I love this show? Here's the short list of reasons why not:
1. The dialogue is generic. "Your canceling my tenure meeting?" asks Professor Lucy. Of course if that was how tenure review worked, this would be the MOST TERRIFYING line in the entire pilot for us academics, but it is not. Here tenure is used in the most generic way give us exposition about Lucy's lack of job prospects. Okay, I realize only my academic friends will get this point, but there are several other examples in the pilot where generic plot twists are used where detailed world creation would be more compelling (see for example the haunting Southern Gothic Rectify, which also stars Abigail Spencer).
2. The plot is confusing. Eric Kripke is the king of creating a simple plot with complex emotional dynamics that has staying power (12 seasons of Supernatural!). This plot is actually fairly simple (take old, derelict time machine and save the world by chasing villain in fancy, new time machine!), but it's told in such a convoluted way that the viewer has to pay attention for all of the wrong reasons.
3. There's not enough attention to historical detail. Of course, as an academic, I am going to harp on this. But attention to detail is important if you are doing a show about time-traveling. Sadly, the pilot's inattention to detail ends up trivializing unfortunate historical realities like the danger of being African American in 1930s America. Or being a woman for that matter.
Will I try Timeless again? Yes. Because, Eric Kripke, Abigail Spencer, et. al. And, it is about a tenure-track lady historian who discovers that she must save America (and maybe the world?!) from a time-traveling terrorist with her historian skills and super cute colleagues. Would I recommend it? Sorry to say, no. But I'll keep you posted!
NB: I think it's worth noting that I am a huge nerd and I didn't include ONE pun about time travel in this review. You're welcome, dear readers.
"The Aboriginal people of Australia are the longest surviving culture on earth with over 60,000 years of stories known as The Dreaming. The Dreaming is the spiritual realm that binds the past, present and future together. It is inhabited by incredible creatures and spirits. At the head of this realm is the Cleverman, a powerful man who is the conduit between The Dreaming and the real world."
Opening credits of Cleverman on Sundance TV
In the world of Cleverman, a mysterious group of ancient creatures known as "Hairypeople" - who have lived peaceably and secretly alongside humans for millennia - have been discovered in contemporary Australia. As is often the case with new and different people, they are not warmly received by the general public or the Australian government. Hairies are deemed "subhuman," and are required to live in "The Zone," an undesirable part of the city. As Hairies are stronger, faster, and, well, hairier than humans, the powers that be are both interested in and fearful of their potential. Adding to the fear and distrust of Hairies - a series of gruesome murders are terrorizing the inhabitants of The Zone.
Who can bring peace to this world? Who will advocate for the Hairies and protect the people of The Zone? Of course it's the Cleverman of Aboriginal lore. He's old, though, and seems ready to pass the mantle on to one of his two nephews: Warru, a human/subhuman activist who has been groomed for the role his entire life, or his half-brother Koen (who is also half-Aboriginal) who makes a living exploiting terrified Hairypeople for his own gain. The choice seems obvious - or does it?
Cleverman has many layers. It explores timeless mythical themes such as strife between two brothers, reluctant heroes, developing virtue, supernatural anointing, and of course the ancient story of the Cleverman & the Dreaming (probably new to most non-Aussies - it was to me!). It also includes classic sci-fi tropes and ethical quandaries around issues of genetics, reproductive politics, the limits of science, etc. And, you don't have to dig very deep to find excellent conversation starters about immigration, racial and ethnic identity, class warfare and xenophobia. At its heart, however, Cleverman is a superhero origin story that I hope to follow for many seasons.
"You're being manipulated, my friend, by forces you don't understand."
Father Marcus Keane to Father Tomás Ortega in The Exorcist
Confession: I have never seen the original The Exorcist. Should I? You tell me. But you'll have to make a good case. Even the trailer scares me!
I do know the plot of the film, however, and I was curious: how would one of the scariest films of all time translate to the small screen? So, I decided to brave the pilot. Although this is not a remake, the basic bones of the original The Exorcist are present in the new FOX show. A young Roman Catholic priest is about to confront something unbelievable to many in the Western, industrialized world: demonic possession. An old, battle-weary priest - who has waged a (largely unsuccessful) war against the demonic for many years - will (probably) be providing much-needed reinforcements.
If you know anything about the original film or novel, you'll be able to predict much of the pilot. There are a few interesting twists (including who is actually in need of an exorcism) and I thought the overall tone of the show was appropriately menacing. And the cast is solid. I always like seeing Geena Davis and Alfonso Herrera, who at first seemed WAY too handsome to portray the intrepid Fr. Tomás, is very good!.
Of course there is the Catholic-ish (heavy on the "ish") stuff. Clichés abound: a (possibly?) lovelorn priest? Check. An cartoonish oppressive Catholic hierarchy that stymies the work of a few moral actors? Check. Fancy old relics that go unexplained? Check. A television show like The Exorcist has potential to raise questions about the arrogance of the industrialized world when it comes to spirituality (have we modernized ourselves to a world without God or Satan? And who is Satan/the devil anyway? a personal being? a force of evil?), the limitations of medical science (must every malady be explained through a medical diagnosis?), the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world (what are relics and what is their power)? Instead, the viewers have to settle for a relatively mundane (although I am sure very common) situation: a priest whose sense of calling is in doubt. Does one need demonic possession to ask that question? Hopefully the writers will dig a little deeper in future episodes. Horror enthusiasts will be disappointed to know that The Exorcist under-delivers when it comes to creepiness. On the one hand, we can blame this on network television; you can't get away with the vulgar, disturbing scenes from the film when kiddos could be watching. On the other hand, The X-Files, Supernatural, and other network shows demonstrate that it is possible to create genuinely scary moments that will make it past censors. Verdict? Not all that exciting. But, the very last minute of the show livened things up enough for me to give The Exorcist another try... until then, I remain a skeptic!
At least that is the premise of The Good Place (NBC), a show that I cannot believe I almost missed. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has just died. Not to worry, though! She has landed in "The Good Place," which is neither heaven nor hell (turns out there is no heaven or hell - no religion got the afterlife right... just some stoner from Canada); it's where the really good people go. Someone (or several someones?) in the afterlife does a meticulous calculation of every deed done in a life and determines whether or not the dead get to go to The Good or Not-So-Good place. Those in The Good Place get a house made especially to their liking, all the fro-yo, and a soulmate!
But Eleanor has a problem: Someone "forked up" (turns out you can't swear in The Good Place) and she is in fact not the saintly type of person who would get rewarded in the afterlife. She is a deeply - and comically - flawed person and those flaws seem to be wreaking havoc on The Good Place. No one knows this more than The Good Place's well-meaning architect Michael (Ted Danson) and Eleanor's soulmate and recently deceased moral/ethical philosophy professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper).
Poor Chidi is now faced with a moral dilemma: should Eleanor be exposed so that the communal afterlife can be saved? Or, should Chidi protect Eleanor and teach her how to be good so that she can stay? And, what does it mean to be good? Does goodness depend upon intentions? Actions? Character? Destiny? Genetics? Also, how does one go about becoming good? By doing good works? By learning how to have empathy? Does it matter?
The Good Place tackles all of these questions and more. Kristen Bell (I will always love her for the superb Veronica Mars) is a lovable, terrible person. We want her to be better but we also love watching her be bad. And of course we'd all like to think that we'd belong in The Good Place with her. The trailer might lead you to think that this is a show that is about religion. But it's more about complex moral philosophies displayed with sarcasm & silliness. Perfect for any course on ethics, philosophy, and/or religion.
"I always wanted to know, 'Why am I here? What is the point? How do I live a meaningful life?'"
Will Allen in Holy Hell
***Warning: this film includes explicit material that viewers may find disturbing***
How does religion shape a person or group's identity? What if a religious group is one of those outliers - popularly referred to as a cult - that molds a group to stand out in radical ways from the world around them? And what if that group is dangerous? These are perennial questions in religious studies and Holy Hell gives viewers an insider's perspective on how they play out in one such outlying group. Holy Hell was made by Will Allen, man who spent 22 years living andfilming life in Buddhafield, a nomadic spiritual group that Allen - then a recent film school graduate - and many others joined in 1980s West Hollywood. Through Allen's lens, we see a group of beautiful young people become enthralled with Michel Rostand (or is that is name?) a charismatic, speedo-loving spiritual leader and performance artist. I am fascinated by religious innovations (I grew up in one!), especially those from the 1970s and 80s. I knew from the trailer that I would be hooked; there's just something about the combination of New Age (ish) philosophy, spandex, and banana clips that is too good to miss! I expected to find a silly remnant of hippie aspirations and West Coast religious creativity. What I didn't anticipate was the sympathy I felt for former members and the suspense and dread that I felt as stories of control, abuse, and sexual assault began to surface. There are several revealing documentaries about Jonestown and Scientology, but Holy Hell gives the viewer something distinct: an artistic rendering of a charismatic leader and his group that changes as the filmmaker/adherent transforms from adoring devotee to heartbroken apostate. Holy Hell is a poignant (and sometimes terrifying) tale about American religious innovation, religion & mass media, religion in the American West, sexual abuse & religion, and more. Unlike many "cult" documentaries, this isn't a film about a corrupt leader (or leaders). What we see is the rise and fall of the devoted. It's about the joy of falling in love with Michel. It's about the euphoria of finding a place to belong and people who love you. It's about thriving together. And it's about the excruciating pain that an entire community feels when they realize that not everything in their ideal world is as it seems. It's about their loss. You may come to this film for insight into religious innovations and discussions about power and sexual abuse, but you'll stay out of genuine care for the devoted.
"September 23rd. Journal Entry 1. I'm Liz Parker and five days ago, I died. After that, things got really weird."
So begins September's adorable binge-worthy choice. This summer I rewatched Roswell. The show's premise is that aliens did land in Roswell in 1947, but their story really got started in 1999 when 3 alien teenagers reveal their secret to local high schoolers. Based on a popular young adult novel series, Roswell uses UFOs to explore themes of teen angst, family dynamics, and the fact that all of us feel a bit like aliens at one time or another. Decidedly more earnest than Buffy (which is a strength and a weakness), Roswell shines when it focuses on its kitschy setting (alien conventions! little green men costumes! Jonathan Frakes cameos!), Romeo & Juliet-esque leads Liz and Max, and the good chemistry of its talented young cast (you'll recognize more than a few famous faces). This show is less good when awkwardly fusing Native American spirituality with the aliens' journey of self-discovery. And, like The X-Files, my favorite episodes focus on character development and humor; the conspiracy theories get a bit cumbersome. Overall, if you are looking for 3 seasons of extraterrestrial fun, a few "big questions" about identity & family & spirituality, all in a turn-of-the 21st century teen drama package, this is the show for you.
Happy Fall, everyone! 'Tis the season to find a new t.v. obsession and I am always looking for new shows that bring religion, sci-fi, & fantasy together in a pop-culture package. Here's what I'll be watching this fall (reviews to follow!):
Emerald City (premiere: January 6, NBC): "dark, edgy" reboot of L. Frank Baum's classic novels. On the surface I should be super in to this show. Fantasy? Check. Edgy reimagining? Check. Vincent D'Onofrio? Triple Check! A K9 Police Dog... wait, what? This is a bit of a red flag. NBC has a habit of making all of their shows police procedurals (ever since they cancelled the excellent Law & Order for no good reason!). Can't we just have fantasy? Jury's still out on this one.
The Exorcist (premiere: September 23, FOX): Mmmk. As a scholar of religion & popular culture, I have to pay attention to this show. But I will admit, just the idea of the show scares the bejeezus out of me (you can't take the Pentecostal out of the girl!). And, the photos of the cast look a bit soap opera-y to me. Will I try it? Jury's still out.
Making History (premiere: TBA, FOX): A show about a professor who creates a time machine and goes back to re-write American history? Did someone at FOX read my mind? Plus, Adam Pally.
Midnight, Texas (Premiere: TBD, NBC): I was one of the few people who did not love True Blood, so I am not too sure about another Charlaine Harris adaptation. But, a story about supernatural beings in small town Texas sounds too much like Supernatural meets Friday Night Lights to ignore.
Powerless (Premiere: TBD, NBC): Workplace comedy about normal (non-hero) people set in the DC Comics universe starringAlan TudykandDanny Pudi. I know I don't have to explain why I'm excited about this show to all of you, my nerd-friends.
Time After Time & Timeless (Premiere Dates: sometime in 2017 on ABC, Oct. 3 on NBC, respectively): Apparently network minds think alike. Two shows about needing to go back in time and save someone/some people/America/the world/etc. I like the premise of Time after Time best, but I love the creative team behind Timeless. Bonus entry: Just heard that about Ghosted, a paranormal sci-fi + comedy starring Craig Robinson & Adam Scott. Yes, please!
Beginning in the fall of 2016, I'll be starting a monthly post on all things religion & popular culture. Tune in for recommendations on t.v., movies, and books that delve into hot topics in religious studies!