Friday, September 30, 2016

Religion & Pop Culture Fall Season Review: The Exorcist

"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-FilesSupernatural, 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!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Teaching with TV: The Good Life according to The Good Place

"Somebody royally forked up."
- Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place

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.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Weekend Watching: Holy Hell - the Rise and Fall of a Devotee

"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 and filming 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.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Binge-worthy: Roswell

"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.