Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Religious Right On TV

The recent Janet Jackson/FCC flap has provoked a new round of chattering about the Religious Right (tm) and its effect on the TV industry. While I'm very skeptical about most claims made about the influence of the Religious Right -- such claims usually turn out to be a way of pretending that certain opinions are only held by a small minority of fanatics, when they're actually perfectly mainstream (albeit often silly) opinions held by people who aren't on the Religious Right -- that's an issue for some other blog. What I wanted to write about is how the TV industry responded the last time the Religious Right was seen as targeting the TV industry. This was in the late '70s and early '80s, with the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. Producers of shows that were placed on Falwell's "list" of evil/Satanic shows began to fire back. Most famously, Norman Lear started the People For the American Way to counter the Moral Majority, but as far as I know he didn't incorporate the counterattack into any of his shows (or maybe he did and nobody cared; Lear didn't have many good shows on the air by 1980). Other shows actually incorporated satire of or attacks on the Religious Right, most of which were so heavy-handed that they made Falwell look subtle by comparison. In 1981 Tom Shales in the Washington Post described this Hollywood-strikes-back phenomenon:

One of the first signs of this was on the premiere of the short-lived comedy series "Park Place" on CBS. The show was of the "Barney Miller" ensemble comedy type. One of the zany characters was a quaint, prissy, Bible-toting older woman clearly meant to be the tiresome office kook.

When someone said "good morning" to her in the first episode, she responded with, "It is a good morning, because Jesus loves you." This was greeted with a big roar of laughter from the chuckle machine. Usually, prudes and bluenoses depicted in TV comedies never use the words or symbols of actual religious denominations, or revered names like "Jesus." But the rule was changed for "Park Place," perhaps as part of a subtle effort to discredit the Christian Far Right and the Moral Majority that currently seems its most vocal faction.

The name of "Jesus" was also invoked on the two-hour movie premiere of ABC's comedy-adventure series "The Greatest American Hero." The villain of the piece was a right-wing billionaire plotting a military takeover of the country; his minions were spiritual descendants of the Brown Shirts who, just before murdering a black man in the opening scene, told him, "Jesus loves you."

("Park Place," by the way, was created by Reinhold Weege, who later created the somewhat similar but far more successful "Night Court.")

This particular trope -- any character who invokes "Jesus" is either evil or stupid -- became pretty much a TV and movie-industry staple for some years; it's less so now, though the cliche is still trotted out in movies like Saved!

The problem with stuff like this is that it suggests that a) Hollywood producers have never met a religious person in their lives and b) It doesn't do anything to suggest why we should dislike these people, beyond simple class prejudice -- they're vulgar, they use words we don't like, they're more openly religious than we like. To actually counter the Religious Right, you've got to provide some sort of reason why the Religious Right is, well, wrong.

The only show in the early '80s that dealt with the issue in this way was WKRP In Cincinnati, which had been on Falwell's list, probably the presence of then-sex-symbol Loni Anderson. The creator of WKRP, Hugh Wilson, co-wrote an episode called "Clean Up Radio Everywhere," the third-season finale, which featured Falwell-lookalike Richard Paul as a preacher, Dr. Bob Halyers, leading an organization called CURB: Clean Up Radio Everywhere. When WKRP refuses to let CURB dictate its playlist, Halyers organizes a boycott, causing WKRP to lose most of its regular advertisers.

What makes the episode work is that it's actually balanced -- not in the sense of being neutral or having no point of view, but in the sense of taking other points of view seriously. Halyers is not a bad guy; he's far more likable than Jerry Falwell (not hard, of course). Moreover, the episode is told from the point of view of station manager Mr. Carlson (the late, great Gordon Jump), a conservative, religious man who doesn't like songs with dirty words or sexual content any more than Halyers does.

When Carlson later confronts Halyers, the preacher makes a serious and very plausible argument about why CURB's mission is acceptable: he's representing a group of concerned citizens who are exercising their right to express their opinions about the contents of the public airwaves; why should one man (a station manager, a program director) be invulnerable to the complaints of a segment of the public? Then, in the most famous part of this scene, Carlson shows the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine" to Halyers, who pronounces them blasphemous ("Imagine there's no heaven"). Everyone who's seen this episode remembers that part, but not a lot of people seem to remember that that's not the point of the scene. This is the climax of the scene:

Mr Carlson: On the list or not?
Dr Bob: I have no choice but to say on.
Mr Carlson: That decision was made by one man.

What gives Halyers' game away is not that he doesn't like the lyrics to "Imagine," but that he alone is making the decisions about what goes on the list; instead of helping a group of people express their opinions, as he claims he's doing, he's actually using the grassroots argument as an excuse for enforcing his own personal opinions, and passing them off as the opinions of his flock. In other words, the episode actually leaves open the possibility that it would be OK to have a genuine protest by a segment of the public against something that offends them; what it condemns, and what such "protests" usually turn out to be, is one person's attempt to gain an dangerous amount of power (over the people he claims to speak for and the people he speaks against).

You may agree or disagree with the episode's point, but at least it has a point about why the Religious Right is a bad thing. Most such episodes don't have any point; they just kind of assume that these people are yucky and assume we'll feel the same way. With all the bad things about the Christian Right, a TV producer really should find something more to-the-point to criticize than the way they dress or the way they talk.

Incidentally, after WKRP episode aired, Falwell declared on the air that it was further proof of Satan's influence in Hollywood.

Another TV episode that effectively attacks the religious right is a 1997 King of the Hill episode called "Hilloween"; it actually uses a similar tactic to the WKRP episode by having a conservative, fairly religious character (Hank Hill) confront the excesses and sham religion of a Religious-Righter. However, in "Hilloween" Hank's antagonist is a more straightforward villain, spouting rhetoric from Jack Chick tracts and trying to ban Halloween as a holiday for Satanists.

Before ending this overlong post, I should add that that WKRP episode (which, like the rest of the series, will probably never come out on DVD due to music-rights issues) has at least two of my favourite bits of dialogue from the series:

Venus: Well, what about all the sex on television>
Herb: What sex? Every night I go home and just sit there, waiting. And all I see is car crashes.

Les: In a situation like this, I always ask myself, what would my hero Edward R. Murrow think? And I think that Ed would think that this was censorship. Then I think about what my other hero, General George Patton, would think, and I think George would think that radio and television ought to be cleaned up, and if he were alive today, he'd take two armoured calvalry divisions into Hollywood and knock all those liberal pinheads into the Pacific! So as you can see, I'm a very confused man. And when I get confused, I watch TV. Television is never confusing. It's all so simple somehow.

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