Monsters We Love: The Power of Stories in Every Era, in Every Medium
by Krista Tippett, host
When I first sat down to interview Diane Winston, I told her that I didn’t want to start our conversation with zombies and vampires. I didn’t want to spend all of our time on them, but they quickly became the focus of the entire first half of our conversation nevertheless.
As I had sensed, and Diane Winston helped me understand in a whole new way, monsters — human and otherwise — are an immensely playful and deeply serious way in to the story of our time. And television — as she and I first discussed a few years ago through shows like Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire — is a medium where more and more creative people are drawn to tell this story in fresh and surprising ways. Like it or not, TV is a primary place in this culture where we act out the ancient human compulsion to engage who we are, what we fear, who we aspire to be.
Not surprisingly, as much has changed on the planet in the past few years, much has changed on the small screen. There is what I’d call a whole new genre of total civilizational collapse. Art and drama confront reality by exaggerating it. The instability people are feeling and fearing from the economy onwards comes out in the new TV season through scenarios in which a mysterious plague has turned most of humanity into soulless zombies (The Walking Dead); total environmental collapse has sent humans back in time to co-exist with dinosaurs (Terra Nova); and aliens have disabled modern technology and wiped out government and civil society as we know it (Falling Skies). Falling Skies was co-created by Steven Spielberg, and its departure from the sweet memory of E.T. surely says something about shifting perceptions of the hostility of the world “out there” — extraterrestrially and terrestrially.
The Walking Dead and its zombies, as I hadn’t quite realized until I dug into this topic, deserve special attention. Its second season premiere was the highest-rated television drama in the history of basic cable among viewers in the 18-49 demographic. It picks up some of the themes and touches of the wildly popular Lost. It turns them inside out as well. In Lost, bands of survivors were thrown together to find their way out of a supernatural place; along the way, they knew equal measures of love and loss, tragedy and redemption. In The Walking Dead, Earth itself has become a supernatural place in a horror story way. And the zombies — murderous creatures who used to be human and are now reactivated brain stems — are not the walking dead; the survivors are, as the show’s creators tell us up front. Life is reduced to a nightmare. Moments of hope and redemption are scarce and short-lived.
A semi sports an advertisement for The Walking Dead on its payload. (photo: Ewen Roberts/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd)
As Diane Winston points out — and she is one of the sharpest watchers of these things I know — these plot lines are thick with ancient, abiding questions of meaning, of the presence or absence of God, of morality writ large. In this show, we play a scene taking place in an abandoned church in The Walking Dead, which is as overtly theological as anything I’ve seen on television in my life — complete with a cross, prayer, confession, martyrdom, and overtones of Jesus in Gethsemane and the sacrifice of Isaac. Diane Winston says to me, at one point, “People have been asking ‘Where is God?’ for thousands of years and why wouldn’t we be asking the same question? And why wouldn’t we want to represent it in our own language rather than in the King James version?”
It’s a relief, really, to turn from zombies to vampires, who populate a number of shows and who at least have emotional lives and relationships. True confession: I am a True Blood lover, as is Diane Winston. Vampires unlike zombies, she points out, are sexy. They are playful characters for projecting ideas about mortality, otherness, and the meaning of being human. And in part because their “true blood” is obviously fake, they fare positively in contrast to other monsters on TV right now who happen to be human — the serial killer Dexter or the teacher-turned-meth dealer and murderer on Breaking Bad. It is completely fascinating to hear what Diane Winston knows about the intentions of the writers of these series — the fact, for example, that Vince Gilligan, the series creator of Breaking Bad’s bleak badness, is all about examining the reality that actions have consequences.
As a mother as much as anything else, I occasionally worry about the severity of these images as tools for examining morality. But Diane Winston’s perspective is bracing and comforting in some sense — reminding us to trust the power of stories which have endured through every era of human confusion and darkness. I remember the psychiatrist and author Robert Coles telling me how children know what to do with stories — and that we shield them from the world’s darkness and despair at their own peril. It is after all their world to make sense of, to navigate, and to repair.
And in the end, this is not a dark hour of radio. We’ve layered lots of great sound of various TV shows throughout my conversation with Diane Winston. We move beyond zombies and vampires to fascinating religious complexity in 24’s successor, Homeland, and the fascinating back story to HBO’s Enlightened. It’s a strange and unpredictable mix that’s in the end funny and scary, bleak and hopeful, endlessly mysterious and endlessly familiar. Like life itself.
What Are You Watching on TV This Season?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Women gone wild. The rise of the anti-hero. Reenchanting the world. Nostalgia for the recent past.
These are just a few of the themes peppering our television landscape. How do these narratives reflect who we are (or want to be)? Why are we longing for stories about these kinds of characters and situations at this particular moment? Where do religious themes and imagery figure into the latest crop of television storytelling?
What shows or characters capture your attention? Send us your ideas for clips by October 27. Here’s what we’ll need from you as virtual producers:
- Series name
- Episode name/number
- Time clip starts and ends (about 1 minute, 30 seconds in length)
- Scene description - a few sentences about why you think it’s intriguing
Oh, and don’t forget to let us know who you are. Let the production begin!
Yes, I Was Lost…
Krista Tippett, host
I discovered Lost just a few seasons ago and immersed myself via Netflix with the zeal of a convert. Trent has been asking me to blog about Sunday’s finale, but honestly I’m stumped — still trying to wrap my mind around what it means. For now I am happy to pass on this from Diane Winston, one of my favorite observers of how we are telling the story of our time on television.
She called her blog on the finale “The Day After” and it starts like this:
“Last night’s Lost finale may have done more for mainstreaming religion than Mitch Albom’s bestsellers. All around the Internet—from forums and blogs to MSM sites and academic journals—musings on faith, redemption and the power of love are suddenly de rigueur. Here’s one good wrap-up of first-wave critiques, but also check out Brent Plate’s excellent overview for Religion Dispatches. Plate revels in Lost’s religious mash-ups and pop-culture mixings because the show’s ultimate meaning is key: ‘Whether Locke or Shephard or Austen are saviors or demons does not matter. The hero is the community, the living together.’”
Taking the Pulse of Caprica
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
Are you watching Caprica? We’ve heard from many of you who were Battlestar Galactica (BSG) fans — including our host — so I’m guessing some of you are tuning in to this prequel series. If so, you may be interested in the comments of Diane Winston, who was part of our program “TV and Parables of Our Time.” Along with three other religion and culture observers, Winston is contributing to a new weekly feature devoted to delving into “deep exegesis” of Caprica:
“We loved BSG because in the post-9/11 moment, it captured our consternation and confusion. Why do they hate us? Can we justify torture? What makes us human? When can we stop fighting? Moreover, it lodged these questions in the space between human passion and species survival, mediating the religious quest for meaning with the political will to win.
Caprica, going back to how this came to be, meets us in the present. This is what we face, too: religious extremism, economic inequality, anti-immigrant fervor, a military increasingly dependent upon drones, the lure of the virtual worlds, and the comfort of slick surfaces. Like BSG, Caprica asks, “What makes us human?” But this time, the answers seem a lot closer to home.”
Sifting Through Screens
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The image above is a photo of artist Nam June Paik’s video installation “TV Buddha.” It’s always been a favorite of mine for its clever take on the practice of meditation — a Buddha statue “contemplating” a live video image of itself. This picture is one of the photos that we considered for our recent program, “TV and Parables of Our Time,” but it didn’t end up making the final cut.
Choosing images for our programs is one of my favorite parts of this job, but it’s not always easy. The best image usually contains some mix of aesthetic appeal, editorial relevance, and that slippery, hard to pin-down thing we call “sensibility.”
“TV and Parables of Our Time” was no exception. I initially proposed to Trent (SOF’s online editor) using images from the TV shows Krista and Diane Winston discussed (much like our Web site for “A Return to the Mystery”). After talking it over a bit, we decided this conversation deserved a different approach — so it was off to Flickr, Getty, or any other place I might be able to find the right image.
I struggled to figure out where to start searching for an image with this program. The most obvious starting point was to start with an image search for “television,” but that seemed a little too easy. I came back to Trent with a set of images (included above), pushing the one you see on top with the young girl facing sideways. Unable to find something directly related to the program (other than the presence of a television), I had mostly gone for images I found visually interesting. Trent’s advice: keep looking.
I find that there’s no sure-fire way to accomplish this task, but it often helps to have more than one set of eyes looking to get it right. It’s real easy to get attached to one element of the program — in this case, the image of a television — and lose track of the larger message. On my second round of searching, I encountered photos of “TV Buddha” and got excited to have found something I already loved — hoping I might be able to make it work for the show. Talking it over with Trent — someone a little less infatuated with the image’s content — helped me realized that, while it may have been a cool image, it wasn’t the right fit for the program.
(photo: Andrea Volpini/Flickr)
I finally came back with one last set of images (above), which included the photo we ended up using, on top. Not only did I like the image, I also appreciated the quote that the photographer included on the photo’s Flickr page. From the Egyptian screenwriter Mohammed Amer, on the subject of Egyptian musalsalat (TV series): “One of the most important things soap operas have done is encourage the public to condemn terrorism.”
I liked that it kept with one of the themes of the program — the power of televised storytelling to help us cope with contemporary issues — but came from a different cultural perspective: Egyptian television rather than the American-made shows discussed in the program. My one concern was that the image seemed a little grainy, but Trent’s input was that the image quality didn’t make it less compelling.
Oh yeah, and I did manage to sneak Nam June Paik into the Web site. Another image I’d found on the last round of searching included Paik’s large installation “Megatron/Matrix,” which we ended up using for the site’s secondary pages.
(photo: Garrett Miller/Flickr)
The “Lion King” Is Al Swearengen
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Last Monday, Krista strode into the office that morning immediately asking if anybody had seen the premier of NBC’s new series, Kings. I had; I liked it. Krista was obviously excited about the story’s biblical reference point to the story of King David and its compelling analogs for characters — not to mention that she might just be latching on to a new series after Battlestar Galactica’s recent finale. (I know, I’d just write BG, or BSG, but most people wouldn’t understand this short-hand; I know I wouldn’t have.)
Diane Winston, the Knight Chair of Media and Religion at USC who recently published Small Screen, Picture: Lived Religion and Television, had given her a heads up about the show and urged Krista to watch it. Sounds like we may be interviewing Winston for a potential summertime program on what’s happening with religion and spirituality in popular culture.
Like Nancy Franklin, I was shattered when I heard that the HBO series Deadwood was cancelled. My favorite character was the megalomaniacal saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) — a man who was as viciously cunning and and pragmatically regal (willing to wash blood stains off his wood floor even though he commandeered from his second story chambers) and inhumane as they come. When he was virtuous, it was often base, but I loved him for his acts of kindness, even though they were somewhat demented.
Seeing McShane on the premier of Kings was like hearing the male cardinal calling out in the fresh spring air after a long, hard, cold winter. Despite all the intriguing biblical allusions, I dig that the show is futuristic without dating itself, and this is where Franklin nails it in The New Yorker:
It’s imaginative, and its familiar outlines don’t prevent it from being engrossing moment by moment. In fact, it’s engrossing in a rather maddeningly clever way, in the sense that you can’t tell exactly when the series is taking place. It could be ten years from now, it could be thirty years from now, or it could be that the world being depicted is an alternative version of the one we’re in right now; it looks like it, give or take a few buildings and the place-names. Watching the show, you feel a tension as you try to decide whether it’s holding a mirror up to the present or whether it’s making an argument about where the world may soon be headed.
Did anyone else watch it? Is anyone else hooked like I am?