I was so influenced so greatly by a television show in igniting the passion that I had as being a prosecutor — and it was Perry Mason.
—Sonia Sotomayor, in response to Sen. Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) question during yesterday’s confirmation hearings for her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court
Yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor included a lighter moment where Sotomayor shared how growing up watching the TV show Perry Mason inspired her to pursue a legal career. As I listened to radio coverage of the hearings, I realized that being immersed in this week’s program with Diane Winston helped me to hear this Perry Mason reference with new ears.
Yes, television can be cast as frivolous fare — a kind of cotton candy for the mind. But as Diane Winston emphasizes, television narratives are extremely powerful. They illuminate our collective social concerns. The characters we meet in the shows we come to cherish — as Sotomayor testifies — can sometimes inspire big life decisions about who we want to become in the world.
Television also serves as a touchstone and provides points of connection across different life experiences. Yesterday, newly seated Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) shared how he grew up watching Perry Mason in suburban Minneapolis while Sotomayor took in the show from her home in the South Bronx. “And here you are today,” Franken said.
~Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Ever since Krista got me hooked on Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I have noticed very few episodes that didn’t offer some not-so-subtle references to Judeo-Christian theological influences. There are countless examples throughout the program’s four seasons: a “chosen” or select group of survivors travelling great distances trying to find the prophesied “home”; the twelve tribes of mankind; transitioning from pantheism to monotheism, etc. But one of the more blatant is the refrain at the end of most speeches in BSG, “So say we all” — basically serving the same function when a congregation says “Amen” after a part of a church liturgy. And hearing the pantheistic human characters say “Gods damn it” still catches me off guard.
In this week’s program, "TV and Parables of our Time," USC professor Diane Winston notes how the writers of BSG would also weave issues found in today’s real-life news into their story lines. She cites the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib as one example. Winston goes on to suggest that maybe we need good storytelling in order to process the events happening in our world, and that trying to understand the complexity of these events only through news media may not be enough.
As someone who finds the Bible in desperate need of an editor, I wonder if I would find the biblical stories more compelling if they had spaceships and cool sound effects and thrilling scores. Would I find the messages more relevant? I don’t know. It does makes me wonder if these modern narratives like Battlestar Galactica need to have familiar touch points, such as religious rituals and themes that we grew up with, in order to make a space-based story somehow more accessible to our terrestrial lives. Or do they just borrow from great stories, many of which can be found in religious texts? What do you think?
Hollywood in the Classroom
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
Students who enroll in Diane Winston’s "Religion, Media and Hollywood" class at USC get to watch a lot of good TV. Even better, some of the best TV writers and producers in the business visit their classroom to discuss the influences, themes, and ideas undergirding their shows.
Fortunately for the rest of us, many of these guest lectures are videotaped. Take this 2007 talk by Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. He spoke to Winston’s students about the religious influences embedded in the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, including Mormon theology, numerology, and the signs of the zodiac. Moore talks about his development of the mythology of the 2004-2009 version of Battlestsar Galactica to reflect modern concerns around religious fundamentalism and a clash of civilizations propelled by different beliefs.
You can also check out other videos from Winston’s class, including House and Nancy Miller, creator and executive producer of Saving Grace. Both of these shows were mentioned in Krista’s conversation with Winston for our upcoming broadcast, “TV and Parables of Our Time.”
Yeats Reminds Me
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Today is William Butler Yeats birthday. Reading his obituary, I paused on his words about Ireland: “We are a nation of believers. We produce anti-clerics, but atheists, never.” I wanted to know what the great poet meant by that so I started digging for the source of his quote.
After falling short on a number of searches, I stumbled upon this panel discussion of leading journalists around the country discussing the historical relationship of religion and secularism. Scanning the transcript, I thought, “Boy, Krista really should have participated in this… maybe she did?” Lo and behold, a find within the transcript revealed that she was there. The date of the conference: December 2007.
Not exactly breaking news but well worth watching if you’re interested in listening to leading journalists discuss religion in public life. And, please drop me a line if you have any idea about the Yeats quote.
To end, a couple of lines from "In the Seven Woods":
I am contented, for I know that Quiet
Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart
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?
Stepping Outside the “Moral Matrix”
by Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Recently on my way to work I watched Jonathon Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives.” I’m sure it’s no mistake that this talk was published last week — whether you aim to participate or not, partisanship is almost impossible to avoid this close to an election.
In his talk, Haidt breaks down human moral values into five basic elements, then shows how an individual’s placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum is determined by how much emphasis that person puts on each of these values. Once an individual settles into a particular place on that spectrum, that person becomes stuck in what Haidt describes as a “Moral Matrix” (yes, he is alluding to the movie) — we cease to be able to see a moral reality other than our own. The major thrust of Haidt’s talk seems to be that, even though it’s human nature to settle into a moral viewpoint, we can all benefit from “taking the red pill” and stepping out of our “Moral Matrix.”
This interests me especially because, while for many it’s something to work toward personally — like recycling your plastics or eating enough leafy greens — for myself and the rest of the SOF staff it’s a job requirement. Being new to journalism, this is one of the things that caught me a little bit off-guard when I first started working here. For a good portion of my life I have seen political involvement as an inherently virtuous activity — something any upstanding citizen should do. So it was a little strange to realize that as a producer for a journalistic program I was now obligated to think about “conflict of interest” when considering my involvement in any kind of political activity. This issue has become more present than ever now that we are in the middle of producing a two-part series focusing on American politics (you may have already seen the preview of Krista’s conversation with Amy Sullivan), and as our staff discussion of the presidential election sometimes walks the line between editorial analysis and personal belief.
This brings me to one other thing that interested me about Haidt’s presentation: although his message was about moving away from partisanship, he also acknowledged that the audience he was speaking to was predominately made up of social liberals. However, rather than challenge this bias, he definitely played directly to the crowd with the sort of humor he used. It seems that there’s an unavoidable irony in this approach, but perhaps Haidt felt it was more constructive to say “hey, I’m one of you” so that his message would be more openly received. I couldn’t help drawing another parallel to Speaking of Faith: as a public radio program, we can often find ourselves in a similar predicament — both in the makeup of our listenership and of our colleagues. How much is it acceptable to “play to the crowd,” if at all? Do you feel that Speaking of Faith is operating inside a particular “Moral Matrix,” and if so, how?