This week’s show came about in the best possible way — while browsing illustrated books about classic literature at a quaint children’s book shop in Minneapolis (The Wild Rumpus). I pitched the brilliant folklorist Maria Tatar as a guest who could talk about why all these timeless stories are infusing our culture in fresh ways these days. The popularity of Game of Thrones and The Vampire Diaries is a testament to the great, inventive work being done.
Fairy tales don’t only belong to the domain of childhood. These stories’ overt themes are threaded throughout hit TV series like True Blood, Grimm, and Once Upon a Time too. These stories survive, says Maria Tatar, by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly re-work in the narratives of our lives — helping us work through things like fear and hope.
I think you’re going to dig this conversation. If so, spread the word: reblog, tweet, post on your own site, you name it.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Q:My wife and I have been loyal listeners of your show for years. Even when we moved to Southampton, NY for 8 years, we were able to find a station and time to hear your very interesting guests, topics and insightful questions and we've progressed with you through the program's name and musical enhancement. But today's show, about TV Monster Shows, seemed to be more like a digression into your personal TV viewing habits and your zeal to appeal to a much younger audience of couch potatoes. Why?
Good morning, Anonymous—
First and foremost, thank you for listening to our program for eight years. This means you’ve been listening since the beginning when we started broadcasting nationally on public radio stations in 2003. What a journey that has been!
As to your critiques about "Monsters We Love: TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy," thank you for the feedback. It helps make us a better, more responsive program in the future and I’d be glad to address your two points. The assumption that we’re catering to a younger demographic isn’t correct. It never came up in any editorial planning meeting or scheduling discussion. Today’s television viewers come in all ages and races. This show came about in part because a fair number of our colleagues and friends over the age of 50 are talking about True Blood, Mad Men, and other shows in the office kitchen, the yoga studio, and at the local coffee shop. And so is Krista. We wanted to embrace this experience and insight, treating it as a production value in and of itself.
That said, we are trying to open up a bit more and taking some fresh approaches. For a few shows each year, we will be address popular culture more directly when we can. We’re trying to serve many types of sensibilities, and this is one area that’s been neglected in my opinion. It’s a stretch area for us and we’re continually trying to find our producing voice for these types of shows.
As to your point about Diane Winston and our host’s “personal TV viewing habits” being a digression, I don’t think of it that way. The intent is to be inclusive as possible, creating an inside-the-room atmosphere. As a producer, I encourage her to show more of her personality in these types of shows about entertainment and culture. Isn’t that part of the power (and the fun) of television: being able to talk about scenes intimately with other people, even acquaintances.
She gives herself over, openly and honestly, to the questions about the material and the conversation. This tone and style had her step out from behind the microphone a bit more than usual so that she wasn’t just an outside observer who feels disconnected from what’s being talked about. Her questions come by way of familiarity and research. She’s a fan and a journalist. This line is a tricky one, and it may move depending on the individual ear.
You are not alone in your criticisms. Some listeners objected to this type of subject matter being on at such an early hour on stations, i.e. the talk about zombies and vampires. Others objected in that we didn’t address particular programs they were watching. But, we also heard from a new group of listeners, via email or Facebook, who appreciated the show. This serves part of our mission too.
Thank you for sticking with us all these years and for adding to the discussion. Hopefully this brief note adds to your understanding of our decisions and we’ll do better next time. Please let us know if we don’t.
Trent Gilliss senior editor
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.
Theodicy Defined: The Power of God and the Problem of Evil
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Tethered between stone and sky. (photo: Enrico Marongiu/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This week’s show has a theological term in its title that sounds obscure, even impenetrable: "Monsters We Love: TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy." Depending on your view of an omnipotent God, it could be both. ”Theodicy” attempts to answer ancient questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “If God is good, why does evil exist?”
The television shows mentioned in “Monsters We Love” are filled with “amoral zombies” and “loving vampires” and “righteous serial killers," as Krista Tippett puts it. At the core of this theodicy is the question of what makes "good" people different from characters we can register instantly as "evil."
The Greek philosopher Epicurus came up with his own twist on the problem of evil, the “Epicurean Paradox”:
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil.”
Merriam-Webster describes theodicy as a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” And on the free will of human beings, one explanation of free will theodicy suggests that God values good choices from humans only if we have the free will to make them. This leaves the possibility for a misuse of free will, and evil choices. For St. Augustine, evil results from the failure of humans to exercise moral responsibility, not God.
What is it about watching the moral failing of others that draws millions of viewers to these TV shows? Maybe it has nothing to do with their final choices or even their failings. For me, it’s empathy for seeing someone else struggle between choices of good and evil in situations where it’s not clear to me how free their will actually is.
Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein Sing Together in 1970 (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It was inevitable that the “man in black” would come up during our interview with Rosanne Cash the week before Thanksgiving. What didn’t come up in the conversation was talk about Johnny Cash’s many friendships and endeavors, including hosting his own variety show on television from 1969 to 1971.
This delightful duet of “Boy Named Sue” with Shel Silverstein, a prolific songwriter and the man who wrote the song, showcases one of those friendships. The poet and children’s book author (yes, I still get choked up when reading The Giving Tree to my boys) then performs “Daddy, What If,” introducing the children’s song with a touching comment about his relationship with his father. That fondness for his own father was mirrored in the way Rosanne Cash spoke about her daddy too.
Zombies, Zombies Everywhere
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
A mass of people dress up for the Toronto Zombie Walk. (photo: Sam Javanrouh/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)
For some reason we’re experiencing a zombie moment. From zombie crawls across the globe to the record-breaking 11 million people who tuned in to watch the season premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies are seemingly everywhere this season. Even sober institutions like The Centers for Disease Control are using zombies to teach us about disaster preparedness.
As we get ready for next week’s interview with Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, we’re wondering about this collective obsession with the walking dead. Why do you think zombies (not to mention other semi-humans like vampires and werewolves) are so appealing to our imaginations right now? Is it campy escapism from our economic woes? Or could it possibly be a reflection of how many people are feeling at this moment — like the walking wounded?
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!
Mike Wallace Interviews Music Genius Franz Liszt (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It’s been some time since we’ve posted a Friday video snack. So how about ten minutes of the comedic genius of Victor Borge with one of the toughest journalists in the business, Mike Wallace.
(A good, ol-fashioned doff of the cap to Performance Today.)
I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?
Now in its fourth season, the show traces the moral evolution of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged chemistry teacher who becomes a meth maker after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. Gilligan’s intent for the character was to transform “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
(photo courtesy of AMC)
~by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer