With the end of another great season of Preacher and the protest of said series by fundamentalist Christian organizations, we’re left to ponder the way television has treated religion. As society has changed, so has its reflection in pop culture, and there seems to be a trend.
Although modern audiences seem to be secular or anti-religion in their harsh critique (and mockery) of modern faiths, this wasn’t always the norm. In the past, some shows were quite supportive of particular spiritual ideals and ideologies.
As we await the next in AMC’s adaptation of Garth Ennis’ masterpiece series, let’s remind us how TV (and ourselves) have treated various dogma and mythos.
In the 1980’s, most shows kept things low-key – if the supernatural was shown, it was often positive. Highway to Heaven is the most well-known series, about an angel sent to Earth and required to help people.
Then again, this was an era when most prime-time shows were very family-oriented, and the FCC became a little more critical of content. Religious critique, particularly of Christianity, would likely attract major complaints.
During the 1990’s, television content began to grow more risqué, but direct criticisms or mockery was still rare. Series like Buffy and Charmed presented demons as evil and angels as good, with only a few exceptions. Other religions were usually presented in positive lights, especially those that were growing in popularity.
The most notable series of the era was Touched by an Angel, another show about an angel tasked with helping average people. Once more, the positive aspects of the supernatural were lauded with a minimal critique of dogma.
As the previous shows ended in the 21st century, television’s treatment of angels and demons took a more critical turn.
Supernatural started with demonic antagonists but soon added angelic ones as well. ABC Family’s Fallen, based on the young adult novels, also questioned the righteousness of Heaven’s hosts. Audiences were no longer accepting the “good versus evil” dichotomy and began to explore the gray area of religion.
Lucifer questioned the “good versus evil” claims, with the titular character representing personal freedom rather than malevolence. In fact, the fallen angel is the protagonist of the series, laying the blame on heinous actions primarily on man’s free will rather than any demonic influence.
Preacher took things even further, condemning practically everything involving Christian dogma. The Church, Angels, and even God were targeted and mocked, to the point that some groups declared blasphemy.
Ironically, both series are based on 1990’s comics, suggesting that the critique was there; but mainstream audiences weren’t ready until now.
This shift in perceptions of faith seems to reflect an ever-changing society and doesn’t show any likelihood of slowing down. Starz’ adaptation of American Gods targeted not only Christianity but also all religions and mythologies, although American fundamentalism was hit hardest.
Where will shows like Lucifer, Preacher, and American Gods take us? Are we long past the days of “family-friendly” shows about benevolent angels helping people?
These questions are as unknown as the presence of an ultimate deity, or whether you can kill him/her/it. All I know is, as atheistic, agnostic, and irreligious views increase, you can probably expect television to treat religion the way it does social and political issues.