In an era defined by apocalyptic news stories like border walls and rampant gun violence, the belief in divine intervention is beginning to sound more inconceivable than, say, a zombie apocalypse. That’s undoubtedly why prophetic TV series such as “The Walking Dead,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Years and Years” have captivated audiences already losing hope in humanity.
But that sense of despair has provided space for other fascinating small-screen fare to explore and even interrogate faith and God in an increasingly cynical society.
From “The Good Place” to “God Friended Me” to “Preacher,” TV writers seem to be scrambling to unpack some of the biggest questions we face today as we struggle to make sense of the world around us. Is God real? Is God good? Are there really sinister consequences for evildoers on Earth? And most provocatively, can God be one of us?
The comic book-inspired series “Preacher,” which concluded in September, subverted the traditional image of a selfless, adoring God and offered a mean-spirited, egotistical celestial being (Mark Harelik) that didn’t even care about dying babies. Meanwhile, on “The Good Place,” God is an ever-evolving figure whose qualities are currently embodied by Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a semi-reformed sinner struggling to take on the herculean task of rehabbing fellow residents damned to The Bad Place. And on “God Friended Me,” God is reduced to a mysterious Facebook account that inspires Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall), an atheist, to assume the holy responsibility of helping people in need.
“From 'The Good Place' to 'God Friended Me' to 'Preacher,' TV writers seem to be scrambling to unpack some of the biggest questions we face today as we struggle to make sense of the world around us.”
What all these shows have in common is a dubious faith in God’s existence and goodness, supporting speculation that we’ve been left to our own devices. At best, that could mean fulfilling God’s presumed duties on our own, as in the case of “God Friended Me,” but at worst, could mean anarchy. Equally as ominous, God could be real but malignant, which could also explain the state of the world.
But Dr. Joe Valenzano, associate professor of communication at the University of Dayton and author of “Religion Across Television Genres: Community, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, and Supernatural,” told HuffPost that God’s darker or humbler image on TV may actually be teaching audiences about a Christian message.
“I think a lot of those depictions subtly link to the notion that God created us in His image, which is fundamental in Christianity,” he said. “If we’re flawed, He must be too.”
That’s certainly a valid interpretation of these representations of God. But what’s most interesting is how these fictional characters, and consequently, their audiences, regardless of their religious affiliations (or lack thereof), are more willing to question faith at all. While almost every era of television has delved into the notion of a heavenly spirit — see “The Twilight Zone,” “Touched by an Angel,” or “Supernatural” — viewers are now intrigued by storylines that challenge the idealism of God and religion.
“People are confronting a more complex world,” Valenzano said. “That’s driving them to think more deeply about good and evil because it’s not as simple as it was during the Cold War. So they’re drawn to [series] that challenge the traditional notion of good versus evil and tackle things from a gray area.”
There is no other series on TV that explores this rise in skepticism more palatably than “The Good Place,” which over the course of four seasons transformed its fictional sinners (Jameela Jamil, William Jackson Harper and Manny Jacinto round out the cast of transgressors with Bell) into at least believing that there is a heaven and hell. Though God remains a vague influence in the plot, the series offers lighthearted, accessible dialogue that allows audiences across all backgrounds to more critically discuss the role of good and evil, particularly in today’s troubled world.
As “The Good Place” suggests, binary notions of good and bad have no bearing when it comes to whether you’re condemned to The Bad Place, because neither concept is absolute. For instance, there’s an episode when a man buys flowers for his significant other, not knowing that they come from a sweatshop. He did a bad thing, but unintentionally. Does that mean he should go to hell?
The answer to that is no, according to Dr. Holly Wilson, chair of the department of arts, English and humanities at Louisiana State University Alexandria. “We’re in a world where we really can’t even earn to go to a ‘Good Place’ because the options that we have in this life are between bad and worse,” she said.
But she thinks that’s a good thing. “If you look at the Christian religion, [getting into heaven] is not based on your work,” Wilson continued. “Salvation is by grace and not by work, and nobody is good. Nobody can earn heaven. And nobody can go to this ’Good Place’ based on their good deeds.”
“We’re in a world where we really can’t even earn to go to a ‘Good Place’ because the options that we have in this life are between bad and worse.”
So it’s understandable that this kind of revelation, known to the already-enlightened but perhaps recently discovered by secular viewers of “The Good Place,” has made room for newer small-screen depictions of complicated faith that aren’t as jovial.
On “Evil,” for instance, a clinical psychologist (Katja Herbers) teams with a priest-in-training (Mike Colter) to investigate the existence of miracles, demonic possessions and hauntings. Because she comes from a more scientific background and he is devoted to a higher power about which she’s reluctant, the two are often divided on whether an occurrence can be explained logically or on a celestial level.
That’s what lies at the root of today’s era of suspicion. Did a miracle just happen, or was someone just in the right place at the right time? Has God really abandoned us, or do we refuse to see His goodness? Or, as is often the question on “Evil,” is this person possessed by the devil, or are they clinically insane?
Wilson explains that how we reconcile what we see — whether it’s end-of-world circumstances on the news or a margarita-drinking godlike figure wearing jeans and sneakers on “The Good Place” — versus what we believe ultimately hinges on hope.
“It is good to not be completely trusting all the time,” she said. “But if you question alternate reality long enough with suspicion, where can you maintain hope and trust and belief in the goodness of reality?”
Those things, Wilson added, have sustained human life since its beginning and are still valuable today. So, it’s remarkable to see mainstream shows like “God Friended Me,” “The Good Place” and even “Evil” highlight those moments of doubt while still maintaining each character’s inherent goodness.
“Eleanor’s desire to be good is very affirming,” Wilson said, “even though the show is raising suspicion in our minds.”