Thinking Out Loud

April 21, 2020

CBS-TV Continues its Ambivalent Relationship with God

After only two seasons, CBS-TV has cancelled the Sunday night Drama God Friended Me. The show will have a two-hour finale this Sunday night, though not the season finale producers envisioned when drafting the master story arc. That episode was lost when production had to wrap up early due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s really just one in a long series of events where the network develops something and then mysteriously chooses to walk away; a series that goes back to the original Charlie Brown (Peanuts) Christmas special more than 54 years ago. The show had no laugh track, there were actual children doing the children’s voices, the soundtrack was all jazz, and finally, there was that pesky extended reading from the Gospel of Luke.

So as we noted in this article, the network decided to just take a tax writeoff on the entire production. Fortunately, the story ends differently.

Perhaps in more recent memory, there was Living Biblically, a weekly sitcom, which was produced by Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory. As we noted in this article, in order to be sensitive to two different religions’ approach to what Christians call The Old Testament, there was both a Christian pastor and a rabbi on the set while they were filming.

CBS cancelled the show after only one season.

Then in Fall 2017 it was deju vu all over again, as the network introduced God Friended Me, in which the God wouldn’t necessarily be the God of Evangelical American Christianity, and the ‘friended’ wouldn’t necessarily be Facebook. We wrote about the series in this article, and also reviewed the first episode, which I compared, quite accurately looking back, the detailed script writing to the series Lost.

Fans using the hashtag #GodFriendedMe are simply shocked as to why the wholesome series would be deleted, especially “now, when we really need it.” Others are suggesting another network swoop in and save the show, with The Hallmark Channel leading a list of suggestions that also includes FOX-TV and The CW.

One writer notes that the lead character, Miles, will receive “one last friend suggestion;” though it’s unclear if this is in the content which will air on Sunday or in the master arc final episode left unfilmed.

Although Miles is an atheist in the story, Christians resonated with his search for God. His father is portrayed as an Episcopal Bishop in New York City. But some felt the series lost its Evangelical following when a lesbian couple was introduced later this season.

Another writer noted that the cast were equally surprised by the cancellation. The actor who portrays Cara, Miles’ partner-in-crime trying to track down “who is behind the God account” while at the same time helping the people it sends as friend suggestions, resigned herself to the news, “Unfortunately this is the end of the road for the God Squad. We found out yesterday that our show will not be continuing for a third season. I’ve been so humbled by all of the messages I’ve received from all of you throughout these last two years, about how much these stories have impacted your lives and helped you through some tough times.”

Again, it amazes me how these networks invest in the development of these series only to pull the plug if ratings aren’t superlative. Many feel the show suffered by frequent broadcast delays due to sports programming running overtime, but the network contended it was comparing to other programs which have had to deal with the same issue.

Is God still alive and well at CBS? Yes he is, in the form of the occasional editorials by outspoken Roman Catholic and Late Night host Stephen Colbert. Hopefully he isn’t being told to tone down faith-focused references.

I’d like to see this show survive on another broadcast network, just as conservative comedian Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing did when it moved from ABC to FOX. There are precedents for this sort of thing, and I believe God Friended Me still has much longevity.

 

October 1, 2018

Review: God Friended Me

Back on August 27th, I told you about a new series beginning this fall on CBS-TV, and last night, after a 13-minute delay due to NFL Football — you’d think God would have that game under control — the series God Friended Me launched.  Miles Finer, the main character is the son of a minister turned atheist following the death of his mother, and is now an aspiring podcaster hoping to have his faith-focused program picked up by Sirius Radio.

The producers had said that “When we say ‘god,’ it’s the general — we’re not focusing on one religious figure or portrayal;” yet what was shown last night leaned more toward a Judeo-Christian God, probably due to the need to solidly introduce the main character, well-played by Brandon Michael Hall.  

So while the premise is multi-faith — “In the cast, Violett [Beane]’s character is Jewish, Miles (Hall) is an atheist, Suraj [Sharma] is Hindu.” — the execution of the pilot episode was more one-sided by necessity. That will may shift in future scripts.

If I have any takeaway from the show, it’s the extent to which individuals at large have their God-picture shaped by circumstances. One of the many comments on Twitter compared the show to Early Edition, and there are certainly a number of story vignettes involving characters in the right place at the right time, except that here the characters are connected, their stories are intertwined well beyond the realm of coincidence.

For some reason, I was reminded of Lost in the sense there is probably more backstory to the characters than we’ve seen — plus new ones which can be introduced at any time in future episodes through friend requests — and due to the story’s quest; in the case, the Holy Grail being finding out who is behind the “God” social media account.

All that to say that our view of God — even among those of us Evangelicals who contend that the object truth about God is clearly stated in the scriptures — is often subjective.

The pilot’s treatment of both belief and skepticism is respectful. Though the tension is certain there in the father-son dynamic, both viewpoints are given equal credibility.

And for all the Calvinist/Reformed people in the audience, Miles doesn’t confirm the friend request the first time around; God has to keep pursuing him. (But for all the Wesleyan/Arminian viewers, Miles can also unfriend God.)

The show’s downside on broadcast television is that CBS consistently stacks the commercial breaks on all its programs with more clutter promoting other shows than any other network. –“Blip-verts, anyone? — so there is also wisdom in waiting for the Season 1 DVD, though the show needs viewers now for that DVD to happen. 

One review concluded: “Should You Accept a Friend Request From God? I guess that depends on whether you’re still even active on Facebook. If God were smart, he’d pivot to Instagram and connect with the teens via dank memes and absurdist humor. He’s already on Twitter, but that site’s a good approximation of hell.”  You decide. 

The show airs Sunday nights on CBS at 8:00 PM, or, with the football season in full swing, more accurately “After 60 Minutes.”

February 27, 2018

Living Biblically: Producers, Writers and Cast Aimed for Accuracy and Sensitivity

Filed under: bible, Christianity, media — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:20 am

There was both a Christian pastor and a rabbi on the set while they were filming.

That, to me indicates that the creators of the situation comedy Living Biblically which debuted on CBS-TV last night were trying to avoid the many pitfalls of dealing with a sensitive subject: Religion.

Based on — they use the term inspired by — A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically, the show is about a man distraught over the death of a friend who decides to live for a year (or possibly at least the nine months until his child is born) according to every precept and commandment in the Bible.

Brent McCracken previewed a few episodes for The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and noted the lengths to which the production team had gone to deal respectfully with both the Jewish and Christian faiths which share the book we call The Bible.

Living Biblically wants to be a comedy that both Christians and atheists can watch and laugh at—one that provokes both sides without belittling or dismissing them. This is not an easy task, and we’ll see if the show maintains this balance, without feeling boring or neutered, for the rest of the season.

But you can’t expect a show like this to go deep. McCracken, mindful of the perspective of TGC readers adds,

But is this really what Christianity is about? It remains to be seen whether the show will find Chip encountering Jesus, grace, the cross, and the true gospel (I’ve only previewed three episodes), or whether it will continue exploring faith through the vague, but sadly pervasive lens of moralistic therapeutic deism.

And what about the church? Aside from a few visits to a Catholic confessional booth, Chip’s journey is largely of the “personal path” variety, unencumbered by institutional accountability or ecclesial authority. And in this way his faith is a bit more Protestant. It’s just Chip, the Bible, and his experience, with dashes of “clerical guru” wisdom from his ecumenical God Squad sidekicks.

Though meant for laughs, this one-liner from Leslie (describing her husband’s spirituality) is telling: “He’s not super religious. He’s just living 100 percent by the Bible.”

That may be asking a lot of one program. This is CBS, not TBN.  However as Branson Parler at Think Christian notes:

Later episodes, however, do highlight a more complex take on what it means to live biblically in the modern world. When engaging the question of idolatry, Chip is attuned to the way in which his smartphone functions as an idol. Having smashed his phone in a Moses-like fit of rage, he dons a fanny pack in a futile attempt to replace all the functions of his smartphone. Fanny packs aside, this episode presents a more nuanced way of reading Scripture, of understanding not only the message it contained for the original audience, but thinking through what it means to be people shaped by that text in today’s context.

I only watched the one episode but I also watched a 25-minute Facebook discussion with two of the producers and four of the cast members in which I noted that they themselves had been impacted by participating in the series. Behind the project is Johnny Galecki, better known as Leonard on The Big Bang Theory. They pitched the series simultaneously to four networks and Christian Cinema reported that all four were willing to air the program.

…So why do I write all this?

Watching the comments on Twitter after the show had aired, I have to admit I got baited by a woman who found the program blasphemous. I have to admit, while I know the meaning of the word, this sent me looking for various definitions online.

While various dictionaries suggested it involved being sacrilegious, the Christian sites offered a different meaning. BibleStudy.org wrote,

The word blasphemy is mentioned fourteen times in the King James Bible. It is used only twice in the Old Testament and twelve times in the New. Two of the main Scriptures that use the word are found in the books of Matthew and Revelation. In Matthew, Christ uses the word to warn the Pharisees who accuse him of using the power of the devil to cast out demons. In Revelation, the word is used in reference to the Beast power that will soon take control of the entire world and force the worship of Satan onto all people.

BibleStudyTools.com takes this in greater detail:

In English “blasphemy” denotes any utterance that insults God or Christ (or Allah, or Muhammed) and gives deeply felt offense to their followers. In several states in the United States and in Britain, blasphemy is a criminal offense, although there have been few prosecution in this century. In Islamic countries generally no distinction is made between blasphemy and heresy, so that any perceived rejection of the Prophet or his message, by Muslims or non-Muslims, is regarded as blasphemous.

The biblical concept is very different. There is no Hebrew word equivalent to the English “blasphemy, ” and the Greek root blasphem- [blasfhmevw], which is used fifty-five times in the New Testament, has a wide meaning. In both Testaments the idea of blasphemy as something that offends the religious sensibilities of others is completely absent.

I did not see blasphemy by either definition in this program.

I told her she needed to lighten up. Like many, she fails to grasp the place for humor and satire, something we got into here a few weeks ago in this column.  There I noted,

The enemy of The Church today is not those who poke fun at our sacred cows, but the people who simply walk away. I responded to the woman who left the comment:

…For what it’s worth, “hardened hearts” don’t engage. They walk away. They are apathetic. Most of us read something like this and it’s very easy to resonate with the spirit of it, and that is fully compatible — to me at least — with being indwelt by the Spirit of Christ.

Sadly, the person who wrote to me said I had “lost another reader.” In other words, she chose to walk away rather than engage.

See also this article — especially its second half — on being able to laugh at ourselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed the premiere last night and look forward to next week’s program. It raises some interesting themes, and offers what I would call a healthier Hollywood perspective. I hope the “holy rollers” as one Facebook comment called them don’t mess this up with complaints and criticisms.

The humor in Living Biblically is because of the way in which the characters respond to what the Bible says, not at the expense of the book itself.

 

 

 

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