Angels in America
The latest batch of US television shows heading our way has a distinctly mystic tone, warns Rob Greene
Do not adjust your television sets! This is not a drill! God and his ilk have seized control of the American entertainment market! Cases in point: Buffy the Vampire Slayer staked her final fiend last spring, but 'young women hearing voices from the beyond' populate a number of new TV programmes. At a time when the broadcast networks are sticking to established formulas police dramas and broad comedies spirituality is a small but growing niche.
Over the summer, the Showtime cable network debuted Dead Like Me, a series in which a girl dies before her life really begins. Even after she gets named to the Grim Reaper gig, she spends most of her time trying to figure out where she went wrong.
CBS's Joan of Arcadia is perhaps the most original of the batch as it explores spirituality and female power with both humour and gravity. Joan, new in town, is a wisecracker who just wants to fit in. Her father is the police chief, putting him in regular contact with dark forces. Meanwhile, Joan's bitter older brother, who is a paraplegic as the result of a car accident, is the most obvious outlet for what is to become her mission. Enter God.
He (capital 'H') first appears on the school bus as a cute boy Joan thinks is following her. Nope, He's the Almighty and He's not looking for a date. He wants other favours, and He's not big with explanations. Later, He takes the form of a little girl on a playground where Joan shows up to fret about her brother's struggles. She asks God to heal him, but He defers.
The Fox drama Tru Calling, features Eliza Dushku, who played Faith in Buffy. Dushku is Tru Davies in a kind of cross between Groundhog Day and Early Edition, an old CBS show about a guy who received tomorrow's paper today and was called upon to prevent the tragedies reported within. It should be noted that if Tru Calling is cancelled it won't be for its message, but because it is crap.
In Wonderfalls, a Fox comedy slated to premiere this winter or spring, an Ivy League graduate has returned to her hometown of Niagara Falls when she begins encountering various souvenirs, all of them depicting animals, asking her to intervene on behalf of troubled souls.
"Teenage girls in particular serve as a metaphor for innocence," says Lynn Schofield Clark, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado and author of From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural. "This is the first television season fully developed in the shadow of 9/11. There's a focus on death and God and destiny. In some ways, the stories are all hopeful, and girls are representative of that hope the audience wants to find."
Followers of American fiction may notice a similar trend toward the spiritual and mystical. Following in Harry Potter's large footprints are children's fantasy epics such as Eragon by Christopher Paolini and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. On the Amazon.com top25 bestseller list, at least ten of the books centre on a mystical or spiritual life; only The South Beach Diet and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die could be considered remotely humanist.
In film, the top releases of the past few years have been fantasybased. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings adaptations top the list. One recent popular comedy, Bruce Almighty, in which an acerbic television news reporter borrows the omnipotent power of God, earned $233 million in the States alone.
Even the Matrix trilogy, which got people thinking about virtual reality again, ended in a spiritual whimper. There's already a short shelf of books on the subject, including The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix.
The Matrix Reloaded, the second of the three movies, was banned in Egypt because of its violence and 'religious themes'. Egyptian critics claimed the film promoted Zionism, because, in the trilogy, the last human stronghold is called Zion.
When the original The Matrix was released, few missed the fact that the film is a retelling of the Passion, in which a tormented young man is 'awakened' to a bleak reality and tasked with mankind's redemption. When we first meet him, Keanu Reeves' character goes by the name Thomas Anderson: Thomas was the saint who is famed as a doubter; the surname can be translated as 'son of man'. His hacker alter ego, Neo, is Greek for 'new' and an anagram of 'one', as in 'The One'. His mentor Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is a standin for John the Baptist; the treacherous Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) serves as Judas.
In the last film, The Matrix: Revolutions, Neo gives his life so that we might live free. Will the real Christ please stand up?
A portion of Americans says 'Amen' every time President Bush steps up to the bully pulpit. The segment of the population is more vocal, and possibly bigger, that it has been in years. If art, and I use the term somewhat loosely, shadows life, then perhaps this phenomenon will stay on the American side of the Atlantic.
But if life imitates art, beware. Your children are watching and reading this stuff too.