Religions Across Television Genres: Community, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, and Supernatural

Valenzano III, Joseph M. and Erika Engstrom. New York: Peter Lang, 2019. 162 pp.ISBN: 978-1-4331-5280-1

 

Communications Studies professors and English academics approach writing about visual pop narratives very differently. The former relish linking communication theories to films in an effort to reveal hidden meaning and manipulation—for instance, applying Uncertainty Reduction theory (when people rely on the initial interactions that occur before actual communication plays out) in, say, the Harry Potter franchise. The latter borrow critical terms reserved for genre-literature and apply them to Hollywood releases in an attempt to remove barriers between the so-called “low” and “high” culture—for example, the male gaze and Pretty Woman. The goal, however, is the same. Indeed, the pop culture-attuned comm scholar and lit-crit pedagogue each argue for the relevancy of entertainment that is adored by the masses and eschewed by serious scholars.

The contrast in assumptions is more pronounced. Communications people operate from the premise that all entertainment is a form of communication and therefore merits study. English folks, meanwhile, categorize pop culture as either reifying inequalities (of race, class, and gender) or undermining these oppressive structures. (Better to deconstruct, naturally.) The end result: outside of conferences like the Far West Popular Culture Association, the disciplines of Communications and English speak from disparate vantages and in unique terms. Fortunately, Joseph Valenzano and Erika Engstrom offer a riveting book of analyses that should intrigue readers across the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, Religion Across Television Genres is as binge-inducing as the programs discussed. Moreover, Valenzano and Engstrom unite Communications and English under a glorious cultural-studies banner with a rigorous, if qualitative, textual analysis that never ceases to enthrall.

Four programs are covered, long-running series of which, unless you’re living under the proverbial rock, you’ve likely seen at least one episode in a hotel, gym, or waiting room. The shows span genres and networks, starting with ensemble comedy (NBC’s Community), moving on to prison drama (Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black), strolling over to zombie epic (AMC’s The Walking Dead), with a final, fun-loving chapter focused on a dark fantasy-romance (CW’s Supernatural). The authors do a bang-up job in their introduction with a review of scholarship devoted to religious themes in popular media entertainment, laying the groundwork for an incisive exploration of exactly how these TV series continue to push religious elements in twenty-first-century Western narratives.

The chapter titled “The Unseen Order of the Study Group: NBC’s Community and Religious Humor” teases out the many religious moments—subtle and flagrant and frivolous—through all six seasons of the series, moments the average viewer might gloss, given how quickly the jokes land. Citing Kenneth Burke’s representative anecdote (the theorizing of language as “a part of” rather than “apart from” reality), Valenzano and Engstrom pay close attention to how each character represents a specific religion—from evangelical Christianity (the motherly African-American character of Shirley Bennett) to strident atheism (anarcho-vegetarian Britta Perry) to creepy cultism (moist-towelette magnate Pierce Hawthrone, performed brilliantly by comedic legend Chevy Chase, who belongs to the fictional faith known as Reformed Neo-Buddhism Laser Lotus). It’s fascinating to note how this chapter underscores the fresh approach that Community—a show about a community-college study group that boasts a cross-section of every(wo)man misfits—brings to TV-comedy writing, a collective endeavor that often results in stale, “groupthink” humor. Most sit-coms sound like they’re joke-injected by the same writers, but as Valenzano and Engstrom observe, Community’s “complex nature and repeated accolades make it worthy of attention—especially when considered within the context of its satirical treatment of religion” (31). Readers familiar with the show will marvel at how deftly and kindheartedly the show treats the subject of religion without ever being saccharine or insulting to its characters and audience.

Orange Is the New Black, a women’s-penitentiary drama that has been tagged rather cynically as “Hogan’s Heroes in jumpsuits,” employs a more controversial approach due to its tragicomic nature, and its ready display of strict Christianity’s negative impact on certain characters—like Black Cindy, who converted from Christianity to Judaism. Again, through their close reading of OITNB (which is in its seventh and final season), Valenzano and Engstrom categorize the show’s four faith-centered themes: religion as character identity, religion as divisive force, religion as con game, and religion as redemptive path. But it’s when the authors construe OITNB’s “homiletic Tao” that they touch upon the show’s enduring charm: “[O]ne can read the various narratives described in this chapter as forming an overall homily, an unseen order regarding the role of religion in a place of penitence: to find oneself is more important than finding God” (89). And yes, it’s surprising to learn just how much religious content runs throughout this incredibly popular Netflix show produced by a secular Hollywood for a demographically diverse audience.

The resurrection of the dead is inherently biblical, and the biggest zombie TV show in the history of popular culture seems an ideal vehicle for addressing the nexus of religion, horror, and politics. In “Redefining Religious Boundaries in AMC’s The Walking Dead,” Valenzano and Engstrom zero in on a pair of unforgettable episodes—the season 2 opener (“What Lies Ahead”), followed by episode 5 of season 3 (“Four Walls and a Roof”). In the case of “Four Walls,” the authors succeed in establishing an overlooked comparison to biblical film epics. Here, Rick Grimes, a former police officer turned apocalypse-survivor and the show’s main protagonist, transforms into a vigilante to machete-slash a group of cannibals (living humans who eat murdered flesh, unlike zombies who consume the living) led by a character named Gareth, the similarities are interesting to ponder. As Valenzano and Engstrom observe:

Indeed, as Rick kills Gareth, his bearded and grizzled appearance and the violent way he continues to strike the evildoer evokes an image of a vengeful prophet (one may recall the scenes from Hollywood films such as the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic The Ten Commandments, for example, when in a rage, Moses throws down the stone tablets at the Israelites who have turned their back on God). The framing of Rick as slightly above the backdrop of the stained glass windows, a visual symbol of the Church itself, enhances the notion that his justice is replacing God’s justice (111).

Rick’s character arc is an unforgettable and deeply shattering moment, and Valenzano and Engstrom remind viewers of the show’s symbolic power and imaginative risk-taking. After all, we are meant to simultaneously cry for Rick and cheer him on, which in some ways changes us, too.

Finally, the least critically acclaimed (and arguably most teen-oriented) show of the bunch: Supernatural. Valenzano and Engstrom summarize it smartly as “one of the most popular shows you might never have heard of.” Indeed, if you’re a professor, your students are likely addicted to the series while your peers will respond: “Super-what?” In any case, there is no condescension expressed toward the show’s ridiculous premise: two brothers, Sam and Dean, hit the hidden highways of America to fight vampires and other monsters. (Think of it as Route 66 crossed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) Instead, Valenzano and Engstrom dig deeply into subplots and character motivations to reveal the philosophical and theological riches that Supernatural offers viewers. Whether addressing the brothers’ heartfelt search for God or their sibling conflict (Cain and Abel, right?) or the way in which Supernatural “subtly, though powerfully, upends traditional depictions of the Almighty” (128), the authors will make the most skeptical reader curious enough to check out an episode, which you most definitely will after finishing this chapter.

Valenzano and Engstrom’s conclusion isn’t surprising for anyone who enjoys teaching World Literature—or at least the more religious texts like the Hebrew Scriptures. The authors see in each of these shows an “emphasis placed on tolerance of different faith traditions,” the storylines lacking “an endorsement of any religious tradition beyond a monotheistic faith” (151). Of course, religious themes are no guarantee a series will prosper: “the television landscape remains littered with shows that did not survive,” including, it is noted, the 2006 NBC show The Book of Daniel, about a drug addict who converses with Jesus. Still, despite waning church attendance and a decline in the percentage of people labeling themselves “religious,” it seems that, to paraphrase Valenzano and Engstrom, a story isn’t compelling if the characters don’t seek the touch of the divine. Religions Across Television Genres is a must-have book for anyone who studies pop culture and religion; it deserves a spot on every TV connoisseur’s bookshelf.

 

Jarret Keene

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

 

 

 

 

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