The other night, while out for dinner with friends, our discussion turned to television and the viewing patterns of people we know. It got me thinking about cultural mores and how changeable they are- and how relatively quickly those changes can come about.
Not to sound like some ancient geezer who waxes philosophic about the good ol’ days, but the truth is that there is programming being broadcast over the airwaves (public, cable, pay-per-view and the interworld) that would not have been allowed to see the light of day even a very few years ago.
Between the voyeuristic idiocy that is most reality programming and the sex and extreme violence that is found on HBO and the like on a weekly basis (did you SEE that Red Wedding?!? WTF was that?!?!), many of the shows that were once strongly criticized now seem incredibly innocent in comparison.
When The Simpsons first premiered on Fox way back in 1989 (!) it came under loudly-expressed fire for it’s presentation of ‘degraded’ ‘American family values’. Then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke against the show, suggesting that what America needed was a family ‘more like the Waltons than the Simpsons.’ Bart was widely criticized as being terrible role model for children.
Those who took the time to actually watch the show soon discovered that, along with solid, witty writing, the Simpsons and their neighbours offered up some of the best-natured, morally stable programming out there. This is a family who, even with all the admitted dysfunction, stick it out and make it work while doing the best for their community.
There are certainly voices of institutionalized morality (Flanders, of course, and Reverend Lovejoy are the obvious examples) but generally religion is dealt with as being something that is present- and integral to the lives of the residents of Springfield- without it being preachy or judgemental in any way.
Apu frequently exhibits frustration as his neighbours refer to his religion as ‘other’, but Marge and Homer throw him a traditional Hindu wedding and adopt the personas of the avatars of his gods when he and his wife are dealing with marital stressors. Krusty deals with the abandonment and rediscovery of his Jewish faith in an effort to reconnect with his Rabbi father. Lisa struggles with concepts of belief, dabbles in Wicca and ultimately embraces Buddhism.
The microcosm of Springfield, USA exemplifies a community working the way one should work. A town where those of different faiths, races and ethnicities get along and do their best at every turn. Even with its myriad issues; the corruption of its mayor (although I’d take Quimby over our incumbent any day), the evil Republican power mongers (headed up by Mr. Burns), giant sinkholes, the eternal tire fire… Springfield really is a pretty ideal town to call home.
Another show that got a very undeserved bum rap at its get-go was the sadly short-lived God, the Devil and Bob. The animated sitcom showed up on NBC on March 9, 2000. It was pulled March 28, 2000. Only 4 episodes- out of the 13 that were produced- aired before it was removed from the line-up, largely as a result of pressure from religious activists.
Watching the show again recently I was struck by the complete innocence- and ‘niceness’, for lack of a better word- of the star-studded half-hour program. God (James Garner) is charmingly laid back and reminiscent of Jerry Garcia. He enjoys having a beer, playing a round of golf and generally being around and involved with his creatures.
That the state of his creation has driven him to consider getting rid of it all and starting over again is a function of humanity’s poor use of their collective free will, rather than any sort of unreasonable wrathfulness or vengeful tendencies (as he explains in the intro, he’s ‘not that kind of god’).
The Devil (voiced by Alan Cummings) encourages God to destroy this world and begin again- providing he still gets to play a role in the new creation (in which marsupials would be the dominant life-form this time ’round). They have something of a dysfunctional and co-dependent- yet still respectful and reciprocal- relationship.
Lucifer’s feelings are hurt when God forgets his birthday, or a scheduled golf date, and reacts rather badly. Like a sulky adolescent, actually. One who just happens to have the resources of Hell at his disposal. Yet there is no animosity between them- there is definite affection (and understanding) there- as God repeatedly mollifies the Devil, apologizing for hurting him and letting him know that he is, in fact, appreciated.
I imagine the criticisms about the show- likely led by those who never took the time to watch it but who were ‘offended’ by the title itself- were sourced in the ‘humanness’ of the portrayal of the deity and his ‘evil’ counterpart.
The trouble with that is the plot- and the interactions between God and the Devil, and God and Bob (who is a blue-collar, porno-watching, beer drinking, father of two who works on the assembly line of an auto plant in Detroit- played by French Stewart), and the Devil and Bob- are very much in keeping with the original mythology.
Or any of the Prophets.
The show is decidedly Old Testament (Jesus is nowhere to be found- except in very brief passing) and it is likely therein that the problem lies.
Those who have read the whole OT shebang (and not just in order to be able to cite random passages out of context to condemn various things that personally offend them) would certainly see that the story of the relationship between God and the Devil/Satan/Lucifer (certainly among the most unfairly maligned characters in mythology/literature/history) did not originate with wars in Heaven, or with falls from that same locale and eventual punishment in the abyss.
The satan began as an emissary- lackey/gofer/PA- of Yahweh, and one that fulfilled a vital role in the bureaucracy of Heaven. The assumption of later cultural traditions saw the satans meshed with demons and/or vanquished gods to become beings that were set in opposition to the presiding deity.
The strict black and white dichotomy of good vs. evil is a later development in the mythology- one that very much leads to a lack of assumption of responsibility for one’s own actions- that is not at all in keeping with the foundational premise behind the earliest biblical myths. What WE do- as individuals and collectively- matters. Our actions and ideas affect us personally, our families, the larger community and the nation. Every once in awhile, when we seem to be straying too far off the desired path, the deity sends a mouthpiece to guide us back to the straight and narrow.
IF we are willing to listen to said prophet. Historically (according to the stories), we haven’t been much good at that. As a result, the deity sends the appropriate punishment our way. There was, initially, no emphasis on any sort of external being showing up to tempt us down the garden path. Our deeds- and the results of those deeds- were completely our own look-out.
God, the Devil and Bob very much demonstrates the wisdom of this earliest message in the mythology as is can be applied to 21st century life. The characters are funny, endearing and very human in their actions and reactions. While the Devil does try to interfere with Bob’s attempts to make the world a better place (on behalf, and in defence, of ALL humanity), the characters on the show do the right thing- not out of fear of divine punishment (since no one- other than Bob’s six-year-old son, Andy- believes in his prophet-hood) but because they truly know right from wrong.
Compared to the sophomoric humour that is the norm in the crop of myriad animated shows out there now (looking at YOU Family Guy et al), and certainly when placed against some of the ridiculous ‘unscripted’ programming that crowds the tv listings, God, the Devil and Bob reflects basic values and morality in an entertaining and light-hearted manner, while acknowledging the realities of life in our particular cultural context.
Along with being ‘smarter’ than a great deal of the shows on offer these days, it is a very positive and responsible use of the mythology- with familiar characters made more sympathetic and less-vengeful- that reminds us that we humans need to be charting our own paths without constantly relying on any form of divine guidance or intervention.
It deserves a closer viewing. One that isn’t dictated by the hysterical posturing of those with a literalist agenda- and no sense of humour.
If you’re interested, you can find the episodes on YouTube- or you might be able to find the whole 13-episode season on DVD. I have it- it’s fun.
[…] Devil’s Advocate – Thoughtful discussion of religion and morality on The Simpsons and on a show called God, the Devil and Bob, which I do not remember at all and which NBC apparently canned after only four episodes. […]
Sometimes the most quickly vilified shows are the ones with the most realistic and lasting (secular) morality. The Simpsons offers some of the best, ‘cleanest’ television out there- and yet it remains timely, witty and always entertaining. It’s truly too bad that God, The Devil and Bob didn’t get the same chance to prove itself because of a small-minded lobby. Thanks for reading- and the feedback- Dead Homer Society!
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