Thursday, October 27, 2005

Rant: Ministers on TV and Film

So Tuesday night, we're all home and we sit down for our weekly gathering to watch Gilmore Girls, something our schedules have allowed us to do three times in seven weeks.

I really like Gilmore Girls. Each episode has more good writing than a full season of some of the more typical sit-coms. The writers have trusted their audience enough to actually have the characters develop over the show's run, and have even trusted us enough to begin to show us dark side of Lorelai and Rory's personalities. (At least I think that's what's happening). In fact, I like the show so much I've been working on a critical reading of this year's episodes, but I haven't seen enough yet to make a fair judgment of where the contretemps between Lorelai and Rory is supposed to take us. (But then I remembered that I had forgotten about Television Without Pity, which is already doing the job really well, so maybe I won't). And in response to the student who dismissed the show by saying "No one really talks like that", I say, "Wouldn't we be better off if we did".

Last night's episode focused on Rory's twenty-first birthday. Highlights of the episode were: watching (and cringing) while Paris (wearing a rather decolette dress she seems to have borrowed from Lorelai) and her fiance try out the same joke over and over at Rory's party (she coaches him sotto voce on the delivery of his line of the joke); getting further evidence that Rory's skuzzy boyfriend Logan really doesn't understand her; and hearing Luke deliver the line of the night. The party has been thrown by Rory's Grandparents Richard and Emily, and Emily has concocted a new pink drink for the even called "The Rory". Luke takes a sip and says "It's pink. Really pink. It tastes pink. It's like drinking My Little Pony". Taa-daaa!

Ah, but my point. Earlier in the episode, well as Wing Chun of TWoP puts it:

"Richard and Emily figure that Rory is about to have relations with Logan (er...), so they call their minister over for dinner to explain to Rory that her "virtue" is her most precious gift. She tells him that she's already given that one away, and he tells Emily and Richard, so... awkward."
Awkward doesn't even begin to describe that scene. I literally covered my eyes for most of it. I could tell what was coming as soon as Rory sat down for an obviously contrived dinner with her grandparents and the minister. First the minister is wearing some sort of high church/priestly outfit (Episcopalian?) and he has a pale, owl-ly kind of look, as if he were the product of an unnatural coupling between George Will and Hugh Hewitt.

Richard and Emily arrange to leave them alone, and then the minister starts with a "I'm sure it's great to be your age, I remember when I was your age, blah, blah, blah" kind of thing. And then he talks about those "urges" you have when your young and Rory says "Urges?" with a meaningful look and the guy blows right by this caution light and hurtles on with his speech, which turns out to be the standard "save yourself for marriage" speech, only turned up to eleven and run through a blender with a bunch of stupidity leaving the whole thing sounding incredibly lame.

I absolutely hate it when ministers are portrayed as idiots on TV or in film. Not that there are not many minister who are in fact idiots, but one would be very hard pressed to ever find a minister who acts as foolishly as this one. I know Gilmore Girls is a kind of heighten reality, but I can't imagine that any minister who has been around for more than two minutes would take the approach that this guy did. First, I think most (like 98%?) would tell Richard and Emily that they need to be the ones who talk to her. Second, if for some reason (like a recent head injury or misunderstanding the request) the minister thought it would be a good idea to talk to Rory about this, that minister would probably first actually, you know, talk with her. Third, there's no way the talk itself could be that lame. I mean a "sweater" as a metaphor for sex? Come on. And fourth, well fourth leads to fifth and sixth and twenty-seventh, so I'll stop there.

So I weather that, and the episode ends (lose that guy Rory - he's not worth the "sweater" you've given him, even if he did give you that mega-expensive bag) and on comes Supernatural a new show this year on the WB. I grew up on Twilight Zone and loved a short lived series from the 70's called The Nightstalker in which reporter encounters lots of scary stuff. This show is similar to those. In Supernatural, two hot young guys (this is the WB), one of whom is the actor who played Dean on Gilmore Girls, chase down urban legends that are actually real. Last night, for example, they took on Hook Man. It's actually a pretty good show, and I look forward to it each week, even if it involves watching another hour's worth of promos for Related which leaves me wanting to slash my wrists.

But anyway, Tuesday's episode turns on yet another minister, well actually two. The Hook Man turns out to be the spirit of a 19th minister who snapped over the immorality of his town and was executed after killing a bunch of people. The living minister in the story is not only insufferable in his relationship with daughter, trying to keep he within his narrow morality while she just "wants to live", but he also turns out to be, here it comes, wait for it... a hypocrite! He's widowed, but he's having an affair with a married woman from the congregation!

Look, I know that there have been many ministers who are grindingly awful moralists, and some have committed adultery, but this is just so... predictable. Arrrgh.

Why does this happen over and over again? Why do ministers usually look like knuckleheads in TV and film? Some of it we bring on ourselves. Far too many ministers are knuckleheads. I mean, knuckleheads make up a very small share of the ministerial population, but since there shouldn't be any full-blown knuckleheads in the clergy, even that small percentage is too much. And some of us who aren't knuckleheads occasionally get too full of ourselves, because speaking kinda/sorta on God's behalf is a heady thing, and so we can come across as insufferable.

I also think that too many of us in ministry forget how to talk with people who are not already part of our group. We end up saying things which make sense in our churches where have a highly developed understanding of how to talk about certain things, but that same language sounds smug, at best, to those who dont' share those common understandings.

But this time, I gotta put the blame on the writers of these two shows. They did a lazy job. None of these characters showed any evidence of actually having been part of a church. It is amazing to me that producers and writers can get some elements of a story exactly right, like Emily Gilmore's waspishness or giving the roommate of the girl in Supernatural just the right wardrobe to signify skankiness, and yet can resort to the broadest of stereotypes when portraying ministers.

I'm tired of this. Show ministers as good people, or show them doing bad things, or show them as complicated figures. But if you're going to use them in your story, spend enough time to show them as they would actually appear in real life.



Jon Shoemaker said...

Also, when Rory comes into the dining room for dinner and her grandparents introduce her to the owl-ly minister, she does say "I didn't know we had a minister." This just further drives in the point that he was only there to teach Rory of her virtue, and in no position to give such advice - no matter which god he serves.

I suppose you cannot expect much of their version of religion, when the sole intention was to manipulate Rory.

Johan Maurer said...

Not that you invited nominations of television shows or films that do a good job of portraying ministers, but I loved the Danish film Italian for Beginners for that reason as much as any other.


Johan Maurer said...

PS (re #1000)

Hmmm, I'm in Portland, Oregon.

Captain GoBart said...

Well, Bob, who was the last TV writer you met who had actually been to church as an adult? My experience from all the filming at FUPC with TV folks is that they had no idea who ministers were not what they do. Most TV folks didn't know whether to call me "Father" (me, the low-brow Protestant sans the clerical collar), or cross themselves, (which way is it, top to bottom, left to right, or top to bottom, right to left?). The next time religion is taken seriously, or a minister is seen as a complicated figure on a TV sitcom will be the first. It is not just church people who make "straw men" out of people they do not know.

BTW, a great film is the "Mass Appeal" with Jack Lemmon as the old Episcopal priest who needs a backbone. Filmed in Pasadena, I think.

BTW2, I agree with your insights about talking with someone about sex (or anything important) who is not in your congregation who does not want your input. Advice given without the asking is pretty pointless, or worse.

jon shoemaker said...

I would like to recommend Sister Act as well. Both part I and II.

Captain GoBart said...

The Sister Act movies are good. Also, the minister in "Footloose" is a complex and human character.

Bob Ramsey said...

Sister Act?

Now you guys are messing with me. Those movies are [billwalton]terrible[/billwalton].

Captain GoBart said...

You are a hard man, Bob. Allow us non-Olympian mortals our own tastes in movies. While not Academy Award movies, the Sister Acts do portray ministers in a somewhat sympathetic light, able to change their minds in response to situations. They come across mostly as real people, which seemed to be part of the point of your rant.

As to movies, I watched "October Sky" last night, and wished for another day or week with my dad. Alas.