Last night NBC aired the second episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which a fictional broadcast network made the principled decision to air a skit–titled "Crazy Christians"–despite boycott threats from religious groups. In what is either a great irony or a brilliant marketing coup, the network is in the middle of not one but two Christian controversies of its own.
First, the network gave offense to religious produce. A few weeks ago, NBC began airing episodes of the popular (and blatantly Christian) kids’ cartoon VeggieTales, in which a talking tomato, cucumber and others give lessons about God’s love. (I can’t help but think of the Simpsons episode in which Ned Flanders considers the idea of a talking dog blasphemous in Davey and Goliath, but that’s neither here nor there.) Soon it became clear that NBC wanted the cartoon but not the Christianity, editing down the episodes to remove the most overt references to God. This steamed–as it were–the vegetables’ creator, who said his work was being bowdlerized; and some Christians were further offended by NBC’s plans this fall to air a Madonna concert from her recent tour, in which she performs a song while, um, hanging from a giant cross.
There’s a simple, Solomonic solution to this problem: let both programs air unbowdlerized. If you’re going to run VeggieTales and pander to religious groups anyway, it’s better and more honest to let the religious message be explicit, rather than make it some kind of subliminal subtext. (This is fairer too, by the way, to non-Christians, or anyone else who doesn’t want their kids getting spiritual instructions from a legume.) There’s no blanket taboo against overt religion on networks: A Charlie Brown Christmas, possibly the best animated TV special for children ever, climaxes with the character Linus reciting verse from the New Testament, and it’s aired for over 40 years. Give the audience its Christian cucumbers, Muslim lentils, Hindu pumpkins or adorable little Satanist chili peppers–but be upfront about it. Likewise, air Madonna’s concert as it was meant to be, and let anyone change the channel who doesn’t like it.
NBC is probably guilty of being tone-deaf to religion here, but even more so, it’s guilty of not understanding what the media market is like today. It believed that it could offer a watered-down, middle-of-the-road version of a Christian kids’ story and that people would be satisfied; but that middle of the road died with the old three-network system. There is no longer a happy medium that pleases tens of millions and alienates no one; people want their Godly tomatoes and crucified pop stars, and they’ll get them elsewhere if not on the broadcast networks.
So let the audience have its Christians: crazy, cucumbery, Kabbalistic or otherwise. You can’t have your talking vegetables and eat them too.