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History Channel’s Bible Is a Hit. Does That Mean TV Will Get Religion?

We may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I'd love to see--but am not so sure we will--is more TV about religious believers.

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Joe Alblas / © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.

Abraham (Gary Oliver) and Sarah (Josephine Butler) in History's The Bible.

Up until now, the year’s big cable-ratings story has been the ever-growing success of zombie drama The Walking Dead on AMC. Sunday night, though, History channel had the highest-rated scripted drama on cable for the year, for the beginning of a story in which only one main character rises from the dead, and that not until nearly the end.

The first two hours of History’s Mark Burnett miniseries adaptation of The Bible scored 13.1 million viewers, more than any fiction cable show of the year–and, as the New York Times notes, dwarfing anything on NBC for the past month. (The biblical epic numbers did not quite match The Walking Dead in viewers aged 18 to 49, the demographic that determines advertising rates, but it did get a healthy 5.6 million.)

Those are the kinds of numbers that get TV executives’ attention, and “attention” in the TV business means copying. Last year, History pulled meganumbers with Hatfields and McCoys; now NBC is developing a Hatfields and McCoys series. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more religious epics coming to TV–stories aimed, like The Bible miniseries, at the comfort zone of believers. (I haven’t watched the entire History miniseries, but the first two hours were sort of a Picture Bible come to life, with the Old Testament violence dialed up and the Old Testament sex dialed down, and the kind of stiff dialogue that avoids seeming to “disrespect” Biblical figures by making them sound like people rather than animatronic figures.)

So we may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I’d love to see–but am not so sure we will–is more TV about religious believers.

Religious faith (or the passionate lack thereof) plays a huge role in billions of people’s lives. Primetime TV, however, has a habit of dealing with faithful characters badly or–more often–not at all. On the one hand, you have religious characters framed as villains or hypocrites: ABC’s GCB (Good Christian Bitches), wicked-priest figures like Brother Justin on Carnivale, Caleb on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the pope and cardinals of The Borgias. On the other, you have characters defined broadly in terms of their religion and virtue (say, the Flanders family on The Simpsons). And more widely, TV characters are simply–nothing. They’re not unreligious, necessarily, but their faith, if any, is somewhere offscreen.

What we could use is more TV that treats characters of faith like good TV shows treat any characters: as complicated people, sometimes good, sometimes bad, whose faith is part of them but doesn’t make them exemplary or terrible.

One of the best recent examples–naturally, since it’s one of the best examples of so many things–was Friday Night Lights. Faith mattered to people in Dillon, Texas: they went to church, prayed on problems, played Christian rock in their garages. It didn’t magically fix anything, nor did it make the people of Dillon better or worse than people anywhere else, but the show took it seriously, and matter-of-factly, as a major part of its characters’ worldviews.

Cable may have a little more leeway in treating religion with nuance, even if it doesn’t always. Big Love may have taken criticism from Mormons for its depiction of polygamy, but it was also a rich, multifaceted look at the many ways in which religion affected its characters’ lives, for good and ill. Yes, Juniper Creek was afflicted with false prophets, but in the show’s central family, each spouse–even Bill, even when he was behaving contemptibly–was driven at root by the desire to come closer to God and to meaning. In a very different way, Game of Thrones has dealt with how religion affects war, politics and its characters’ outlooks–though so far, the series has lost some of the detail of the source books. Enlightened is not about organized religion per se, but treats spirituality with respect without pandering to it.

On network TV, some of the more interesting recent storylines about faith have been happening at the margins of The Good Wife–one of the more “cable-like” broadcast shows to begin with. The protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is an open atheist–even more of a rarity than an avowed believer on TV–and this became an issue recently when she refused to hide her disbelief to help Peter’s gubernatorial campaign. At the same time, her teenage daughter has been drawn to Christianity, and the way the show has handled Alicia’s reaction–not preachily, but as a story about a parent working to accept her daughter’s separate identity–has been exemplary without being showy.

These are still exceptions, though. (There are a few more depictions of the faithful in reality TV, especially on cable–Sister Wives, the Duggars–though All-American Muslim showed that even for cable reality that is not without risk.) The reason TV series should have religious characters and take them seriously is the same reason they should have racial and cultural diversity: not as an act of charity, not to pander to demographics, but because it makes for better stories. People who believe things are interesting. People wrestling with the big questions are interesting. And TV shows that depict actual lived life–with characters who are specific rather than generic–are interesting.

Of course, programmers often read “interesting” as “dangerous,” especially when it comes to religion. (And for that matter, when it comes to race, as Alyssa Rosenberg has lately pointed out when critiquing the “color-blind” approach to writing.) If The Bible keeps its ratings up, I’d expect more religious spectacles in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised, either, to see more religious-flavored genre entertainments too, even though ABC failed with the Da Vinci Code-like Zero Hour. The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, for instance, is now working on a series about exorcism.

History’s Bible, in other words, is probably going to result in more religious drama that’s larger-than-life. What TV could really use, though, is more religious drama that’s life-sized.