On Being: Monsters We Love - TV's pop culture theodicy

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Listen: Monsters We Love - TV's Pop Culture Theodicy

On Being’s Krista Tippett talks with Diane Wilson, professor of Media and Religion, about TV shows that make audiences empathize with bad and evil.

TV shows discussed include “The Walking Dead”, “True Blood” and “Dexter”.


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KRISTA TIPPETT: A zombie show, AMC's The Walking Dead, is breaking all-time cable viewing records. It's especially beloved by the young, and it's about more than zombies. It's about bodies devoid of souls and life reduced to survival. As strange as it may sound, television is a place where some great writers and actors are asking big questions of our time.

So we've once again called up media and religion watcher and TV aficionado Diane Winston for a look at the current season's in-your-face themes of God, meaning, and re-enchanting the world. What are all those righteous criminals, amoral zombies, and loving vampires saying to us and about us?


BROTHER SAM: You know, the good book tells us that there is no darkness that the light can't overcome. So all the darkness that you think you got inside you--


BROTHER SAM: All it takes is just a little bit of light to keep it at bay. Believe me, I know.

GLORIA AKALITUS: Of all the statues in here, this is the one that matters the most to me. She's tall, she's got a lot on her mind, and I relate. Also, she's not judgmental. That's something I'm working on. It's irrational, but that's the nature of faith. We're stealing her. You were never here. But since you are, strap Mary to the dolly and follow me.

GODRIC: 2,000 years is enough.

ERIC NORTHMAN: I can't accept this. It's insanity.

GODRIC: Our existence is insanity. We don't belong here.

ERIC NORTHMAN: But we are here!

GODRIC: It's not right. We're not right.

ERIC NORTHMAN: You taught me there is no right and wrong. Only survival or death.

GODRIC: I told a lie, as it turns out.

KRISTA TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, "Monsters We Love." Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. I last interviewed her about TV and parables of our time a couple of years ago, and a lot has changed on the planet and the small screen since.

Lost has ended. But its setting of human characters in a supernatural place is turned inside out now in series like True Blood, where vampires, werewolves, and witches make hay in small-town Louisiana. Meanwhile, the protagonists of shows like Dexter, Nurse Jackie, and Breaking Bad, they turn the meaning of morality inside out. And then there are the zombies.

HERSHEL GREENE: There are people out there who haven't been in their right minds, people who I believe can be restored. It doesn't matter if you see them as human beings anymore. But if you and your people are going to stay here, that's how you're going to have to treat them.

KRISTA TIPPETT: So let's just say the second season premiere of The Walking Dead, which I'm just waking up to, was the highest-rated drama telecast in the history of basic cable. And it's really breaking records in the 18-to-49 demographic. On the AMC show page, they're telling the story, and then they say this. Instead of the zombies, it is the living who truly become the walking dead.

DIANE WINSTON: Mm-hmm. That's interesting, because a lot of shows have monsters who are monsters, but there are also monsters who are actually human beings in other shows. And who's to say whether Dexter or Eric in True Blood is more of a monster?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. And Eric is a thousand-year-old vampire, and Dexter is a 21st-century guy who's watched his mother be killed when he was a child and is a serial killer himself, although he kills bad guys.


KRISTA TIPPETT: I mean, I do want to talk about this, especially because The Walking Dead is really hitting something for people. And I have to say, when we, online, started telling listeners that we were going to be having this conversation with you and talking about television, we immediately got all these requests to make sure we spend a lot of time with The Walking Dead. And echoing what you said, people are really talking about it being an example of pop culture theodicy, that it's bringing out a deep sense of meaninglessness and divine absence.

DIANE WINSTON: Right, right. And the zombies are a perfect representation of that. Because unlike werewolves or vampires who interact with people, zombies don't do very much. They're wonderful symbols because you can project so much on them, but they're not great playmates.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, then part of the theological idea is that they're bodies detached from souls, in a way. It's not just that they're detached from life. They're just activated brainstems. But then you have--


KRISTA TIPPETT: Then you have--

DIANE WINSTON: Are you saying vampires have souls, then?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, I don't know. That's another question we could get into.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Vampires have emotional lives. At least the vampires you and I know from True Blood have emotional lives.

DIANE WINSTON: Which zombies don't.

KRISTA TIPPETT: No. Vampires have relationships, good or bad.

DIANE WINSTON: Zombies push the boundaries of what is human. Because as you say, they have bodies, but they have no emotions. They have no souls. And so what is our response to them, and our responsibility for them? It's a harder question.


DIANE WINSTON: So you think all these people are watching The Walking Dead because they're trying to figure out, how do I react to a world where I feel like I'm cut off from everything, and I can't find meaning?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, I'm not sure that I know how to describe why people are watching it. But let's say, for example, when you and I spoke a couple of years ago, we talked about Lost. And there's a sense in which it's the same kind of-- there's a similarity between setting this small group of survivors out on this constant adventure where they are confronted with horrors that have a certain supernatural bent to them, and they're surviving.

But The Walking Dead is much bleaker than Lost, right? I mean, Lost had all this pathos and beautiful moments and people finding love and redemption. And The Walking Dead is a very dark view of life as a kind of-- there's a line, I was watching an episode, of this woman who talks about this endless horrific nightmare we live every day.

DIANE WINSTON: Mm-hmm. And there is no miraculous or wonder or redemption. Did you see the episode where one of the main characters was talking about, we need a miracle, we need a miracle? And what happens is the boy gets shot.

KRISTY TIPPETT: Yeah. So yeah, let's set this up. This was the second season premiere, which so many people watched, where they come across a Southern Baptist church. And they walk inside, and Rick, who's the closest thing they have to a hero-- well, first of all, they come inside, and there are about three zombies sitting in pews looking at a huge crucifix, which is interesting. You have no idea if they're thinking or what's going on. But then once--

DIANE WINSTON: No, they're saying to themselves, why is there a crucifix in a Southern Baptist church, right?

KRISTA TIPPETT: (LAUGHING) Right, exactly. I know. That's a problem with the--

DIANE WINSTON: What happened to the production design?

KRISTA TIPPETT: I know. Well, what happened with the people who didn't really understand that it shouldn't be a Southern Baptist church? But it's also a bigger crucifix than any crucifix I've ever seen anywhere. So they have their battle with the zombies, and then interestingly, a few of them walk in and say prayers. And here's Rick, and this is the moment before that you're talking about.

DIANE WINSTON: Wait, the zombies say the prayers, or the people say the prayers?

KRISTA TIPPETT: No, no. The people say-- they get rid of the zombies. They have the zombie battle. And then a few of them walk in and say prayers that feel like, this is the way life used to be. We used to walk into churches and say prayers. But here's Rick in the church.

RICK GRIMES: I don't know if you're looking at me with what-- sadness? Scorn? Pity? Love? Maybe just indifference. I guess you already know I'm not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere. My family, mostly. My friends. My job.

Thing is, we-- I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgment. Some indication I'm doing the right thing. You don't know how hard that is to know. Well, maybe you do. Hey, look, I don't need all the answers. Just a little nudge, a sign. Any sign will do.

DIANE WINSTON: Wait, Krista, that is amazing.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Isn't that amazing? Yeah.

DIANE WINSTON: Well, it's sort of like, hey, Gethsemane. God, talk to me, right?


DIANE WINSTON: So you think, here's this crazy show on AMC. But it is that central theological question of, where is God in my suffering, right?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's absolutely explicit out there. And then, of course, he walks out of the church. He says, give me a sign. This is a story we've seen many times, right? And then they go out into the woods. He's with his little son and another man. And they see a deer, and it's a beautiful moment of nature. And you think, here's the sign. And then it all goes terribly. A shot rings out. Not just the deer dies, but the child is hit as well.

DIANE WINSTON: Right. Which echoes back, taking my son. You know, whether it's Abraham and Isaac or whether it's God and Jesus. You want a sign? I'll take your son, right? I don't think it's stretching to really read these deeper classic religious tropes onto the current scene, because what is culture except making those tropes come alive in each generation?

People have been asking where is God for thousands of years, and why wouldn't we be asking the same question? And why wouldn't we want to represent it in our own language, rather than in the King James version?

JOE WALKER: What would Jesus have done?


DEXTER MORGAN: Seriously now.

KRISTA TIPPETT: This is a scene from the new season of Showtime's Dexter.

DEXTER MORGAN: How do you reconcile your belief in a higher power, in a god, with what you've done?

JOE WALKER: What difference does it make?

DEXTER MORGAN: I'm just curious.

JOE WALKER: So what, I'm supposed to defend my beliefs to you?

DEXTER MORGAN: If you don't mind.

JOE WALKER: Look. I mean, everyone makes mistakes, and they do things that they shouldn't do. And they're only human. But God, see, God forgives us.

DEXTER MORGAN: Really? It's as simple as that? If you kill someone, God forgives you for it?


DEXTER MORGAN: So I could kill you and God would forgive me.


KRISTA TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett with On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Monsters We Love." We're looking at the monsters, human and otherwise, who populate some spiritually and morally intriguing television right now. Zombies in particular are not only popular on the small screen, they're the subject of a bestselling literary novel. There are zombie crawls on Saturday nights in American cities. There have been people dressed up as corporate zombies at Occupy Wall Street.

And then there's something going on as well, that's related, but not so directly theological. But about morality, right? You know, it's like, what happens to morality when everything falls apart like this? And something that's difficult or troubling or especially challenging about zombies is, you can show no mercy, right? You can chop their heads off without a minute of remorse. You know what I'm saying?

And so Colson Whitehead, who's just written this new novel, zombie novel, I thought this was interesting. He said, and this gets at this too, "For me, the terror of the zombie is that at any moment, your friend, your family, your neighbor, your teacher, the guy at the bodega down the street, can be revealed as the monster they've always been." So there's also some pretty earthy dark reflection on humanity that's going on here.

DIANE WINSTON: Right. That's why zombies who are on The Walking Dead actually looking like zombies, and zombies who seem to be real people, provide an interesting counterpoint. So Breaking Bad, Walter White. In some ways over the last three years, he's become more of a zombie. He's more and more cut off his human side and his human interactions, even as his cancer progresses, to stay alive and get one task done. And as he becomes more of a walking zombie, he's much more comfortable killing people and living in an amoral universe.

KRISTA TIPPETT: So I have really had trouble getting into that one. I find it really hard to watch. So would you just give a little capsule of what the story there is, the plot, and who he is?

DIANE WINSTON: Breaking Bad is the story of a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal cancer and wants to make sure his family is taken care of when he dies. So he starts cooking up meth and selling it, and he takes on one of his former students as his helper. And the show is about his descent into this criminal world of drug dealing, and the implications it has for his relationships and for his soul.

And Vince Gilligan, the creator, has said that to him, it's important to see that actions have consequences, and to look at what happens to a person's soul once they make certain decisions. And so the character does not remain static. The very fact of him getting deeper and deeper into a criminal life changes not only the dynamics of his family, like his wife leaves him. It also changes his whole personality. He becomes more cut off, more inward, and more amoral, more able to kill lest he be killed.

SKYLER WHITE: You're not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head. That's what we tell them. That's the truth.

WALTER WHITE: That's not the truth.

SKYLER WHITE: Of course it is. A schoolteacher, cancer, desperate for money.

WALTER WHITE: OK, we're done here.

SKYLER WHITE: Roped into working for-- unable to even quit. Let's both of us stop trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger.

WALTER WHITE: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.

DIANE WINSTON: And it's a hard show to watch. I was thinking a lot about that, about the monsters I like watching as opposed to the monsters I don't like watching. I love watching True Blood and Vampire Diaries, but [LAUGHS] I don't like watching Dexter and Breaking Bad as much. And it's the more-- it's easy to see why, right? Because--

KRISTA TIPPETT: One is-- the blood in one is real, and in another, it's not.

DIANE WINSTON: Right, right. And monsters are sexy in those shows I like, whereas they're offputting in others. But Breaking Bad is hard to watch. It takes place in Albuquerque and the scenery is dry, and the dialogue is sparse and the action is bleak. It is a hard show to watch. But it does have this almost biblical pace to it, and the sense that it's dealing straightforwardly in issues of life and death.

KRISTA TIPPETT: So here's something that I wonder about us as viewers. So this is-- this is entertainment, and is there something-- is there some difficult message about us as a culture or us as watchers, that on some level, we enjoy this? I don't know if enjoy is the right word. But you know what I'm saying? What does the popularity of these things say about us?

DIANE WINSTON: People want to see the basic dramas of their lives enacted. And why are passion plays so popular?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Why the crucifix?

DIANE WINSTON: Right. Those central themes speak to us in dramatic ways, and so we want to see them again and again. I mean, it's not easy watching the movie The Passion of Christ, which I suppose maybe that's sui generis, and we shouldn't put it in there. But it's not easy watching a passion play. And yet it's instructive and it's meaningful.

And if you are Jewish, it's not easy going into synagogue and hearing the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. And yet you know you're hearing it for a reason, or it's telling you something. Or Job, for that matter. So I think it performs a similar function. People have a hard time getting that because television is a consumer commodity, and so there's a level at which this is also entertainment.

And we don't think of religion and entertainment mixing. The truth is that religion and entertainment have always mixed, whether it was the stained glass windows in European cathedrals, or the passion plays put on, or early movies that depicted the life of Christ. Religious people have used dramatic means to get a message across.

KRISTA TIPPETT: And there is a lot of-- you've been writing about this. There's a lot of overt religion all over the place in a way that's new, all kinds of religion.

DIANE WINSTON: Yes, there's all kinds of religion. I have to say, most of it's pretty Christian. You know, whether--

KRISTA TIPPETT: True Blood is the one that really is diverse, right? That has Wiccans and--

DIANE WINSTON: Yeah. That's true, that's true. Alan Ball is usually pretty sensitive to marginalized groups. And he's even said that the vampires can be stand-ins for gays or for any oppressed marginalized people.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Has he said that?

DIANE WINSTON: Yeah, yeah.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Because that is actually-- I don't think there's-- I mean, so there's religious diversity, you could say. But there's not so much theology in True Blood, but there's a lot of-- well, there are these big existential and moral issues that get raised about bigotry and otherness, and immortality, mortality. And I think they've done some really interesting things with that in True Blood.

DIANE WINSTON: Are you thinking of anything in particular?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Sometimes it's just the mundane moments, like when Bill Compton, who's a vampire-- this feels like such a long time ago, because the show has progressed so much. But when he proposes marriage to Sookie Stackhouse, who's not a vampire, and she opens up a ticket to Vermont. And it turns out that that's where they've legalized vampire-human marriage.


BILL COMPTON: I do have one last thing.


SOOKIE STACKHOUSE: Plane tickets? Where's Burlington?

BILL COMPTON: It's in Vermont.

SOOKIE STACKHOUSE: Vermont? Why would we--

BILL COMPTON: This is the other part.


BILL COMPTON: Ms. Stackhouse, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife? That is, assuming that last night didn't scare you off weddings for good.

DIANE WINSTON: True Blood is a great example of a show, I think, that is about re-enchantment. So if you look at the standard sociological critiques of society, what's happened in industrial post-capitalist society, is that we've lost the awe. We've lost the beauty. We've all been rationalized to the point where everything is-- there's no transcendence anymore.

And so what we need is our culture to reawaken us to mystery and to awe and to wonder. And so here's this very prosaic Louisiana town with good old boys and rednecks, and what do you know but a vampire comes into the bar? And next thing you know, there's witches and werewolves and all kinds of other--

KRISTA TIPPETT: Shapeshifters, yeah.

DIANE WINSTON: Shapeshifters.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. Fairies.

DIANE WINSTON: Right. And as the characters are being re-enchanted, hopefully the audience is also, right?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I really like that, yeah.

DIANE WINSTON: It's a much more upbeat idea than those apocalyptic shows we were talking about before, where there's mystery and wonder in the world, but it's because everything is desolate.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. If I could just ask you this straight question, because I've posed this question. I've heard other people pose it in the last year. What is it with vampires? Why vampires? What do you think?

DIANE WINSTON: There are reasons that are financial, there are reasons that are sexual, and there are reasons that are existential. Where should we start?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Hmm. I don't know.

DIANE WINSTON: Sex, money, or why am I here?


KRISTA TIPPETT: Give me a quick rundown of all three of them. Start with sex.

DIANE WINSTON: Vampires are sexy, and they are known throughout most of the literature to be great at seduction, to be powerfully erotic. There's something about that mixture of blood and death and eroticism that make us see them as heroic. Now, obviously, all vampires weren't that way all the time. And again, this is partly because-- now we segue into finance-- commercially, it makes more sense to have a show around a sexy vampire than one that looks like Bela Lugosi.

Beyond that, vampires speak to very basic issues of, what does it mean to be a human being? And a lot of these shows basically are looking to see, are vampires still human? Do they still care? Do they still have emotions? Do they have morality? As stupid in some ways as Vampire Diaries is-- and I have to say, in all honesty, I love Vampire Diaries.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I haven't watched it.


OK. So tell me.

DIANE WINSTON: OK. Vampire Diaries is a story of a small Virginia town. It's sort of like True Blood. It's a small Virginia town that, even though it seems very straight and normal, it's just chock full of vampires and shapeshifters and witches, and they're all breaking out in high school. And the protagonist, who is a high school senior, is torn between two vampire brothers. And the question is, can she redeem their humanity? Can she get them to claim that part of themselves which they have let atrophy, and she believes is necessary if they are to be loving partners?

So in a world where people do amoral things to each other, rather than think about doing shows on Bernie Madoff or folks like that, which you have done anyway, but how many can you do? Making your vampires who are sexy people emblematic of those moral struggles makes for good drama. So I think they're sexy, they evoke questions of basic humanity, and there's also some things that are just striking about them. They live forever. They have supernatural powers. They are monsters, but they're not monsters.

DAMON SALVATORE: What do you want to hear? That I cared about Rose? That I'm upset? Well, I didn't and I'm not.

ELENA GILBERT: There you go. Pretending to turn it off, pretending not to feel. Damon, you're so close. Don't give up.

DAMON SALVATORE: I feel, Elena, OK? And it sucks. What sucks even more is that it was supposed to be me.

ELENA GILBERT: You feel guilty.


KRISTA TIPPETT: I did some extra hardcore TV watching to get ready for this conversation with Diane Winston. In our unedited interview, we talked about all kinds of shows and other themes, like the retro cultural therapy of Mad Men and Pan Am, as well as the formative role Star Trek played in both of our early television lives, and what she calls the women-gone-wild witchiness of a character like Nurse Jackie.

Write us about the shows and plotlines that make your heart race and your blood curdle. And reach us in all the places where you're already talking television and everything else, on Facebook or Twitter. Or if you like, leave a comment on our show page for "Monsters We Love" at onbeing.org.

- (SINGING) And if I only could make a deal with God

And get him to swap our places

Be running up that road

Be running up that hill

Be running up that building

If I only could

KRISTA TIPPETT: Coming up, how God is making a serious TV appearance in surprising ways and places, like 24's successor Homeland and HBO'S Enlightened. I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

SPEAKER 1: On Being is supported by PBS. Presenting Andrea Bocelli live in Central Park on Great Performances, with special guests Celine Dion and Tony Bennett. Tonight at 7:00/6:00 Central, on PBS.

American Public Media announces The Splendid Table's new book, How to Eat Weekends, with dozens of new recipes. Now available at bookstores nationwide.


KRISTA TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, "Monsters We Love-- TV's Pop Culture Theodicy." I'm catching up with Diane Winston, as I do from time to time. She watches media and religion at the University of Southern California, and we've been talking about the wave of vampires, zombies, and soulless characters who happen to be human in the current crop of TV. But there's also a really telling shift of social commentary since she and I spoke a couple of years ago. For example, in the difference between 24 and the newest creation of some of 24's writers, Showtime's Homeland.

Are you watching that? Homeland?

DIANE WINSTON: Yes. I am addicted to that show.

KRISTA TIPPETT: It's good, isn't it?

DIANE WINSTON: It's very good. It's one of those shows that was a little hard to watch at first, because the characters were not tremendously attractive, either to look at or in terms of their actions.


DIANE WINSTON: But the more I've watched it, the more I've appreciated Claire Danes' performance. And also-- what's the name of the male actor? Is that Damian Lewis?

KRISTA TIPPETT: The Sergeant Brody character?

DIANE WINSTON: Yeah, Sergeant Brody. He's really good too.

KRISTA TIPPETT: So the story there is that a-- and you know, I have to say, when I was hearing reviews of it before it aired, I thought, how can you carry a plot with that, right? That there's an American soldier who was taken prisoner and has been released, and so he comes home a hero. Claire Danes is-- she's FBI, right? Or Homeland Security. Anyway.

DIANE WINSTON: She's CIA, I think.

KRISTA TIPPETT: CIA agent who, just before this Sergeant Brody was released, whispered in her ear by a contact she has in some prison somewhere, Islamabad, someplace like that, that an American soldier has been turned. And so she suspects this guy, who's now an American hero, of being part of the enemy. But unlike Kiefer Sutherland, who was just full of certainty at every turn, right? The classic hero. She's manic-depressive. She's very strong and interesting and stubborn. But she's in the dark, and so are we, about what's really going on.

DIANE WINSTON: She's a little crazy, don't you think?

KRISTA TIPPETT: She's crazy, yeah. And so in terms of religion-- and this is a very different way, direction for this to go. In terms of these overt religiosity, let's say in 24, Muslims were bad guys. But there was no real investigation of what it meant to be Muslim, right? It was an identity. It was basically Muslims were terrorists. This perplexing figure of Sergeant Brody-- and we really still have no idea what's going on inside him. We know he's been tortured. We know that he's a human being who's struggling.

And there's a moment in the second or third episode, which comes out of the blue, where he-- we know he made a trip to the store and he bought something, and we don't know what he bought. And he goes into the garage and he pulls out a prayer rug. And he washes his hands, and he kneels, and he prays.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Did you see that?

DIANE WINSTON: Yes, I did. It was almost like a Rorschach test about that character. What did you think when you saw him do it?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, you know, I thought-- Nancy Franklin did a review of this in the New Yorker, and she really put her finger on what I felt. Which is in that moment, we felt both more worried and less worried about him than we had before. But the human effect it had was, here's this guy who's been tortured. He's clearly struggling to be back home with his family, to be back in the world. He felt more at peace than he had at any moment since you'd been introduced to him. There was something quite beautiful and peaceful about it.

DIANE WINSTON: That's so interesting, Krista. Because when I saw it, I thought to myself, oh my gosh, Claire Danes is totally right. The guy is a Muslim sleeper killer, you know?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Well, I thought it was such interesting complexity they introduced, because-- so now we know-- I think all we know is that in those eight years of captivity or whatever, he converted to Islam, or he began to pray as a Muslim.

DIANE WINSTON: Now that you say it, I can see it. It's just that I think Americans at this time and place are predisposed to be so suspicious of Islam.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. But I think it's actually dramatically challenging that. Not by wrapping it up, but just kind of throwing out a challenge. Could this American hero have converted to Islam--

DIANE WINSTON: Without betraying his country.

KRISTA TIPPETT: --without betraying his country? And this is part of what's holding him together.

DIANE WINSTON: Yeah. I think that show is great, and it's interesting. And I'm going to watch it now with more appreciation, because I guess that I am the kind of knee-jerk viewer who thought Islam was being used as a sign of disloyalty. So the fact of it being something which is holding him together, and has constituted a new positive identity, just never struck me. It'd be great if you're right.

The more I think about media, the more I come to believe that we live our lives through media, and that people spend something like five to seven hours a day watching television. It's a place where we learn who we are, and we learn who we are with, and we figure out what's important to us. So on the one hand, it's easy to trivialize TV.

But I really do believe we're looking at central concerns of many Americans today as they deal with economic crises, as they feel their life's out of control, as they feel like they're living in a world without hope. They are the walking dead, as you said. These shows, even as they on the one hand trivialize some of these issues by the very fact that they're commercial entertainment, they're still bringing them into the public square for discussion. So yes, that was my little soapbox.

KRISTA TIPPETT: OK. And then you and I are talking about, well, the shows we've talked about in this conversation are mostly quite aesthetically sophisticated storytelling and drama. Cinema, really. And then I guess I just have to ask, people who watch five to seven hours of television a day, some of that, including what my children watch, is reality TV. Which is in a whole other category.


KRISTA TIPPETT: How does that fit into what you just said about the meaning-making function of this stuff?

DIANE WINSTON: You know, I don't watch enough reality TV to say anything tremendously smart about that. I do think, to some extent, people watch reality TV-- not Ace of Cakes or Home Decor, but other kinds-- in order to see models and to understand how people make decisions. Whether they're watching the Kardashians or whether they're watching Real Housewives, it's entertaining. But I think it also offers them a big canvas on which they can project, no, I don't want to be like the Kardashians. Or maybe I like their house, but their values are screwy.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah. I wonder if reality TV, in some ways, is more escapist than these vampires we've talked about, where there are actually really big, existential issues at play, even though it's also high drama.

DIANE WINSTON: It also seems to me, oddly enough, more like wish fulfillment. Whether you're learning how to dress or bake a cake or survive on a vacation, it's basically extending the material functions of your life one way or the other. It's not about, as you say, those existential questions. It's more about, how do I take care of myself in the here and now? Or how do other people take care of themselves?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Right, right.

DIANE WINSTON: And in the material level.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Those of you who are watching Homeland will know that its religious plot thickened before this interview went to air. It's too simple just to say that I was right about Sergeant Brody, but here you go.

CARRIE MATHESON: What goes on in your garage? Why do you go there so late at night, so early in the morning?


CARRIE MATHESON: You're a Muslim?

NICHOLAS BRODY: Yeah. You live in despair for eight years, you might turn to religion too. And the King James Bible was not available.

KRISTA TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas, today with media and religion expert and TV aficionado Diane Winston. And I would like to talk about Enlightened, which is this new half-hour weekly HBO show. It's HBO, right? Enlightened with Laura Dern. Have you been watching that?

DIANE WINSTON: Yes. And do you know the backstory of this?


DIANE WINSTON: OK. This is great. Laura Dern and Mike White created it. Mike White is a son of Mel White, who was the conservative Christian minister who ghostwrote books with Jerry Falwell and others, and then came out, and embraced his gay self. So Mike White grew up in this house, and Mel White came out to the family years before he actually came out to everybody else. So he was living in this world where his father was a conservative minister in Pasadena, but also had this deep secret. And Mike White has said that at his home, his father often used Hollywood movies as a way to talk about spiritual issues.

Now, Mike White has done a number of movies with Jack Black and Laura Dern and other folks. In the middle of doing a TV show a couple of years ago, he had a nervous breakdown. And he said that Enlightened is a riff on what happened to him. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, but his experience breaking down and then finding yoga and Buddhism helped to shape the material. So doesn't that make it like a whole different thing?

KRISTA TIPPETT: It's really interesting.

DIANE WINSTON: And the other thing that's so cool is the industry where she works, Abaddon-- Abaddon, in the Hebrew Bible, is the underworld. And in the Book of Revelation, Abaddon refers to the angel of the dark abyss.


DIANE WINSTON: So the whole show is going on a lot of different levels. But after reading about Mike White, I like the show better, because I wasn't sure if it was a parody up and up or whether it was trying to take on some of these issues. And it seems to be skating on the edge of both. I think they really are asking, how do you live in this world without succumbing to desperation or unhappiness or greed? How do you find a way to live in this world where you aren't a cog in the system, yet you can still lead a somewhat normal life?

AMY JELLICOE: Change will come. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it will come. You have to believe. I close my eyes--


--and see a better world.


People there are fearless and connected. They are my friends. I'm there. I'm free.


And this earth itself is healed. And where nothing suffers.

KRISTA TIPPETT: You know, you have written a lot, and we've talked about these overt religious themes that are there in really interesting ways, even in something like The Walking Dead. I mean, the crucifix and the death of the son, and all of it. But there's a way in which this show feels to me also like a maturing of how spirituality has come into the culture in the last 20, 30 years. It's nodding to the fact that there is a flaky side to this, right? But it's also nodding to the fact that there's something that's really meaningful for people, and somehow it's just acknowledging that in a new way.

DIANE WINSTON: I can't think of many shows that tackle this. Can you?


DIANE WINSTON: It feels new to me--

KRISTA TIPPETT: Without just making fun of it.

DIANE WINSTON: Right. Without just making fun of it, and that takes her real breakdown and putting herself back together seriously. And you do identify with who she wants to be. She wants to be an agent of change. Who doesn't want to be an agent of change?

KRISTA TIPPETT: Yeah, exactly. So when we talked a couple of years ago, we were talking-- you were talking about how where you were, especially with your students, about all the different ways people inhabit and work with the television that's meaningful for them. And that's just exploded, even in those years. I don't think Twitter was something anyone did back then.

DIANE WINSTON: Part of why-- and I'm so glad you asked me this question, because I should have said it. Part of why television has become even more powerful as a place for working out social and cultural issues is because we're no longer isolated intelligences watching in our own homes. So I am struck by the number of blogs that work on issues around Dexter or work on issues around zombies or work on issues around vampires, asking the questions that we've been talking about for the last hour or so. What does it mean to be human? What is morality? How does justice figure into love? How do I know what's spiritual? Can people change?

These very basic questions are debated by people now, not only in forums or through blogs, but also Twittering on them. Whenever I Twitter on a TV show, I get most responses to almost anything else I do. Or posting on Tumblr, or going through Buzz. There's so many ways to get these ideas out, and so many people who want to talk about them. People all over the world can debate whether or not the Muslim conversion in Homeland is a cynical ploy or a deep truth.

So the fact of our mediated experiences further and deepen the spiritual connection that we are making through culture, and through television in particular. And the fact that this goes on in our homes oftentimes, or the fact that you can toggle between watching a TV show on your computer and Twittering at the same time, it just makes it even more immediate for people.


KRISTA TIPPETT: Diane Winston is on Twitter @dianewinston. We are @beingtweets. Find us there or at facebook.com/onbeing or at onbeing.org, and tell us what shows you like that we just missed. Tell us about the TV that matters to you, what it says about who we are, what we fear, what we aspire to be.

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. That's at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She edited Small Screen, Big Picture-- Television and Lived Religion. Her media and religion blog is called the Scoop. And you can listen to this entire conversation again, or our unedited interview, at onbeing.org. We'll let Laura Dern take us out with another scene from HBO's Enlightened.

AMY JELLICOE: So it was one morning, super early. And I was meditating on the beach. You're giving me a smirky look.

LEVI CALLOW: No, I didn't say anything.

AMY JELLICOE: I want you to be open.

LEVI CALLOW: OK. I'm wide open.

AMY JELLICOE: Anyway, I decided to get in the water, and this sea turtle just passed by. Big, beautiful sea turtle.

LEVI CALLOW: Wow. That's cool.

AMY JELLICOE: I felt this presence all around me. It was God. Or it was better than God. It was-- something was speaking to me. It was saying, this is all for you, and everything is a gift. (CRYING) Even the horrible stuff.

LEVI CALLOW: Oh, I know what you mean. I kind of had the same thing happen. I was at Red Rocks on some mescaline. [LAUGHS]

No, I'm glad that happened to you. I am. To the presence of God. Really.

AMY JELLICOE: Presence of God.


KRISTA TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our web developer. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I'm Krista Tippett.

SPEAKER 1: On Being is supported by the Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, at fordfoundation.org. And the Luce Foundation's Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. On Being is extending its reach throughout America with support from Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based private foundation.

KRISTA TIPPETT: Next time, we venture to the edges of discovery where scientific advance meets recurrent mystery. I speak with Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who works with the Hubble Telescope and spends his days watching things like dark energy and white dwarf stars. Please join us.


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