Maybe it's a good thing that television writers don't try too hard to get involved with plots about religion. The thoroughly secular TV world seems to tolerate about one seriously religiously themed series at a time. It's much more common to engage the topic of religion as an odd joke, as an intensely greedy racket of quacks or as the inspiration for a flock of oppressive mind-numbed zombies out to ruin everyone's guilty pleasures. Usually, they're simply "crazy Christians."
That's the central plot twist in the premiere of the new NBC drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," created by "West Wing" producer-writer Aaron Sorkin. The show goes behind the scenes of a fictional sketch-comedy program resembling "Saturday Night Live" at a fictional network called UBS. The censors at UBS have scratched a skit titled "Crazy Christians," and now all hell will break loose. We're never shown the skit, but we're told repeatedly that it's demonstrably hilarious.
Sorkin uses his first script to throw sharp knives and rusty razors at the Americans who've lobbied for less filthy television. The show begins with an improbable "standards and practices" censor telling the producer of the fictional "SNL" that he can't run "Crazy Christians" because "what do you want me to say to the 50 million people who are gonna go out of their minds as soon as it airs?" The producer cracks wise: "Well, first of all, you can tell 'em we average 9 million households, so at least 41 million of them are full of crap. Second, you can tell 'em that living where there's free speech means sometimes you're gonna get offended."
But Hollywood writers know that in a free-speech society, people are free to denounce Hollywood's shows when they are vile and disgusting. There's also a remarkable double standard at work here. While denouncing the free-speech rights of "crazy Christians," Hollywood exercises its own restrictions, zealously avoiding on camera the many social taboos -- smoking cigarettes, say -- to which it subscribes.
What Hollywood likes is having the almighty power to offend -- to "challenge" society, as they like to describe it -- freely. But only some people are sought out for offending. For every supposedly crazy parent who worries about sex, violence and smutty talk on TV, perhaps there's another supposedly crazy parent who worries about different offenses, such as Twinkie commercials or scenes with cool, beautiful people smoking cigarettes. But those parents don't get mocked by scriptwriters. It is those with religious objections who get singled out.
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