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.
But Sorkin wasn't done lecturing. When his skit is axed, the outraged fictional "SNL" producer bounds onto the stage and unleashes a lecture on live television. It's what Sorkin has probably wanted to say about network executives (and their alleged overreaction to those crazy Christians) many times: "The two things that make them scared gutless are the FCC and every psycho religious cult that gets positively horny at the very mention of a boycott." Sorkin was so impressed with his own insult that it reruns later in the show in fictional news clips.
Two major characters fight over how their romance broke up when the woman sang hymns on "The 700 Club." Again, Sorkin aims low, insisting Pat Robertson is a vicious racist. "You put on a dress and sang for a bigot." When the woman replies that the faithful audience of the show inspires her, he cracks, "Throw in the Halloween costumes and you got yourself a Klan rally."
Sorkin actually pushed a similar plot for the first episode of "The West Wing," in which lovable liberal President Josiah Bartlet instructed a clueless, caricatured Christian evangelist who didn't know the order of the Ten Commandments and then unloaded a long sermon on vicious Christian pro-lifers threatening his 12-year-old granddaughter. He told the conservative Christians to get their fat (bottoms) out of his White House.
Maybe cursing out the Christians is his show-opening good luck charm.
While Sorkin has an obvious problem with Christianity, it's actually broader than that. He thinks religion in general is bunk. In 2002, he told a crowd at the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles that "I was turned off on religion." The rabbi interviewing him asked him if he believed in God. He said he viewed the wide array of religions as "many fairytales" that "seem hardly to be doing what they intended." For Sorkin, spirituality was "a meditative thing that has to do with helping others and not waiting for it to come from a divine source."
What this means is Sorkin -- and all the Sorkins in Hollywood -- are probably never going to write a daring, potentially offensive script with the concept of mocking "crazy atheists." Instead, in our upside-down popular culture, the unbeliever is the sacred cow.