It’s been 15 years since President Josiah Bartlet stood in a deserted cathedral and railed against his creator. The flawed hero of The West Wing was mired in grief so he bellowed at the One he loved the most. He lit a cigarette, stubbed it out contemptuously on the church floor, and called God a “feckless thug”.
The scene was painful to watch, but even in this shocking moment, with Bartlet behaving so terribly, at least we knew that his faith, however strained and wounded, was real. We also sensed that the programme makers had always taken Bartlet’s Catholicism seriously. His understanding of the faith was not to every Catholic’s taste, and the narrative devices were sometimes rather clumsy – far too much off-the-cuff Latin and scriptural citation, and all those predictable moral dilemmas – but, throughout, there was at least an attempt to portray Bartlet’s beliefs with something approaching sophistication. More was on offer than a character-rounding veneer or a cheap caricature. It all made a pleasant change from the troubled cop who only finds his conscience in the confessional or the streetwise priest who seems to spend most of his time consoling mobsters’ wives.
A Bartlet on the major US networks can sometimes seem as rare as a marsh warbler in an English summer, so it is small wonder that American Catholics often complain about the way their religion is portrayed on TV. Two responses appear to be popular at the moment, though neither is particularly helpful.
The first involves extravagant hermeneutic leaps. In the absence of genuinely interesting Catholic characters, also-rans are invested with unwarranted significance and complexity.
A conspicuous example is the latest TV version of Daredevil, which is doing very nicely on Netflix. Even usually level-headed commentators are raving about an intricate moral universe in which themes of sin and punishment, guilt and redemption are skilfully moulded by the protagonist’s Catholic faith. A comic book in which lots of people get beaten up is transformed into a theological treatise. This is about as convincing as seeing Dana Scully from The X-Files – the hard-nosed sceptic who also happens to be a Catholic – as the locus of a nuanced meditation on the relationship between faith and reason: the thesis, goodness help us, of more than one earnest academic paper in recent years.
A second strategy involves wildly over-reacting whenever Catholicism comes under attack on the small screen. I’m all for a fight when serious threats arise, but battles must be chosen carefully. Was it really helpful for the Catholic League to place adverts in the New York Times calling for the scrapping of a forthcoming sitcom, The Real O’Neals, before it even aired? The show, we were informed, was the brainchild of someone with a “maniacal hatred of Catholicism”, but while the chances of anti-Catholic jibes and clichés were high, it would surely have been wiser to wait for the programme to reveal its own silliness.
More puzzling still was the furore surrounding an episode of the excellent police drama Blue Bloods. The show had been going down rather well with many Catholics: the image of a close-knit Catholic family gathering for Sunday lunch, saying grace, then discussing ethical dilemmas hit the spot. But then the chief character, the police commissioner of New York City, said something about the Church being a “little behind the times” when it came to homosexuality. Back in the real world, angry press releases cried foul and one might have imagined that an actual high-ranking policeman had voiced the opinion rather than a character on television.
Anti-Catholic sentiment has certainly not vanished from American popular culture but the sheer ordinariness of so many Catholic characters in major shows might just be a source of solace. The religion of the Barone family in the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was hardly portrayed with skill or depth, but everybody knew they were Catholics and no one seems to have objected. Yes, there was the overbearing mother, the curmudgeonly priest with a fondness for lasagne, and the farcical prayer contests with the Presbyterian in-laws, but this was all harmless enough: simply the kind of lazy plotting and characterisation that afflicts every other religious group in the republic.
I’ll admit that a top-notch Catholic character is not easy to spot on American TV at the moment but it is only a matter of time and, for now, there are always the re-runs of M*A*S*H. When I was 14 I wanted to dress up as my hero, Father Mulcahy, for a costume party. My dad disapproved so I had to go as Hawkeye instead. Perhaps that’s where my déshabillé habits and penchant for cheap gin originated, but I can still recognise Mulcahy as one of the noblest and most sympathetic characters ever seen on American TV. Sometimes they get it right.
Jonathan Wright is honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University