Diane Winston —
TV and Parables of Our Time

Diane Winston appreciates good television, studies it, and brings many of its creators into her religion and media classes at the University of Southern California. In what some have called a renaissance in television drama, we examine how TV is helping us tell our story and work through great confusions in contemporary life. And, we play clips from The Wire, House, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica.

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is the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California. She's the editor of Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion.

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A woman watches television in Cairo, Egypt.

Photo by Andrea Volpini

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My wife turned me on to your program and I have enjoyed the different turns and depths it explores. I am a little leery of the television discussion when there are programs such as Mad Men and in the recent past Eli Stone, both of which address moral issues in our troubled world. I have tried Lost but hardly find it relevant to the discussion. Maybe I should look at Battlestar Gallactica!

I, too, was captivated by Battlestar Gallactica and at the same time found it one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever “had” to watch. For me, it was the quintessential shadow drama, each character offering a different dimension of the personal interior we all possess…the passion, dedication and possibilities for cruelty that lie within. Earlier this year before she passed away, my spiritual teacher said we are in a time where we must integrate our negativity -- where that which is negative is not just simply killed but dismantled in a particular way where the valuable components can then reform with the other aspects of our inner psyche to create something more empowered and up to great challenges -- Battlestar was a story about this very development and rather than the happy ending of the myths of our past, there was simply another challenging beginning. After all it was no mean feat for all those characters to walk off at the end of the last show to forge new beginnings on a planet offering little more than potential.

Another thing that caught me up about the show was how the line between good a bad was often blurred almost out of recognition, giving insight into the complexity of real transformation. It was never a case of the bad guys losing and the good guys winning, the light over the dark. Everyone had to change, give up strong beliefs and attitudes, and face things in themselves they would have never known existed without the circumstances they encountered. Being a transpersonal psychologist, I also appreciated that rather than portraying a kind of buildup to an ultimate battle, this series was more about cyclical processes full of breakings, reforming and refining, piece upon piece -- more authentic to the complexity of our inner development as well as the challenges that face us in our outer lives.

I am a total outer space show devotee…:) And I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast in style of, for example, Star Trek, TNG and Battlestar. Where Star Trek was so much more gentle in offering its thoughts for the type of human we might become, Battlestar was constantly in our faces, expressing a desperate urgency that reflects the times we live in today and deftly took us into the deep struggles necessary to get to that which Star Trek promised.

The questions about home reflected in the show are compelling: “Where is home? Is “home” truly what we think it is? What does it take to get there? And when we do arrive, what is required to live into the essence of it? Since moving to Thailand, I’ve reflected often about the nature of this concept of home, both in the inner and outer. While the concept of home might offer a comfort and continuity, it also can be an agent of separation. I think we’re all going to have to shift our sense of home in an expansive way, stepping out of the familiar, out of that sort of sense of home as “mine” to embrace home as a place where even strangers are included and honored.

Thank you for all you do. Every SOF presentation is a treasure.
My image: a peek at the gentle Thai life.

A child in the 50s, my TV watching was limited by parental control (e.g. kids shows, family entertainment, Disney & later on the occasional movie, Rod Serling, et al). My observation is that in my formative years I had strong, but not rigid, family guidance. That has informed my subsequent TV viewing (and a LOT else GRIN!).

But I found spiritual-moral issues in virtually every show I ever remember - from Howdy Doody to Rocky & Bullwinkle to Mork & Mindy (well, maybe not from Lawrence Welk or Mickey Mouse Club). It seems to me that the consideration of moral-ethical questions from TV is far, far more a function of personality and up-bringing than it is the nature of the shows themselves.

For the last three years I've taught a course on producing a pilot of a tv series. It has been fascinating to watch students create their own post-9/11 narratives. Student work sometimes imitates what's on the screen but, mercifully, this has not been the case so far in this class. All 16 members of the class pitch a story and gradually the whole class settles on the one it most wants to produce. All students write at least one scene, then each student takes a creative role in the production. (We use professional actors and even build our own sets!). The students are all very concentrated on their individual roles, and yet the projects themselves are thematically fascinating -- dealing with their own identity (and sexual identity), with malevolent authority, and with their perceived conflict between "life" and "work." It was mentioned in the program that watching tv is something of a ritual activity. I would like to propose that the creative act of producing a tv show (under the right circumstances, with creative and committed people) can also be a rewarding, empowering, and creative experience. TK (Emerson College, Boston.)

Even when I miss it, due to my aversion to violence, formulaically generated conflict, and television in general, I'm heartened more and more frequently by the demonstrations of shifting consciousness in the art of screen drama and entertainment.

I confess that, while I don't own a television set, I managed -- made it a point -- to watch each episode of ELI STONE, which had great meaning for me personally. I recognized that that show, like my own life, would not be for everyone. Yet, despite its flaws, and a certain surface slickness and flipness, I was inspired and nourished by all that was going on in, or-- dare I say it -- coming through the program, what was dancing between the words, themes and portrayals.

My gratitude that it lasted as long as it did (nearly two seasons) tempers my sadness and withdrawal in the wake of its cancellation, which, though lamentable, comes as little surprise. I will miss it, with an aching loving memory, as I will miss my dying father. Every thing has a life span, and leaves its blessings to be long savored and honored.

The fact that more and more intelligent, positve and thoughful transmissions like this are cresting above the surface of the pablum is very hopeful indeed, for all of us, whether we choose to watch them or not!

I loved this story and I anticipate listening to the uncut version.

Both you and your guest made references to "Lost," "Battlestar Galactiga," and a few others. What surprised me was your lack of attention to the various incarnations of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek." While I like all the various series, my favorite is 'Star Trek - The Next Generation," and it was in this series, I think, that Gene Roddenberry's vision, his optimism, came through most clearly.

In one episode, Mark Twain questions Counselor Troi about this big star ship, which no doubt has weapons that can destroy entire cities. He goes on about the various species that work on this star ship, who, he perceives, are the few, the privileged, while the poor, he contends there is nothing left for them.

The counselor asks him, "Is that what you think? We've come a long way since the 20th century and we've left many things behind, among them, poverty, hopelessness, despair - those are things of the past."

It took some convincing, but finally Mr. Clemens relented, stating, "Well, I guess there are some things worth giving up cigars for, after all!"

I've always appreciated Gene Rodenberry's vision for the future, and it's my hope that we get at least part way there.

Didn't anyone stop to think that today's show was about as vacuous as they come? The professor's comments had no depth. You could have introduced her, let her state her thesis that today's TV reflects the tenor of the times, and moved on to a more interesting topic. The comments about the unempowered Samantha and Jeannie were trite. The snippets from the TV shows: (i) demonstrated that scripted shows are reducing their pacing to that of soap operas -- I've seldom heard anyone say such obvious things so slowly -- and (ii) reinforced the recent BBC interview that highlighted how much serious thinking/worthwhile acting/involvement with others -- even fun -- that we all could achieve in the time we now spend on the isolating, one-way medium of televison.

As for the professor's comments about the types of shows now popular, she seems to ignore the fact that in TV, movies, etc., when a show becomes successful, it is immediately copied (almost invariably in a less expensive way) until the audience tires of the genre, format, etc. Often, shows don't refelct the spirit of the times, as much as they do reflect the ability to turn a quick buck.

A few years ago, I was pondering the question of violence on TV / Video games and all the "there is no correlation" comments between crimes various programs / games. I was also pondering / recalling some other things...

A discussion with a holocaust survivor, for instance, wherein he described how the horrendous conditions in the camps quickly became "normal" -- he observed that people very quickly adapt to "normal".

I thought about how I learned what it meant to be "a man / whatever" == stories I was read / told / read myself / movies / plays ... TV.

The point being that in this day, TV and video games define "normal" for those who watch them -- particularly those who watch / play a lot.

Tell me, which view of the world would you prefer to define "normal" for your children: Leave it To Beaver / It's a Wonderful Life or Law and Order / South Park / Grand Theft Auto ?

That question is probably not even the most significant one -- what kind of "normal" activity is generally seen on TV? Seems to me we've done a wonderful job with the past 50 years worth of crime shows on TV in making lying, cheating, and stealing "normal", and studying hard and being honorable as "laughable".

Perhaps we need to teach our story creators the sacred duty they are undertaking and explain that they, in a very real sense, determine the future their children will be living in.

I've been catching up online on missed episodes of SOF--just the best company as I sit and quilt. (Food for the mind to go with treats for the eye.) How intriguing to learn that Krista is also a Battlestar Galactica fan. I came to the series late, after friends whose opinions I respect told me, "You HAVE to watch this series!" Boy, were they right. I'm heartbroken that it's over but looking forward to the soon-to-begin spin-off, Caprica, which will take us back to the origins of the human-Cylon struggle. Lots of good philosophical potential there.
I do have one question about SOF music: is the theme that plays at the intro to each segment (the piano monotone) not borrowed from Galactica? Long before I'd heard this episode, I thought of the TV series every time I heard those rhythmic tones begin.

TV and parables of our time
Diane Winston is an instructor and journalist at the
USC. Her classes includes TV and Faith. Religion has a more prominent
subject in TV. Entertainment narratives and storytelling is very
powerful resource to influence the audience perceptions of the world.
Actually, Diane thinks that we underestimate that power. She states,
“We underestimate the power of entertainment narratives to influence
the way we look at the world” (TV and parables of our time).
TV and meaning has grown into a new deeper meaning. It
has grown into a new level than ever before. Two reasons why it has
changed is due to the advance in technology and responding to hard times
especially post 9/11. Shows like House, ER, Grey’s Anatomy take on
issues of medical ethics. The creator of House, David Shore visited
Diane Winston in her classroom. She states that David has two older
brothers that are actually Orthodox Rabbis in Israel. David is no
stranger to religion. However, he isn’t very religious like some may
thing. David states that each show has an ethical problem at it’s
center. They present ways to the public to think about issues, medical
issues. The show then provides a clip of House with a central medical
issue. A patient of House wants to just give in and basically die. The
problem then leads to Chase stating that they should give him a syringe
with morphine. The
ethical problem is that it is wrong to help a man commit suicide, but
however, is it? Shouldn’t we help a man who is going to die a painful
death end his misery? This is a prime example of how TV has evolved.
TV isn’t going to replace literature, Diane states. Two
central issues has appeared on television recently, mortality and
heroes. Shows like the Ghost Whisperer deals with the fear of death.
It deals with the hope that something lies beyond death. Diane states
that post 9/11 has skewed our views of heroes. She states that heroes
now are anti-heroes. We may not like them but we depend on them. Shows
like 24 and House depicts that.
TV engages us with spiritual moral ethical questions.
Questions that people face includes:
1. Why are we here?
2. What am I doing?
3. Who’s important to me?
4. Why does it matter?
5. What’s going to happen to me after I die?
TV entertainment is helping the people deal with those questions through
storytelling and narratives. One example is in the show Lost. The
characters deal with extreme situations with those questions.
This new generation of TV shows deals with questions of
identity and ethics. Diane states that many don’t look at TV this way.
However, once they learn about it then they realize that they can see
it. They watch the shows differently after that. They are more open to
the differences and can reach spirituality better. I agree with Diane.
I never looked at it this way but once you are aware of it then you will
see it more and more while watching TV. The ethical problem in House
never appeared to me in a religious context but now I see it. However,
now you see it all the time. I think television is a great outlet and
I'm not surprised that they display some of the questions that we face.

Dear Krista, After reflecting on your program about new television serials and modern culture, I decided to try watching Battlestar Galactica. Having just finished season 4.5, I thank you for the recommendation. It was profound, compelling, spiritually provocative, and fulfilled my craving for deep narrative. Sadly, though, BG is now finished and I'm looking for a new show. Because I am an avid listener of your show, and now your voice often comes into my internal dialogue, I want to invite you to join me in looking again at Deadwood. Although, I don't rate Deadwood as highly as BG, DW is a very different glimpse of fallen humanity and spirit. On the special features disc of Season 1 (listed as Disc 6), creator David Milch has a featurette entitled "The new language of the old West." I do not like the rough language of the series, but I recommend this interview to you because frankly David Milch is a person I think you might find fascinating. He prays before beginning work each day and talks about the spirit entering the work. (He also addresses the device of language in building the DW scene). Just a thought.Peace in the new year, Amy M.

As a latchkey kid raised by the small screen, Bill Cosby was in essence my dad and Michael J. Fox, my big brother. Thanks to this episode, I've identified with characters in the modern parables in Lost and the Wire. From 'Lost', I find Jack Sheppard and Hugo as my contemporaries trying to help others find their way through life. 'The Wire' hits home countless times with us as we're working with NFL players and college students to mentor at risk youth both behind bars and in foster care group homes. I talk with teens just like Bodie- lost in a game where there are no winners- and feel the very real presence of the Stringer Bell's and Avon Barksdale's of the world. Thanks NPR and Speaking of Faith for bridging that gap and introducing me to a whole new generation of characters that give me a reference and compass while a walk the new terrain of adulthood.