Transcript for Diane Winston — TV and Parables of Our Time

July 16, 2009

Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "TV and Parables of Our Time" with Diane Winston, a journalist and scholar of media and religion at USC. We'll explore how shows like Lost, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica are engaging grand themes of ethics and humanity and helping a new generation tell the story of our time.

Ms. Diane Winston: I think we underestimate the power of entertainment narratives to influence the way we look at the world. And storytelling, when it's good storytelling, you know, orients us to possibilities and helps us structure the way we look at things.

Matthew Fox, as Jack Shephard, Lost: Last week most of us were strangers and god knows how long we're going to be here. But if we can't live together we're going to die alone.

Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.

(Announcements)

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Your favorite TV show, once a finite experience, now has eternal life online and college students gather ritually to watch programs like Lost, captivated by its craft but also by the mystery at its core. I'll confess that I too am a Lost aficionado. We'll listen in on it this hour along with The Wire, House, and another of my favorites, Battlestar Galactica. We'll entertain the notion of my guest, Diane Winston that television has gained in vitality as a center of storytelling in post-September 11th America and that a new generation of programs is engaging grand confusions of ethics, identity, and destiny in modern life. So despite what your mother told you, TV might be good for you.

From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. Today, "TV and Parables of Our Time."

Like everything else in life, the whole truth about television is complicated. Prime time is filling up with reality TV that surely says something about our collective soul, but there have always been shows that enlarged our imaginations and enriched our cultural narrative.

Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone: There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man ...

(Sound bite of music, The X-Files theme)

Ms. Tippett: And cable TV has given rise to series like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under which have taken root in some of us more like good books than prime time TV of old. Granted, even artistic TV, like all art, is a matter of taste, but if you've thought of the new Battlestar Galactica, for example, as just another cheesy sci-fi action show, listen to this scene from the final season. The series traces an epic encounter between humans and human-made, human-like machines through war, peace, and everything in between.

Tricia Helfer, as Number Six, Battlestar Galactica: In our Civil War we've seen death. We watched our people die, gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the resurrection ships something began to change. We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over, mortality, is the one thing — well, it's the one thing that makes you whole.

Ms. Tippett: My guest this hour, Diane Winston, holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. She's reported for major newspapers and now blogs and writes widely about the intersection of religion and media in many aspects of modern life. Her classes at USC include: Religion, Media, and Hollywood, Faith and TV. She's recently edited a book of scholarly essays called Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Diane and I have known each other as colleagues for several years and have even watched some television together. As we began this conversation about TV's power in our culture now, I wondered about the formative programs of her early life.

(Sound bite of music from "The Mickey Mouse Club")

Ms. Winston: Well, it's funny insofar as our choices were so restricted.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Winston: You know, especially given what our kids can watch today. I think when I was really young it was "The Mickey Mouse Club" and the Mousketeers gave me a really good sense of virtues. And I could identify with all of them, though I never liked Annette very much. When I was older, I don't know if I had any programs that I loved growing up — did you?

Ms. Tippett: Well, you know what I think of immediately are programs like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie and then if I try to think about the messages those shows were sending — right? I mean, they were communicating something about the world we were inhabiting or trying to inhabit, the roles of women, for example.

Ms. Winston: Right. Right. Right. Because all those shows sort of gave us an idea of women not being very empowered, to use today's words, but they were always very crafty.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Ms. Winston: I mean, whether or not they were witches they still worked a certain magic to get what they wanted.

Ms. Tippett: So there's been plenty of people writing recently about a kind of renaissance that's happening in television. I mean, I attribute and I think other people do too, some of it to HBO, to these cable networks creating a very high level of artistry in shows like Six Feet Under, you know, acting, writing, and that somehow that's raised the bar for everyone else.

Ms. Winston: I would say we're in a Golden Age of television.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Winston: And it's partly a result of the media breakthroughs. Because of digitization we have so many options and more stations can do niche programming so you don't have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. You can do a program that gets two million people and it can be like, Damages or Battlestar.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Winston: But also, HBO did raise the bar and I think it also has to do with the times we live in. I think we live in very difficult times and 2001 crystallized that for a lot of people. And I think hard times brings out our need for stories and writers respond to that. And, interestingly, as I've been teaching this class on religion and TV, a lot of TV writers say, "We don't want to work in film anymore. We want to work in television, because that's where we can really tell our stories."

Ms. Tippett: That's really interesting and it's about more than the advance in technology. I mean, if you look at, let's say even the difference between versions of the same shows, like the old Battlestar Galactica and the new Battlestar Galactica or those programs you and I were talking about from our children, I Dream of Jeanie or Bewitched compared to, I don't know, anything — Lost. Again, kind of the care in the writing, the seriousness of it.

Ms. Winston: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Even when it's very entertaining, the seriousness of it.

Ms. Winston: Well, wouldn't you compare Bewitched to "Buffy"?

Ms. Tippett: I guess so. Yeah.

Ms. Winston: I mean, you know, women with supernatural powers but whereas Samantha was kind of just redirecting her household, Buffy was out saving the world.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Something else you point out — that in shows like House or "ER" or Grey's Anatomy, which I'll confess I'm not really a medical show person, but I know this is true, that they really take on these issues of medical ethics and technology, but which are also very big human questions. Who should live, who should die, who controls the technology that makes either possible.

Ms. Winston: Mm-hmm. Well, it's interesting because David Shore, the creator of House, came to my class and he basically said, well, first of all he has two older twin brothers who are Orthodox Rabbis in Israel. So religion is not a strange subject to him. He is not particularly religious but he said that each show has an ethical problem at its center and he feels strongly that they present ways for the public to think about issues.

(Scene from House M.D.)

Jennifer Morrison, as Dr. Allison Cameron, House M.D.: He says no more tests. He wants to die and he wants us to help him do it.

hugh Laurie, as Dr. Gregory House, House M.D.: And I want to play a little game I call 'block my spike with Misty May.'

Dr. Cameron: He's thought this through. It's not an impulsive decision.

Dr. House: Neither is mine. He's depressed. He'll feel much better after we cure him.

Jess Spencer, as Dr. Chase, House M.D.: He's seen all the tests we've seen. Even if we figure out what's causing the lung damage it's too late to reverse it.

Dr. House: You can't know that without knowing what's wrong.

Dr. Chase: It's his call.

Omar Epps, as Dr. Foreman, House M.D.: So what do we do? We just put a plastic bag over his head and get it over with?

Dr. Chase: No. We give him a syringe full of morphine. Every doctor I've ever practiced with has done it. They don't want to. They don't like to. But that's the way it is.

Dr. Foreman: I haven't. I won't.

Dr. Cameron: I couldn't do it either.

Dr. House: You just said we should respect his decision.

Dr. Cameron: Respect it doesn't necessarily mean we honor it.

Dr. Chase: Right. It just means we talk about it. At some point 'do no harm' has to mean allowing nature to take its course, not stubbornly standing in the way of it.

Dr. Foreman: Sticking a metal syringe into a plastic IV line and pumping in a lethal dose of morphine is not letting nature take its course, not according to the state of New Jersey.

Dr. House: Certainly a lot of interesting things to consider. Stress EKG rules out the heart, which means something's got to be attacking his lungs, might go plasma or strep pneumo, which probably means it's too late to do anything about it. We could try levofloxacin.

Dr. Cameron: Coming up with a new treatment isn't going to do us any good unless we convince him it's worth trying.

Dr. House: Come on. He's old and sick and tiny. We can do whatever we want to him.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Winston: I'm not saying that TV is going to replace great literature and I'm not saying TV is going to replace scripture, but it is a site where people are asking very basic questions about the meaning of life and where they fit in and how to behave as good people. A lot of that's done online now which is also a new development which is really interesting that fan sites, fan fiction, fan videotapes, fans putting in new narratives for characters, I mean, the whole dynamics of television watching is changing because people can become producers as well as receivers ...

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Ms. Winston: … of the content. It's sort of mind blowing.

Ms. Tippett: It is. So I want to talk about this from a few different angles, but if I ask what is on or what has been on in this post 9/11 period, maybe let's focus on that, that you think of as most explicitly having religious themes, what comes to mind?

Ms. Winston: Well, as I look at 9/11 I think that there are a lot of ways to, you know, slice and dice the issues that have come out of it. So, for example, one issue is mortality and what do we do after we die.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: And I think there's been a number or shows that have dealt with that. You know, a lot of them haven't been on for more than a season or two, but everything from Medium to Ghost Whisperer to the vampire shows to The Reaper, I think all those shows speak to our fear of death and our hope that something lies beyond. So that's one aspect of it.

Then I think that 9/11 also skewed our ideas of morality and what we look for in a hero. And I think shows like Rescue Me, The Shield, 24, House, all speak to that. The hero is sort of an anti-hero and someone who we can depend upon, but not necessarily like very much.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: And "Dexter" is a great example of that too. I mean, you know, are these people good? Are they evil? Are those terms not even appropriate?

Then I think there's shows that just sort of say nothing is what you think it is and Lost is a great example of that. Even "West Wing" did that by presenting an alternative universe where we had a President who was thoughtful about religion and politics in a very different way than the real President was.

And The Sopranos, another great example of 'what's moral?' What is it to lead a good life? Is caring for your family enough? And how do you live? You know, what decisions constitute being part of a community and Tony was a very good member of some communities, but a wretched member of others.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: So I think all those shows dealt with various aspects of 9/11 and the questions that it raised for us. And The Wire. I mean, that's another great example. The Wire doesn't have religious themes or spiritual themes in the same way that some of these others do, but I think it brought us back to questions of what is our responsibility to our neighbors? And how do we show compassion and concern in a very compromised, gray world.

Ms. Tippett: I haven't been able to get into The Wire, although I've tried. But I also sense that it taps into a real and reasonable anxiety that we have about the complexity of our cities — life in our cities and that what is happening in Baltimore is also happening in Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

Ms. Winston: It deals with issues of race and class in a way that no other show I've ever seen does. You know, everyone applauded "Grey's Anatomy" for having a colorblind cast and it's true. It's very admirable. But The Wire shows us urban life in ways that no other show ever has ever done before and makes us feel responsible for what's going on.

Ms. Tippett: Journalist and scholar of media and religion, Diane Winston.

(Sound bite of music, The Wire theme "Way Down in the Hole")

Ms. Tippett: Set in Baltimore, HBO series The Wire explores life in a dying American city where the drug trade rules the street and civic institutions are broken. The drama was broadcast for five seasons. It began with the tale of drug dealers and cops and the failed war on drugs, then expanded to reveal other layers of the urban ecosystem, from City Hall to the public schools to the media. In this scene, a retired police major and a university researcher lobby an official from the Department of Education to support an experimental classroom for disruptive middle school students.

(Scene from The Wire)

Shenia Hatchett, As Ms. Shepherdson, The Wire: How'd they do?

Robert Wisdom, as Howard "Bunny" Colvin, The Wire: Pretty well, considering.

Ms. Shephardson: Did they embarrass us?

"Bunny" Colvin: Us? No. We're fine with it but, I mean, they were intimidated, embarrassed, and awkward as hell, but they made it through.

Dan Deluca, Professor David Pareti, The Wire: Ms. Shepherdson, these aren't the kids that are going to be able to sit still for the statewide test, much less do well on them. These were the kids that are going to make it impossible for anyone else to do well.

Ms. Shepherdson: So we're writing them off?

"Bunny" Colvin: No. That's what we're not doing.

Ms. Shepherdson: You're not educating them. You're socializing them.

Professor Parenti: They weren't being educated before. There's no point in being obtuse.

Ms. Shepherdson: Excuse me.

"Bunny" Colvin: Hold on. Hold on. Look, what he's saying is this. I mean, you put a text book in front of these kids, put a problem on a blackboard or teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won't matter. None of it. Because they're not learning for our world. They're learning for theirs. And they know exactly what it is they're training for and what is it everyone expects them to be.

Ms. Shepherdson: I expect them to be students.

"Bunny" Colvin: But it's not about you or us, or the tests or the system. It's what they expect of themselves. I mean, every single one of them know they headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, [CENSORED] their parents, they came through these same classrooms, didn't they? We pretended to teach them. They pretended to learn. Where'd they end up? Same damn corners. I mean, Jesus, they see right through us.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "TV and Parables of Our Time" with Diane Winston, a scholar of media and religion at USC. We're exploring how a new generation of television is engaging grand ethical and spiritual questions in a new generation of viewers.

Ms. Tippett: Something that, you know, I've been quite aware of in these same post 9/11 years, and I don't know if it has anything to do with 9/11, but that spiritual but not religious doesn't mean the same thing as it did, say, in the '80s or '90s where there was a — I don't know, the stereotype was a shallowness, right, of pick and choose.

Ms. Winston: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: But there's a real depth to the way people are asking — or I encounter this — these spiritual, moral, ethical questions either inside religion or outside them and what you're describing is that reflected in these television narratives.

Ms. Winston: I think that's a good point. One of the fastest growing segments in the American scene are people who aren't affiliated and who say that they're none — N-O-N-E. But that does not mean that they aren't asking these questions: Why am I here? What am I doing? Who's important to me? Why does it matter? What's going to happen to me after I die? These are basic human questions. So, you know, whether you're spiritual or religious or agnostic or atheist, at some level you have to answer them to get out of bed every morning. Money may be your god or sex or drugs, but you still have to, I think, find a way to commit your life to something. And some TV writers, like some novelists and filmmakers, wrestle with these issues and have come up with narratives to help us think through them.

Ms. Tippett: Right. So in Lost, for example, there are religious overtones and there are characters who have religious experiences, but to me what is so spiritually engaging about that show is its this very multi-layered examination of precisely I think what you described as core spiritual questions — what does it mean to be human? — and these people in this extreme situation who confront themselves. But with all the — I mean, I'll just say this because everybody doesn't watch Lost and I discovered it just recently, but you get to know these characters in the extreme situation but you also come over time to know a lot about their previous lives and eventually you know something about their future lives. But they all are terribly flawed, as we all are, and there are themes of brokenness and redemption. I always think of the first line of Reinhold Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man, "Man is his own most vexing problem." Right? I mean, like, and the characters on Lost you see that come to life narratively with each one of them week after week. But you also see this very noble human will to keep learning and to me that's absolutely spiritually evocative television.

Ms. Winston: Yes. I think those characters on Lost, like the characters in Battlestar are addressing a fundamental question which is "How do I get home?"

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. And what is the meaning of home?

Ms. Winston: And what is the meaning of home? And that's the question of The Odyssey, it's the question of the Exodus story, it's the question of the Wizard of Oz. I think it's a question that all of us have and that's why those characters are so appealing to us, because they mirror some of our questions about it.

Ms. Tippett: And so I could imagine, like, if I had never watched Lost or even if I had and not liked it, I could hear us talking here on the radio and think, "They are just making this up."

So I just want to — I think I found this in your work. This is one of the show's creators, Damon Lindelof.

Ms. Winston: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And he said, "This show is about people who are metaphorically lost in their lives, who get on an airplane and crash on an island and become physically lost on the planet Earth and once they are able to metaphorically find themselves again they will be able to physically find themselves in the world again." And we don't imagine our television writers having those kinds of intentions, I don't think.

Ms. Winston: Well, the other thing is not only did they have those intentions, but the fact is thousands and thousands of fans are online yakking about this show. So it obviously is not just our mishegoss, that we're creating something out of nothing. A lot of people find themes and ideas on Lost that really get their juices going.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: And as a student of popular culture that sort of makes me curious. What is it about this show that makes people want to live in this universe? The Lost universe, that is.

Ms. Tippett: ABC's Lost is set to end in its sixth season in 2010. Part survival tale, part science fiction, Lost revolves around the winding fate of a handful of travelers from Sydney to Los Angeles who crash on an island with mysterious time-bending properties. In this scene from the first season, one of the characters, a physician Jack Shephard, addresses the plane survivors as it becomes clear that they are not going to be rescued any time soon.

Matthew Fox, as Jack Shephard, Lost: It's been six days and we're all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. Well, what if they don't? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. A woman died this morning just going for a swim. And he tried to save her and now you're about to crucify him? Last week most of us were strangers, but we're all here now, and god knows how long we're going to be here. But if we can't live together we're going to die alone.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett : This evocative scene from Lost and many other television series sparked hours of conversation among my producers and me about resonant themes in the TV shows we watch and we'd like to hear about shows or characters that stick with you. How do TV characters and TV moments spark your thinking and discussions, your sense of the world? Join our online yakking, as Diane Winston calls it, about television that mattes. Look for links to share your story on our home page speakingoffaith.org.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, moral and political meaning in Battlestar Galactica. I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

(Announcements)

Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "TV and Parables of Our Time." My guest is Diane Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Her classes at USC include: Religion, Media, and Hollywood, Faith and TV. And she's edited a recent book of essays, Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. We're exploring her sense that the confusions of the post 9/11 era have intensified television's role as a center of storytelling in American life and that with a narrative canvas stretching from the inner city to outer space, shows like The Wire, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica are helping us probe the depths of the story of our time.

Ms. Tippett: I do love science fiction, generally, but I wasn't that interested in Battlestar Galactica even after I was hearing about it until a Muslim theologian said to me, "You have to watch Battlestar Galactica. It's about everything that's happening in the world. It's about Israel, Palestine, it's about the post 9/11 world." And I was completely intrigued.

Ms. Winston: And what did you think when you watched it?

Ms. Tippett: Well, I think it is about that, but actually, I mean, there's so much going on there that — there's so many layers that are also that big to me. You know, the — again, this huge question of what it means to be human, because of the confrontation with the cylons who are creations of humans.

Ms. Winston: Right. It's interesting, because that show — I had the same initial reaction as you did. I love science fiction, but I just didn't want to go there. I mean, the name itself is a problem.

Ms. Tippett: Battlestar. Yeah. Right. Right.

Ms. Winston: Come on. We're girls. We watch Project Runway.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Exactly. Yeah. My daughter watches Project Runway.

Ms. Winston: And when I first watched it I wasn't even sure I liked it, because it looked so different than anything else I was watching. So I kind of then forced myself to watch it for a while until I could get into it. And I joined it midway season one. But having said that, I agree with you. I think that this show really speaks to this era and at some point in time, you know, I think some of these television shows are going to be classics that people return to like they return to good books. And I'm not sure whether this will hold up as art, but it will definitely hold up as a reflection of what people cared about and what the social narratives were about this post 9/11 period. And the fact that they have turned so much of our anxiety and angst into good drama, I think, is what makes the show so compelling to the folks who watch it. And whether it is terrorism and torture, whether it is the search for a home or the question of who is a person, all those issues were embodied in dramatic form.

(Sound bite of music, Battlestar Galactica theme)

Ms. Tippett: The Sci Fi Channel series Battlestar Galactica centers around a world very much like Earth populated by human beings. Their planet is destroyed by a race of machines, the cylons, who were created to serve humans and then were banished into space after they rebelled. Half a century later they have evolved to match human intelligence and also to inhabit human-like bodies. Yet there are violent divisions among the cylons, like the one speaking in this scene, over whether this is progress.

Dean Stockwell, as John Cavil, Battlestar Galactica: In all your travels have you ever seen a star supernova?

Tricia Helfer, as Number Six, Battlestar Galactica: No.

John Cavil: No? Well, I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the universe: other stars, other planets, and eventually other life. A supernova. Creation itself. I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull. With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.

Number Six: The five of us designed you to be as human as possible.

John Cavil: I don't want to be human. I want to see gamma rays. I want to hear x-rays. And I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly because I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language. But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I'm a machine. And I could know much more. I could experience so much more. But I'm trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I was thinking of a conversation I had years ago with an Israeli who said that he felt it had been so important for the Israelis that one thing had changed that made Oslo possible was that Israelis had started to become survivors rather than victims. And, I mean, I think that's just this ongoing struggle on both sides of that conflict.

Ms. Winston: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: And something that really strikes me if I watch both Battlestar Galactica and Lost is that you see those characters grow from victims to survivors.

Ms. Winston: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: That's a theme I've heard in conversations I've had with people about conflict all over the world.

Ms. Winston: Right. And the interesting thing is, is can we take this in better as entertainment than as news?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: If we read another article in Newsweek about Israeli and Palestinian children at a summer camp getting along is that going to make us believe that change is possible? Or maybe you need that and you need shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost to show you that change is possible.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: I guess that I think we underestimate the power of entertainment narratives to influence the way we look at the world and I think storytelling, when it's good storytelling, you know, orients us to possibilities and helps us structure the way we look at things. So the power of the narrative is that it takes on a life of its own for folks. But I don't know. Maybe if Ronald D. Moore took over the UN we'd all be getting along better. You think?

Ms. Tippett: Well, he's the producer of Battlestar, right?

Ms. Winston: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Did you have him teach at your class?

Ms. Winston: Yes. He came to our class.

Ms. Tippett: Was there anything about that that surprised you or continued to inform your thinking about that show as being more than just another television show?

Ms. Winston: I think what he says that's helpful is he talks about his own Catholic upbringing and although that's not tremendously formative for the show per se, I think that it made him open and receptive to using religion as a driving force through the show. What stayed with me most was the fact that he cared passionately about what was going on in the world and he was looking for ways to find dramatic outlets for it. So when Abu Graihb was in the news he talked about how his writers sat down and discussed how they could somehow echo that in the show.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And they did.

Ms. Winston: Yeah. So that intentionality of looking at the world and then trying to step back from it, presented in an unfamiliar context so that we might think about our situation in new ways seem to suffuse his idea of what the artist's task was about and I think that stuck by me. I thought he had a lot of integrity about that.

Ms. Tippett: Here is a scene from Battlestar Galactica that was written in the wake of the Abu Graihb scandal. As the humans are more threatened by cylon opponents who have also infiltrated their society, their treatment of captured cylons becomes more brutal. In this scene the human President Laura Roslin interrupts an interrogation involving a technique suggestive of waterboarding.

(Scene from Battlestar Galactica)

Katee Sackhoff, Captain Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Battlestar Galactica: Do it.

(Sound of Water splashing, sputtering, coughing)

Mary McDonnell, as President Laura Roslin, Battlestar Galactica: What the hell is going on here? What exactly is it that you are doing here?

"Starbuck": It's a machine, sir. There's no limit to the tactics I can use.

Pres. Roslin: And where's the warhead?

"Starbuck": I don't know.

Pres. Roslin: You don't know. You spent the last eight hours torturing this man, this machine, whatever it is, and you don't have a single piece of information to show for it?

(Sound bite of music, Battlestar Galactica theme)

Ms. Tippett: When Battlestar Galactica's Executive Producer, Ronald D. Moore spoke to Diane Winston's class in early 2007, he talked about the influence of September 11th and the 'war on terror' in creating the new Battlestar Galactica. He recalled how theological ideas from the Mormon faith and Greco-Roman polytheism influenced its writing. You can watch a video of his talk through SOF Observed, our staff blog, at speakingoffaith.org.

I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Pubic Media. Today, "TV and Parables of Our Time" with Diane Winston, a journalist and scholar of religion and media at USC. We're exploring how a new generation of programs is engaging grand questions of ethics, identity, and destiny both on television and in enduring lifespans online.

Ms. Winston: I was talking to a meeting of evangelical media folks recently and we were discussing the benefits of different new technologies to get the word out and it just struck me when I was discussing that with them was, you know, the Passover Seder and how low-tech that is and yet how formative that has been.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Right.

Ms. Winston: … in Judaism and keeping the Jewish people together.

Ms. Tippett: How incredibly enduring.

Ms. Winston: Right. I mean, it is a great story and, you know, yes, you can Twitter it or you can do it in Second Life and you can jazz it up but you don't need to because the story itself is so good. And when we say it, we say this did not happen to them; it happened to us.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Ms. Winston: So it's telling a good story and then it's making you part of the tale. Which is what happens online.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: People become part of the story.

Ms. Tippett: And then they tell it forward.

Ms. Winston: Right. Right.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And craft it. So I think we have a sense, and you certainly are more steeped in this than I am, that this means something. That these stories and this kind of drama is making some kind of impression. The one thing that did occur to me in this context was I remember something right as Barack Obama was elected President. Someone wrote an article that said, "Black Presidents We Have Known." Did you see that? And it was ...

Ms. Winston: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: It was people like — it was David Palmer from 24 and the point was made that alongside parallel to all of the other ways in which our culture prepared itself to make that leap, that this was one ingredient perhaps. And I think of Laura Roslin, who was the President on Battlestar Galactica. So, I mean, I wonder if there might be lines to trace like that on some of these themes which would be, actually, if you think about the themes of Battlestar Galactica, very hopeful.

Ms. Winston: Yes. It would be hopeful. And what you're talking about, actually there is a study at one of the Midwestern universities of gay characters on television and what they found out was that shows like "Will and Grace" really did normalize for many people gay relationships. And so the old conservative fear that the liberal media is going to ruin society had some credence in that sense.

Ms. Tippett: OK. All right. All right.

Ms. Winston: So I don't think it's just speculative. I think it's actually true that differences become normalized through media and the unimaginable becomes possible that way. Now it's one thing to think about character representations in a black President or a gay best friend. It seems harder to leap to brotherhood and world peace. But I don't think you get there unless you begin telling the stories and the stories begin sounding normal.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: I mean, I think you're right. It's nothing that we might see in a day or even our lifetimes, but I think the more you tell certain stories the more possible and plausible they become and the more you can move towards accomplishing them.

Ms. Tippett: And I think this is a related question, actually. I wondered how you — what kind of perspective you have from USC, Los Angeles about a generational aspect to this, how new generations may in fact be shaping the kind of television that's being made or taking it in differently and also just some of the themes. I mean, it occurs to me this theme of 'otherness,' of encountering the other, of having to share the world with the other whether you want to or not, it's just a reality in the 21st century.

Ms. Winston: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: And certainly in a place like Los Angeles. So, I don't know, what do you think about that?

Ms. Winston: Well, my students, I think, take my class because they actually feel it's going to be very subversive. They can tell their parents they're taking a class on TV and getting credit.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: Or else they think it must be really easy. But I found that, by and large, most of them have never thought about television in this way and it's mind boggling to them to think of TV of something which isn't a forbidden pleasure. But once they began looking at it through this light all of a sudden it clicks and whether we talk about the ethical conundrums of House or the portrayals of religious, political fundamentalism in Battlestar Galactica, which is always a hard sell in my classes …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: … they see it once we discuss it. And the other part of this that we haven't really talked about is how television itself becomes a religious act, a ritual act. You know, a lot of them get together once a week and they watch their favorite shows.

Ms. Tippett: And there may not be anything else that they get together once a week to do.

Ms. Winston: Right. And then they talk about them. And so I'd love to be there for those conversations and I was always curious about once someone takes my class and they get together for the conversation is the discussion at all shaped by what they're doing in class. But you're right, they look at things a little differently then we may have. Some of the ideas about the other are not as fixed and formulated and they're more open to difference.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Winston: And once they're given permission they're very willing to read spiritual and religious subtexts into the material.

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Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you about something Phyllis Tickle said to me about six or seven years ago. We were talking about movies — and this is something that I also observed and I think is probably also behind what you said a minute ago about how these students are quite happy to think about spiritual and religious subtext — she said this generation is fascinated with mystery, as human beings have been, but maybe we lost that a bit for a few generations. And she felt that the Internet and that this online reality was actually opening peoples' imaginations about that and changing it. She said every time one of these kids logs on they step through the back of the closet into Narnia. And they live with ideas of different levels of reality. There's virtual reality and this reality, and that they all have some substance, and that they don't have a cognitive dissidence taking all of that seriously. I wonder just how you react to that idea.

Ms. Winston: Well, I wish I had thought of it.

Ms. Tippett: Well, it stayed with me.

Ms. Winston: I can see why. That's really — that's great. That's great. And I think it really does explain why Lost in particular is so popular with this generation. I would've never watched Lost and my step-daughters who are in their 20s came over once with the DVD and made me sit down and watch it with them. But, you're right, it's like a whole kind of willing suspension of disbelief that they're more accustomed to probably, because of the way they consume media. You know, media is so interesting, because your orientation to it really shapes the way you see the world around you. And so, for instance, a lot of people say because of the invention of the printing press Protestantism was able to get a foothold and spread rapidly, because people were able to get the books and read for themselves and the idea of individualism came out of that. And you can see that there's another shift in consciousness in the way we understand ourselves going on with the creation of the Internet and what Phyllis said gets to that. The fact that it's not linear. It's individualistic in one sense, but you're quickly part of a larger community.

It's just a whole way of thinking about things that re-enchants the world. Which is something TV scholars of religion and media, or people who study religion and media, are thinking a lot about. How do we re-enchant things? Capitalism and industrial capitalism sort of bleached out the world, put us all in what Weber calls iron cages, and how do we make things magic again? And television does some of that. Lost makes it magic. But so does the Internet in the way it can not only passively watch Lost, but we can make up our own stories about it and share them with each other.

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Ms. Tippett: Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. She's the editor of Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Her media and religion blog is called "The Scoop." Here in closing another scene from Lost. The character John Locke is speaking to Jack Shephard.

Terry Quinn, as John Locke, Lost: I'm an ordinary man, Jack, meat and potatoes. I live in the real world. I'm not a big believer in magic, but this place is different. It's special. The others don't want to talk about it, because it scares them, but we all know it. We all feel it. Is your white rabbit a hallucination? Probably. But what if everything that happened here happened for a reason? What if this person that you're chasing is really here?

Matthew Fox, as Jack Shephard, Lost: That's impossible.

John Locke: Even if it is, let's say it's not.

Jack: Then what happens when I catch him?

John Locke: I don't know. But I've looked into the eye of this island and what I saw was beautiful.

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Ms. Tippett: To fit all these television clips and Diane Winston into this hour of radio we had to cut substantial sections from my conversation with her, including her ideas about the double-edged sword of moral messages from the controversial television drama 24 and what distinguished older programs like The Twilight Zone and "The Brady Bunch." But you can download an mp3 of our entire unedited conversation and this radio program on our website speakingoffaith.org. There you'll also find my intriguing conversation with writer Phyllis Tickle that I referenced to Diane Winston. It was part of a 2004 program called "A Return to the Mystery" and includes discussion of and audio from the Harry Potter, Matrix and Star Wars movies.

On another note, over the next few months, looking forward to Ramadan, we're inviting Muslim listeners to illustrate the complexity and diversity of the Muslim world, as it is often called, with your voices and stories. What do you find beautiful in Islam? What hopes, fears, and questions are on your mind as you ponder the future? Tell us how these things find expression in your daily life and in your religious practice, including the observance of Ramadan. Find the "Share Your Story" link and much more on our homepage speakingoffaith.org.

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The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.

Voices on the Radio

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.