We’ve all scored backstage passes to Studio 60, the fictional setting of NBC’s new drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. From Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, Studio 60 turns the camera on the inner workings of a TV comedy show. As we lurk backstage, we see what we would expect in the notorious world of late-night TV: network power struggles, high-flying partying, narcissistic behavior from talented celebrities, entangling personal relationships, and an occasional self-righteous rant. However, in Monday night’s premiere, something new emerged, something interesting: the portrayal of a main character as a Christian.
Studio 60 bears much resemblance to, but is adamantly not in any way explicitly representative of, Saturday Night Live. Studio 60 airs on Friday night on the fictional network NBS, which is an entire world apart from Saturday night on NBC. Turmoil roils the show-within-a-show when its founder snaps and begins to rant, on-air, about the network’s decision to axe a skit that mocks Christians. He claims that TV “lobotomizes” the viewer by refusing to offer challenging comedy sketches. If only our comedy sketches were more challenging, America would surely dump Paris Hilton in favor of NPR.
New network boss Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) must calm the waters while negotiating all the difficulties inherent in being an extremely gorgeous, highly talented, uber-connected woman. (Yes, there apparently there are some.) She brings in two former employees, Matt Albie (Friends alum Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (West Wing alum Bradley Whitford), both of whom have a certain degree of dependence on illicit chemicals. Sketch cast-members Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley), and Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry) round out the ensemble, along with show director Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) and semi-evil network bigwig Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber).
Cast member Harriett, the most talented comedian at Studio 60, precedes each show with a prayer. She’s made a religious album. What’s more, she’s committed the mortal sin of promoting it on the 700 Club. She’s not all sweetness and light, however. When she is mocked for her devotion by a junior comedian, she responds with a sassy, “When you contribute to the show, you can say something.” Because of her faith, she becomes a focal point of the controversy swirling around the anti-Christian skit. She’s clearly conflicted herself: She defends the skit because it’s funny, while feeling ambivalent about whether she should be offended.
Whatever her internal conflict, she still identifies somewhat with Christian America. She had dated Matt, but he broke up with her after her 700 Club appearance. Calling Robertson a bigot, Matt is the one who will not tolerate for the beliefs of others. Harriett does not defend Robertson, but she defends his audience. This story line will continue, at least for a while: We are scheduled to see the troublesome skit next week.
It is uncommon to find people of faith on TV shows. This is a glaring omission in a country where 71 percent of people believe in God and 47 percent attend church on a typical weekend. When they do appear, it’s almost always as one of three restrictive characters: the angry, narrow-minded scold; the selfish hypocrite; or, more rarely, the selfless angel. We hardly ever see a person of faith who is a something more than a stock character, with regrets, conflict, dreams, loves, and flaws. Sometimes religion shows up in a peripheral way, as a single episode about church attendance in Everybody Loves Raymond or, in a parting shot of CSI: Miami, when Horatio Caine leaves a photo of a murdered child at the feet of the Virgin Mary. Beautiful as these glimpses may be, they still leave faith as a small compartment of a person’s life, not as something integral to his or her character.
Why is this? Perhaps writers and producers in Hollywood don’t know any people of faith. They surely receive letters from boycotters, and proposals for religious projects from Christian artists, but when they sit down to dinner at Spagos, people of faith aren’t likely to be at the table. They portray what they know, so we have a TV world populated with atheistic, hedonistic urbanites. Believing characters come from a stock set of stereotypes. Some of the responsibility rests with the faithful; many talented Christians have gone other ways because they viewed a Hollywood career as somehow dirty. Religious people also have sometimes confirmed the stereotypes by their actions. A few believers remained faithful, even as they toiled away in the moral ambiguity of Hollywood — something which Harriett surely represents.
What will the writers do with Harriett? Will they continue to develop her as a full-blown woman of faith? Or will they let her degenerate into a jerk, hypocrite, or angel? Let’s hope they keep her real. She should wrestle with conflict and deal with disappointments. Perhaps she will even make bad choices (what we in the religious world refer to as “sins”). But when this happens, hopefully her faith will ring true, allowing her to experience remorse and repentance. After all, struggle, failure, and redemption are components that make truly great stories.
– Rebecca Cusey watches TV from Washington, D.C.