Television: Mirror of immoral reality or harbinger of moral transformation?

draperMy wife and I are what you might call “television late bloomers,” which means that we always catch the good shows years after they air.

Some of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have cable.  Also, we do not watch television every week, so it is easier to watch episodes at our own leisure on different media platforms.

Two television shows include Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I’m only a few episodes into the first season of Mad Men, and it seems that all people did in 1960 was try to make a quick buck, wear well-tailored suits, and have as many affairs outside of marriage as possible.

It was during an episode of Mad Men that I realized that much of what television has to offer is the worst of what we humans represent.

 Breaking Bad, a show about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-turned meth cook, is filled with suspense and plot twists.  It is an award winner for good reason, but it is no better.

There is an absence of any moral anchor whatsoever among the characters. The only “good” results, not from courageous, righteous heroism born out of a moral center, but from people (often with scruples of their own) reacting to the impending evil in which they already find themselves.

In both shows, we find ourselves rooting for the bad guys, not the well-grounded heroes that my parents rooted for in television of yesteryear.  Ours is an entertainment culture bent on celebrating and promoting violence and “survival of the fittest.”

In some cases, the immorality is less blatant, but more pressing: Mad Men ignores the fact that the 1950s and 1960s were a part of an era in which church attendance was at its highest since before the first World War.

It ignores the conservative societal tidal wave that birthed the moral majority, the Christian education movement, the New International Version of the Bible, contemporary Christian music, and the modern megachurch.

Now, before you send me feedback, I admit that there are wholesome shows out there in TV land, many of which have some redeeming value (and values).

Yet, if some of the most popular programs tell me anything about media on the small screen, its that television, unlike art, does not reflect the totality of our society.

Perhaps this is intentional on the part of directors, producers, and writers. Perhaps they feel the need to give us smut (as my father used to say) in order to awaken us to the importance of the very compassion and human inter-dependence we too often take for granted.

And, although Mad Men and Breaking Bad have little redeeming value beyond their ability to entertain, the shows do force us to question our own commitment to relationships and a sense of integrity we hold most dear.

They make us wonder what we would do if we were diagnosed with cancer or confronted with the pressures of living in a “man’s world.”  They do encourage us to re-evaluate what is right and the means by which we evaluate whether one’s ends justify the means or vice versa.

Perhaps these shows intend to send us back into the real world with a new appreciation for the hardships that people face regardless of their life decisions.

This all reminds me of the many times that Jesus told parables in which scoundrels had something to teach his audience: A tax collector was the one who went home justified before God; a merciless manager goes to jail for not forgiving his debtors and teaches us about forgiveness; a spoiled rotten son came to his senses and made his way back home to a joyous father.

Caricatures, all of them, but caricatures not so different than the Don Drapers and Walter Whites in our modern storytelling.  These cast of characters may lack a moral center, but they do provide lessons that inform us of what not to do.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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