Goodbye, Penny Dreadful. Goodbye, Person of Interest. Hello, Preacher.

When I taught the Introduction to Religion and Philosophy of Religion, I often referred to TV shows (and also movies) that illustrated key concepts that we were studying. There are not many shows that intelligently engage the big questions that religions represent. But there are, from time to time, a few shows that offer the viewer an invitation to explore these questions. Two of these shows recently ended. And an excellent new one debuted.

After three seasons, Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s outstanding series, came to a conclusion. The show was steeped in Victorian mystery, drawing upon sources that included Frankenstein, La Dame aux Camelias, Dracula, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Amidst the witches, demons, monsters, werewolves, death, and destruction, a story of spiritual struggle unfolded.  At the core of the story was the spiritual struggle waged by a woman who lost and regained her faith in God as she fought to escape the claim that Satan had made on her.

Ultimately, the story revolved around an eternal cosmic struggle between those who serve (the Christian) God and those who serve his adversary. References to ancient texts, rituals, and myths freely intermingle with characters from Victorian literature, early 20th century horror films, as well as Anglo-Saxon, African, and American Indian legends. The series captured the gothic gloom of Victorian England and the dark, guilt-ridden world of English Catholicism. Its conclusion was a fitting end to the story: tragic and beautiful.

Also ending this summer was Person of Interest. The show ran for five seasons and went through several incarnations and constantly mingled genres. At first it was part science fiction – an artificial intelligence (“The Machine”) that sees everything and finds people who need protection – and part crime story – an ex-CIA operative and a police detective fight criminals and corrupt police officials while saving potential crime victims.

As the plot lines changed and new characters were added, and as the “Machine” evolved, the show shifted into the superhero genre.  Armed with unique abilities, the team struggled against crime gangs and, ultimately, a plot to take over the world using a ruthless rival artificial intelligence.

Central to the series is the question of the character of God and human nature.  It is ultimately the problem of evil: can God be omniscient and humans still have free will? Must we choose between the two claims? Is it necessary to tolerate human wickedness in order to affirm human freedom? These questions have been argued for centuries.  On Person of Interest, the battle of supercomputers became the Manichaean struggle of divine forces. The “Machine” is clearly identified as “God.” She speaks to and through a woman endowed with special skills. And ultimately the climax of the story is the sacrificial death and rebirth of God.

In my opinion, not since Battlestar Galactica have there been  TV shows that so clearly explore the philosophical issues of related to religion as these two. Religious ideas are interwoven into the plots of each of these shows, not as statements of dogma or sectarian belief, but as invitations to examine the big questions.

Now a new show has taken over the role of confronting us with the questions that the philosophy of religion was designed to answer. Preacher is a tricky proposition. It’s derived from the world of illustrated novels. It is part speculative fiction, part southern gothic melodrama, part western, and part psychological exploration.  The show ironically treats as literal the existence of God, angels, vampires, Heaven, Hell, salvation, and – possibly – redemption, all from the perspective of a tortured preacher and his church in small-town Texas.

The eponymous preacher has been invaded by a divine force that escaped from Heaven and gives him powers he doesn’t understand. Befriended by an Irish vampire, joined by a revenge-seeking girlfriend, and pursued by a pair of angels who are AWOL from Heaven, the preacher tries to fulfill his pastoral duties while trying to outrun his outlaw past. The show is full of blood and gore and vivid violence, both comic and terrifying. The characters are complex and surprising. Their small town is filled villains and dolts, all of them eccentric.  The show is unabashedly surreal. But like all good surreal art, it forces us to look again, closer, and discover something transcendent.

Preacher just finished its first season. The next to last episode is a masterpiece and a good place to start if you’ve never seen the show. The scene has been set for the next season and it promises to take us in a new, and probably fascinating, direction.



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