Save Me

Save Me is the name of a new 30-minute “situation comedy” that debuted on NBC last week. I had been seeing commercials for it for a few weeks and I recognized the lead actress, Anne Heche. I’ve enjoyed some of her previous work and was intrigued by what appeared to be the show’s strong religious theme, especially on a big television network during a “primetime” slot. How would the show’s creators mix humor and faith? Would it work? Would anyone watch? I had to find out. On its premier night, two back-to-back episodes of Save Me aired before a rerun of old-favorite The Office, providing an hour-long sample in one sitting.

Here’s the show’s premise: Heche plays Beth, a 30-something wife and mother to a teenage daughter. She and her family live in a nice house on a charming tree-lined street. It looks ordinary. But things are about to change!

The first scene shows Beth in the middle of the night standing at her open fridge hunting for something to eat. Mascara raccoons her eyes and she’s obviously drunk. She begins to greedily devour a huge hoagie. She starts to choke. She crashes to the ground. She dies.

I’m thinking: How’s this going to work? Two minutes in and the main character is deceased. I’m wondering if she’ll come back as a spirit to hover over her family members like Touched by an Angel except hilarious. In the morning, her hunky husband comes into the kitchen to find his wife…alive! She greets him with sweet, overflowing exuberance. The audience is meant to understand this is a brand new demeanor for her. In quick flashbacks and with the help of a voiceover, we see that Beth’s life had been circling the drain. She had been partying way too hard, and making a complete fool of herself at social gatherings. Her friends are avoiding her, her daughter hates her, and she readily admits her behavior has driven her husband into the arms of another woman. Basically, she’s a sad sack of a lady: pretty on the outside but loathsome on the inside. Not at all the sort of person one might expect God to speak to directly (or, perhaps, just the sort?), but that’s exactly what Beth realizes is happening.

The audience never hears God talking to Beth. She insists that the voice is audible and, in a politically correct detail that might appeal to contemporary tastes, she describes it as “gender neutral.” She refers to its source as “He/She.” It tells her things that are about to happen or that she shouldn’t otherwise know. If any of her friends is inclined to doubt Beth’s new skill, it appears to be accompanied by an ability to channel electrical currents. When her husband’s mistress shows up on the front lawn, Beth seemingly cracks her over the head with a lightning bolt in front of an audience of neighbors.

A neighbor invites her to church, and Beth’s face lights up. If she was ever a church-goer it was a lifetime ago, but it suddenly seems to her like the best idea. The church scene is idyllic: congregants milling and chatting congenially, one strumming a guitar leading a sing-along. It’s a None’s fantasy of fellowship and good vibes. No mention is made of the denomination, but Beth instantly feels at home. She grabs the microphone to sing the hymn, baffled that she knows all the words by heart.

She confides in the minister that God is talking to her. He seems not-at-all surprised. In fact, while they’re together another congregant approaches to deliver a “message from God.” This congregant is obviously mentally ill, so the minister might assume that Beth, too, is a bit deranged.

Is this a show about a woman whose near-death hoagie choking somehow changed her brain to be more God-oriented? Or is it about a less-than-perfect suburban-mom-turned-prophet? Or both? Either way, its appearance on mainstream television raises some interesting questions. Are we hungrier for spirituality than we recognize?

This quirky show probably won’t last. Its premier at the start of the summer season is apparently a bad sign. However, the network has a handful of already-completed episodes that are supposed to air in the coming weeks. I’m curious to see where it goes.

So far, the messages God provides Beth are mundane. He/She tells her the location of her missing daughter (the park) or to return a cappuccino machine she stole from a neighbor. It’s not that this isn’t good information to help her be a more attentive mom and sympathetic friend, but I’m wondering if she’ll move from fixing her own wrecked life to helping heal her community or even the world. Can she be a real prophet if her mission never goes beyond her street?

I’m also curious to see if the show will explore why Beth had become so messed-up in the first place and how her new-found connection to the divine addresses whatever pain had worsened her predicament. Will the storylines stay superficial or will they attempt to say something profound about the human condition? Can a sitcom be used to explore faith in a meaningful way? What does it suggest that the creators of this show are even trying?

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Movie review

Dear readers,

I’m introducing the occasional movie review to my blog. My goal is to dip my toe into the ever-expanding genre of faith-based films and to assess the stories through the lens of my growing understanding. I usually see mainstream secular productions, so this genre is new for me.

Here’s my methodology for selecting movies: I dig around Netflix’s faith and spirituality section. I read the little description and, if it sounds intriguing, I add it to my queue. Please share your movie suggestions. If it’s a newer release, I may need to wait for it to come out on Netflix.

First up: Baptists at our Barbecue

This romantic comedy, released in 2004, follows an unmarried Morman man who relocates from Utah (at age 29, this is his first time leaving the state) to a small fictional town in Arizona with a population that is exactly half Mormon and half Baptist. I initially jotted the title as Baptists at THE Barbecue, but quickly realized my mistake. Mormons are in charge of this shindig. I also thought the attractive young man and woman on the poster would be from different denominations like proper faith-crossed lovers. But no, she’s Mormon too. Not coincidentally, this film is released by Haelstorm Productions, an outfit dedicated to Mormon entertainment.

The movie opens with a quote from religious critic Harold Bloom (apparently Mormons appreciate the praise this Yale scholar has heaped on Smith). The text on screen reads: “The most significant development of 21st century religion will be the relationship between Mormons and Baptists.” When Bloom wrote these words, he might not have anticipated the dramatic rise in Nones. Reading Bloom’s quote, I anticipate some explanation as to the source of tension between two significant American denominations. I’m hopeful for an indication of how the relationship will play out.

The cause of the feud between the Mormons and the Baptists in the town appears to stretch back several generations; it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys in that its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. As far as I can tell, the differences are silly. The Mormons don’t drink liquor and have funny names; the two main Mormon characters are called “Tartan” and “Charity.” The Baptists have ordinary names and aren’t opposed to moderate drinking. One Mormon character shouts, “They don’t believe in Joseph Smith!” A Baptist calls Tartan a “stupid water drinker”—an apparent dig at the Mormon communion drink of choice.

The Baptists have a real church building but seem to prefer gathering outdoors to listen to their preacher deliver fire and brimstone sermons. The Mormons don’t have a permanent structure, but they acquire a double-wide trailer, half of which mysteriously goes missing. The missing half is never found, but after the “All Faiths” barbecue that Tartan and Charity organize, some inroads are made at the two groups getting along. The sign outside the gas station that read, “Baptist discount” is replaced with one that says “Caffeine-free coke.” Perhaps the Baptists are beginning to see the wisdom of a stimulant-free lifestyle. After the talent show portion of the barbecue, at least one Mormon-Baptist romance brews—but only between minor characters.

While the Baptist/Mormon relationship is supposed to be the main dynamic here, I couldn’t help but notice a conflict brewing within the Mormon congregation. One uptight lady, Sister Wingate, sports an unfashionable hairdo (reminiscent of those worn by the women of some high-profile polygamous cults) and seems to represent an outdated mentality. Tartan tells Sister Wingate that the reference in the Bible to God making the earth in seven days is not literal; she accuses him of “preaching blasphemy.” Sister Wingate and her husband have a huge house (hint hint) where services were held before the double wide arrives. She has forbidden singing and music. In moving to the trailer, the congregation rejoices as boxes of hymnals arrive. Sister Wingate considers switching denominations.

Yet, the issues within the Mormon group aren’t unique to the denomination; if anything, they speak to trends in Christianity in general. On qualities that might be considered uniquely Mormon, the two characters seem to agree. Both Tartan and Sister Wingate look for “signs” to guide their decision-making, just as Joseph Smith suggested. Tartan asks Charity if she prayed about their budding romance and felt a “burning sensation” in her chest. Sister Wingate’s attitude improves when she goes to the top of a mountain to seek guidance about the changes taking place and the “mountains hum their approval.”

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers’ weave in little nods to the ways in which Joseph Smith’s influence is still appreciated and, perhaps at times, overstated. Protagonist Tartan emulates Smith’s reverence for place and the biblical significance of North American continent when he acknowledges that the events occurring in the little Arizona town are so profound he wouldn’t be surprised if “the ten tribes had a reunion here” (a reference lost tribes of Israel). Yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware that such veneration of Joseph Smith can be taken to unrealistic extremes; the audience is meant to laugh when one elderly character insists it was Smith, not George Washington, who “chopped down that cherry tree.”