As you may have heard, we live in the era of Peak TV, which basically means there are so many good shows out there in so many different platforms that it has become increasingly stressful to figure out what to watch. Since this is a blog that focuses on religion in popular culture, here is a list of five TV shows that will be released in 2017 that I think are worth watching. There are many other shows that deal with religious issues on TV and other digital platforms that are good and/or entertaining (Preacher on AMC, Supernatural on CW, The Good Place on NBC, Greenleaf on OWN), but I have chosen shows that use religion to explore the human condition in complex and sophisticated ways, and not simply as a background for more conventional storytelling. One show that almost made it into my list is Amazon’s Transparent, which has a very interesting religious subtext, so even if did not make it into my final list, it deserves a mention.
Here is the list without a particular order:
The Leftovers Season 3
This is my favorite show on TV right now. I loved the novel by Tom Perrotta on which the show is based, and I think it has some of the most existentially profound writing on TV right now (it has the fingerprints of Damon Lindelof, its main producer, all over it). It is not always the easiest or the most uplifting show to watch (especially the first season), but it is a beautiful exploration of the struggle of human beings in their search for purpose and meaning in the world.
The first season of the show closely followed Perrotta’s 2011 novel, and explored the effects (social, psychological, spiritual) of a Rapture-like event (called the “Sudden Departure”) in which 2% of the world’s population simply vanishes without any logical explanation. The second season took our main characters to Jarden, Texas, a town that is renamed Miracle after the Sudden Departure, due to the fact that it did not lose any of its inhabitants during event. If the first season of the show was about loss of loved ones, of faith, of meaning, the second one was about hope, hope in the possibility of love and in the possibility of existential meaning. In April, HBO will release the final season of the show and, if the preview of the season is any indication, the main goal is to bring the story (and the world?) to an end.
The Young Pope
This new HBO series created by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2013 for The Great Beauty) explores the complex character and intrigues surrounding a newly elected Pope, the young American Lenny Belardo (played by Jude Law) who takes the name of Pius XIII as the new Pontiff of the Catholic Church. It is almost impossible not to watch the show without seeing parallels to our present political landscape and, in particular, the similarities between the character of Pius XIII and President Trump. But political parallels aside, the show is a story about the loneliness of the human condition, the loss of faith in our modern world, and the uses and abuses of power. There is some absurdity to it (the NYTimes called it “beautiful and ridiculous”), but that’s the point.
This is one of the most anticipated shows of 2017 and it is based on the novel by the same name by Neil Gaiman. The show will focus on the battle between the old gods of ancient history (of Norse, Egyptian, Greek, Roman mythology) and the new gods of Technology, Media, and Capitalism. It looks very intriguing…
The Path Season 2
What is the difference between a religion and a cult? That was the basic premise of the first season of the Hulu show The Path, in which a member of a new religious movement call Meyerism starts having doubts about the founder and the teachings. The show could offer a more nuanced understanding of New Religious Movements (something The Leftovers does much better), but the characters and the story are very compelling. The new season begins January 25.
Game of Thrones
For most of Game of Thrones, religion has been only tangential to the story. There are references to the Old Gods and the New Gods (“The Seven”), there is the Drowned God, the Many-Faced God, and the Lord of Light and his Red Priestesses like Melissandre. But it was not until season 6, with the emergence of the High Sparrow as an important character, the leader of the Faith of the Seven, that religion became a central part of the narrative. Seeing the rise to power of the High Sparrow as a religious zealot reminded us that people are not only controlled at times by violence and fear, but also by faith.
There are other shows that could have made it to this list, but lists (especially of five) are, by nature, limited. Do you have your own list of shows with a strong religion focus that you are excited to watch in 2017?