In the spirit of our popular “Top Humanist Songs” and “Top Humanist YouTube Videos” featured in previous issues of Humanist Network News, we’ve decided to run a piece on television’s best humanist offerings. (Some of these shows are currently on the air; others are available on Netflix.)
David Simon’s landmark television series The Wire is widely regarded as one of the best shows of all time. With each season investigating a different aspect of the city of Baltimore, The Wire is a text as dense and arresting as any novel, with layers upon layers of deep characterization, symbolic meaning, and emotional appeal. The cast of characters is wide and portrayed with startling precision: actors like Idris Elba, Wood Harris, Sonja Sohn, and Dominic West give standout performances. It is often said that The Wire is a show about institutional problems, but David Simon has also explicitly tied this theme with another—that of humanism. In an interview with Reason magazine, Simon said, “[The Wire is] cynical about institutions, and about their capacity for serving the needs of the individual. But in its treatment of the actual characters, be they longshoremen or mid-level drug dealers or police detectives, I don’t think it’s cynical at all. I think there’s a great deal of humanist affection.”
By showing the reciprocal bonds that unite all people—drug dealers, dockworkers, politicians and police, teachers, students, lawyers and journalists—The Wire is the ultimate humanist novel. It portrays a sometimes bleak, sometimes gratifying world of individuals struggling to survive in spite of the institutions they operate within. Faith, race, class, and gender are trenchantly analyzed, stereotypes and misapprehensions are defied, and the overall humanity of every character is ultimately affirmed. Is The Wire the best humanist television series? In the words of the show’s cunning, cocksure thief Omar: “Indeed.”
Video: The famous chessboard scene of Season 1 of The Wire (contains strong language).
Six Feet Under:
Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under premiered in 2001 and immediately made waves, illustrating the process of death and grief in a frank and humane way. The show covered the life and eventual death of every member of the Fisher family, owners and proprietors of Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. Disdaining of simple answers to profound moral questions, Six Feet Under sought to blur the lines between life and death, and dealt with mortality with compassion and a wicked sense of humor. The show was characterized by sometimes incredible twists and turns in plot and compelling, emotional performances from the cast.
One scene in particular stands out to me as a profoundly humanistic moment. Trying to comfort a bereaved client, Nate Fisher (forced reluctantly into the family business he left home to avoid) offers an incredible answer to the question, “Why do people have to die?” His response:“To make life important.”
Video: “Why Do People Have to Die?”
Joss Whedon has never been shy about expressing his views on religion. When asked by The Onion if there was a God, he offered, “No… absolutely not. That’s a very important and necessary thing to learn.” In fact Whedon self-identifies as a humanist and received the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy.
So it’s no surprise that Whedon’s masterful space cowboy series “Firefly” is frankly pessimistic about religion. Scenes include a mentally disturbed character editing out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in a Bible (“Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics… doesn’t make sense.”), cutting out so much she renders the book to tatters, and, of course, persistent sparring between a priest and the intrepid, atheistic captain of the show, Mal. This crew of celestial nomads travels from system to system, smuggling cattle or contraband, encountering danger, and working together to survive. The show is praised for its gritty look at a dirty future where humanity exhausted the resources of Earth and colonized other worlds, never encountering another form of life. Despite Mal’s pessimism about religion he is shown to be compassionate and caring toward his fellow crewmate, a mysterious priest named Shepherd Book. In fact, Mal was once a believer who found his religious faith shattered by a battlefield defeat in his youth. The show suggests that religion may occasionally act as a force for good but all too often leads to irrationality and violence. But the bonds developed by the crew, and the obvious love they have for one another, transcends mere spirituality and affirms the humanist ethic.
The Whedonverse has also seen characters criticize belief in God in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse.
Video: Summer Glau (“River”) busy fixing the Bible
The CBS police procedural The Mentalist is a skeptic’s dream: an atheist masquerading as a psychic, using his powers of deduction and logic to solve whodunits and mysteries for the California Bureau of Investigation (not an actual law enforcement agency). Dedicated primarily to tracking down his wife and child’s killer, the protagonist, Patrick Jane, acts as an independent consultant, assisting the police a la Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective. Jane generally eschews violence and prefers to use reason and persuasion to finish his cases, but cloaks his investigations in the guise of psychic visions and intuitions. In private, he freely admits he’s a fraud, using the psychic act as a way to mystify the less observant around him.
Jane’s dedication to helping others, his considerable generosity, and his attitude of skepticism all are a fine recommendation for a television humanist.
Video: “There’s no such thing as real psychics.”
(Embedding disabled by request)
What list of humanist television shows would be complete without a discussion of Dr. Gregory House, the cane-wielding advocate of modern medicine? Often House’s dedication to reason and skepticism at any cost mean his team and patients are at the receiving end of very amusing tirades about irrationality and religion. He is known to engage in cruel and manipulative mind games with his co-workers and patients, frequently denigrating and insulting those around him. But his own dedication to healing as a profession suggests a depth of compassion that House explicitly disavows. Instead he asserts that he enjoys the puzzle of diagnosing and curing diseases, preferring even to avoid not meeting with his patients. Yet, House is seen on occasion consoling his patients, even deigning to comfort many in their last moments. This is infrequent (and definitely outnumbered by the number of times he insults or derides his very ill patients) but proves that in spite of his bitter and jaded outlook, House is a creature of deep and soulful humanism, endlessly dedicated to helping others. (Also see Erin Williamson’s
Video: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise, there would be no religious people.”
Perhaps the most beloved humanist shows of their time are the Star Trek series. From its inception, Star Trek has portrayed religion in a neutral light. Rarely religious ceremonies appear in the original series, and when first instructing the writers for the initial show, Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry (and noted humanist) insisted that every character was at least a functional atheist. Religion and superstition were not to be promoted by any means. This attitude of skepticism and inquiry is best found in Mr. Spock, the second in command of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Relentlessly logical and committed to the scientific method, Spock explicitly rejects religious explanations for scientific phenomena; instead, he strives to articulate an unsentimental view of the universe. The unusual trichotomy of Captain Kirk, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Mr. Spock is often regarded as a continuum of logic and emotion; on one pole, “Bones” appeals emotionally to the common bonds among everyone, and on the other Spock offers a cold and dispassionate view of the universe. In the middle lies Kirk, who is often forced to mediate between these two extremes. In this conflict the show makes explicit the contradictions and conflicts within every person’s character—the continual battle between emotion and logic. Later the cerebral Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation rails against religion on numerous occasions, disdaining of a society’s descent into irrational devotion to superstition. Bonus read: The Humanist ran an excellent summary of the views of religion in Star Trek called “Star Trek Made Me an Atheist” by Nick Farrantello.
What’s your favorite humanist television show? Did we miss any standouts?
Let us know in the comments section below!