TV and the Virtuous Idol of Family

What if I told you that a network television show about the importance of family was potentially more problematic than a cable television show filled with sex and violence?

Topic : Entertainment

What if I told you that a network television show about the importance of family was potentially more problematic than a cable television show filled with sex and violence?

Many respected Christians have criticized the popular HBO drama Game of Thrones—and rightfully so. The show deserves this critique, hardly justifying its celebration of sin and objectification of men and women through graphic nudity. Yet, in putting all our focus on the obvious detractor, I wonder if we are overlooking subtler yet possibly more dangerous television programs—one in particular.

When I say the name of this program, you may chuckle because, well, you likely watch the show—I do. Sure, you’ve maybe said to yourself, “I disagree with that,” during your weekend binge, but you’ve never thought of it as an issue. On the contrary, when people ask you about your favorite shows, you often spout it out with no shame because, after all, it’s a harmless and heartfelt drama about the people who matter most in our lives, right? And how can we expect non-Christians to act like Christians in a show made by non-Christians?

About the Show

If my context clues weren’t enough, I’m referring to NBC’s hit drama Parenthood, which premiers this week. For those unfamiliar with the series, it centers on three generations of the Braverman family as they navigate through the good and bad of everyday life in Berkeley, California: growing up, raising kids, losing a job, starting a business, battling sickness, making marriage work and so on. The show, though sometimes trite and manipulative, boasts a unique way of enveloping you in the moment and tugging at your heartstrings. It’s well written and full of winsome characters—totally effective.

Anyone who watches Parenthood also knows that, despite its name, the show focuses less on the actual subject of parenting than the broader subject of family. The heart of the show is family—the high points, the low points, the mid points and the understanding that family is what matters most. In one way or another, every episode drives this message home.

Family as Religion

And it seems harmless enough; in fact, it resonates with most of us because there is truth in it—God created the family and values it; the family reflects the greater reality of the gospel; it is a common grace. But Parenthood takes it further, placing the unit on a tier above all else, including faith, asking it to be something it’s not and idolizing it, an idea sure to send anyone down the path of sin and not toward a Savior.

Essentially, Parenthood makes family a religion. When things go wrong, when there are problems, when there is animosity, where do the Bravermans find reconciliation? Where do they find salvation? They find it in the sacred sanctuary of their backyard, around a dinner table, where they laugh and eat. According to Parenthood, this is where joy and redemption are ultimately found—family.

In season five, this confused ethic comes on full display when one of the characters, Crosby, is put in a dilemma: His religious mother-in-law and his wife want to baptize his baby daughter. At first, he refutes the idea but eventually gives in, and the episode culminates in a poignant church scene where the whole Braverman family comes together to witness the event. I won’t lie: This scene moved me. It stirred up emotions in me and reminded me of moments from my personal life.

In fact, it made me think about my own family, which is just the problem. While the scene appears good, it actually does something different when we put all the pieces together. Many of the characters don’t even believe in God and, at most, think of religion as a “positive” thing for those who embrace it. Indeed, the scene has nothing to do with the worship of God and everything to do with the worship of family. The church building merely serves as the stage for the message of family to be preached.

A False Reality

This misguided view of family is, of course, just one of many problems in Parenthood. As a whole, the show takes on the convictions of its godless characters and paints them as gospel truth. For example, the show constantly champions a “do whatever makes you happy” approach to life, whether it is related to a midlife crisis or sexual immorality, particularly homosexuality in its last season.

To be clear here, I’m not advocating for Parenthood to encompass conservative, evangelical characters that don’t sin and just so happen to live in one of the most liberal cities in the United States. That wouldn’t be true to life—or make for a good story. And, by the same token, I don’t think the way the show portrays its characters and the situations in which they find themselves is true to life—the reality of the gospel—either. Parenthood instills in viewers a false perception of reality, a mistaken picture of human flourishing, a false vision of the good life. And what makes it so dangerous, arguably more dangerous than a show like Game of Thrones, is that it does this slyly and subtly, wearing the mask of virtue.

That’s not to say that Parenthood doesn’t embody the true, the good and the beautiful. From its themes of grace and forgiveness to the picture it creates of authentic community, there are many ways that we can find these elements—and we should. Yet, as Mike Cosper says in his book The Stories We Tell, “We should think about the reasons we are laughing or crying, about the ways that our stories are promising redemption, salvation, and “the good life.”

So maybe in the future, you’ll watch Parenthood with new eyes. Maybe the next time you share your favorite television programs, your recommendation of the show will be followed by a necessary qualifier—one that points to the only source of joy and salvation, which surely isn’t family.