Every great TV series touches on life’s great hero stories. But some are more overtly spiritual than others. Over the years, mainstream television has not often attempted to tackle the spiritual side of life in drama, overtly. By spiritual, we’re not talking about witchcraft (Sabrina, Bewitched, Charmed) and vampires (Buffie), or Jeannies in bottles (I Dream of Jeannie), but something more .
The series Joan of Arcadia is based on Joan of Arc, a teen who saw God in visions, but with a 21st century twist. Today’s Joan, is a high school student who has trouble enough fitting in without constant demands from God. Over 45 episodes between 2003 and 2005, the characters – including her nuanced family and friends – grow and change, as God turns up in surprising forms and with strange requests that end up improving life all around her in unexpected ways.
DEATH – THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
When looking death in the face, producers have generally used humor. Two shows that attempted this were Dead Like Me, and Six Feet Under, a series about a family of undertakers. Each episode starts with a death, and the deaths themselves are sometimes at once tragic and funny. In one memorable opening sequence, a truck crashes, and its cargo of life-sized human balloons begins to float away. A woman who thinks it’s the rapture exits her car, calling “oh wait, wait, take me!” She is subsequently hit by another car. Dark humor, indeed. The first series, Six Feet Under, is dark in tone. The undertakers and their love interests are all dysfunctional in their relationships to life and to each other.
In Dead Like Me, the young protagonist dies unexpectedly and finds herself in the role of grim reaper, helping souls across to the “other side,” a side that she doesn’t understand nor attempt to explain. Although the series claims to be about death, it’s surprisingly very much about life: what ultimately matters and what doesn’t. And it’s also a coming-of-age story, as our young protagonist “grows up” from the sullen teen that she had been before she was hit by a toilet seat falling from spac
There are some films that also deserve mention. In the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, Bradd Pitt (Death) wants to take a holiday, and grows romantically attached to someone who seems to epitomize life. The original film, Death Takes a Holiday, is also worth watching. More titles available through IMDB Search, but with tens of thousands of results, you might want to just check back here for our additions.
The 1970s series Kung Fu embraced Eastern spirituality. Its protagonist, a half-Chinese Kwai Chang Caine played by non-Chinese David Carradine, was a Shaolin priest who had fled to the American West after reacting to the murder of his master by killing the Emperor’s nephew. The episodes touched on wide-ranging topics, including, of course, racism both ways, as well as:
- Blindness and Self-Pity – Dark Angel (Episode 2)
- Standing up to Bullies – Blood Brother (Episode 3)
- The Problem with Vengeance – Eye for an Eye (Episode 4). “To hate is like drinking salt water. The thirst grows worst.” -Caine
- Peacefuness and Defense – Sun Cloud and Shadow (Episode 8). In this episode, Master Po seems to quote Desiderata: “As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all.”
- Standing up for Justice – The Praying Mantis Kills (Episode 9)
- Witness confusion and miscarriage of justice – Alethea (Episode 10)
- Internal vs. Visible Bondage – Chains (Episode 11)
- Superstition’s Deadly Effects – Superstition (Episode 12)
- Massacre of First Peoples – The Ancient Warrior (Episode 15)
- Prejudice Against African Americans – The Well (Episode 16)
The show also interwove secondary and tertiary themes into its stories, and characters were written and portrayed with complexity and nuance, for a television series of the time. Even Caine wasn’t always portrayed as holding all the answers, but he respected all those with whom he interacted. He desired to practice non-harming, but always seemed to end up in a fight scene. In chaplaincy, there is the concept of “meeting the patient where they are,” and Caine knew this concept well, interacting with others. When helping to reassure a young man who thought his soul had been stolen into a photograph, he asked “what gods do you worship?” and constructed a ceremony to destroy the photograph and restore the soul, and then even gave up his own photograph, for the well being of this individual. The episode took care to not portray this individual as merely a simplistic thinker, giving him honor, power and spiritual gifts as well. The entire series is available for rent and purchase, and episode descriptions are available online. In this age when we celebrate all things ’70s, it might be wonderful to see this series remade, but perhaps with an eye towards more integrated casting, and only with insightful writers at the helm.