Sorry, wrong number

John I. Carney
Jun 20 · 4 min read

I am not usually a big fan of petitions or advertiser boycotts directed against some TV show or movie. There are numerous reasons. The last one, based on a current news story, is by far the funniest.

In many cases, the people signing the petition haven’t seen the show or movie in question. When Franco Zefferelli directed the TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” a few off-hand remarks in advance of production caused the type of people who sign such petitions to decide that this would be a terrible, awful, blasphemous project, and there were petitions and boycotts trying to prevent it from being broadcast. Once the miniseries actually aired, of course, it turned out to be reverent and well-received by the Christian community. Protesting something you haven’t seen because someone else tells you it’s offensive is a stupid idea.

Many of the supposed offenses cited by the American Family Association, or the Catholic Legion of Decency, or by other petition-happy groups are just silly and embarrassing. It’s like the people who claim that “The Wizard of Oz” promotes witchcraft.

Even in cases where there might be truly offensive content in something, a petition or boycott is often the worst way to respond to it. In many cases, it draws more attention to the project, gives the project underdog or martyr status, and encourages more people to watch. For every person who thinks project X is offensive, there’s another who think it’s a brave and truthful work of art, or what have you.Trying to deny someone the right to watch what they want is not going to win them over to your side.

Christians who are concerned about world view and the media would do far better to be pro-active instead of reactive. They should support Christians in the arts — and I do not mean cheesy, ham-fisted evangelical films where the villainous atheist professor gets hit by a truck and accepts Jesus in a deathbed conversion. Those films aren’t good art or good evangelism. They’re just a way for Christians to reinforce their own self-righteousness.

Christians should support true art, not art that is shoehorned into some evangelistic straitjacket, but art that deals honestly with real life. When Christians create such art, their world view helps shape it in subtle ways, and in the end it’s far more effective at promoting a world view than blunt force propaganda could ever be.

Anyway, right now, there’s a streaming TV series called “Good Omens.” It’s based on a book by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, and Gaiman was heavily involved in the adaptation. One of my brothers read and loved the book; I haven’t, but I started watching the series and I’ve enjoyed it so far, two or three episodes in. It’s a whimsical allegory about an angel and a demon (played, with great gusto, by Michael Sheen and David Tennant) who become frenemies and who, when Armageddon approaches, decide they like the Earth as it is and try to put a monkey wrench into the divine plan.

David Tennant as Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale. (Amazon Prime Video)

It’s not meant as a theology textbook. It’s not meant to be taken literally. I have no illusions about Gaiman or Pratchett, but even if I wouldn’t agree with their metaphysics I can enjoy their take on the end times. It’s fantasy, and its depiction of the short-sighted, narrow-minded angelic and demonic bureaucracies pokes fun at humanity, at our own flaws and at our sometimes-silly stereotypes of God. It also, at times, is a parody of “The Omen,” a horror movie about the antichrist being the young son of an American diplomat (Gregory Peck), switched out at birth for the diplomat’s actual, biological son.

As John Cleese once correctly pointed out, it would be difficult to truly satirize God because God has no flaws to caricature. When God gets laughs in a pop-culture depiction, from George Burns to Morgan Freeman, what we’re really laughing at are human stereotypes of God, not at the actual God.

But some Christian author didn’t see it that way, and started a petition on his site asking Netflix to cancel “Good Omens,” because it trivialized demons and because the voice of God, who narrates the series, is provided by Frances McDormand. McDormand, shamefully, lacks a Y chromosone and thus is deemed ineligible to speak for the Almighty. The petition eventually drew 20,000 signatures, and I doubt that more than 1,000 of them had actually watched the show in question.

And, you know what? The petition has been remarkably effective. In fact, if you go to Netflix, you won’t find any mention of “Good Omens” anywhere.

You wouldn’t have found it anywhere before the petition, either, because “Good Omens” was produced for Amazon Prime Video, not Netflix. The petitioners directed their wrath, and their plea, at a company that had nothing whatsoever to do with “Good Omens.” So they just came off looking silly as well as self-righteous.

John I. Carney

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Small-town journalist; United Methodist layspeaker; lover of old movies and new comedy.