Bethlehem 90210

The Hollywood Reporter recently hosted a round-table discussion with six television showrunners on the current state of the business, and the pressures of cranking out a hit in this age of streaming and binge watching.  I love this kind of stuff, because I’ve long been fascinated with the process of creating television and even had the opportunity to pitch script ideas to Star Trek a lifetime ago.  The landscape has changed so much since then, however–and while there are more opportunities in scripted television available at any time in history, the competition for eyeballs is that much more intense.

So it only makes sense that in television, a medium in which the writer is truly king, boundaries are constantly being pushed.  Subjects that the networks wouldn’t have touched even five years ago are now routinely explored on HBO, FX, Netflix, Amazon Prime–outlets where they’re not worried about an FCC license, and can serve up all manner of content without having to worry about getting yanked off the air.  Of course, this situation also comes with a downside:  In an anvironment where the shocking becomes routine, how much to you have to ratchet up the controversy just to keep the viewer’s attention?

Enter Jenji Kohan, the creator of the popular Netflix women-in-prison show Orange is the New Black. The Hollywood Reporter asked the panelists about this subject, and here’s what happened:

Collectively, you’ve explored themes including harassment, rape, murder, racism, misogyny, mental illness, etc. When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tackle a big subject?

KOHAN: I don’t get nervous about that, although we had to take terrorism insurance out …

[RYAN] MURPHY (Creator of American Horror Story):  Really?

KOHAN:  Yeah, we’re developing a teen Jesus project [for Netflix] that got some people nervous. It’s like The Wonder Years but with Jesus, and there are all sorts of things where we cross lines — and there are crazies out there. I remember Shonda [Rhimes] telling a story of people camping out outside her house when she killed McDreamy [on Grey’s Anatomy]. People get crazy because they bathe in these characters, and they take it personally.

So…  The Wonder Years.  But with a teenage Jesus.

As the Reverend Jim might have said, “Ohhhhhhhkey doke.”

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not dismissing outright what Kohan is trying to do here.  In fact, it’s quite possible that she’s approaching the subject matter respectfully, and using Scripture as the basis for Jesus as a character.  After all, there’s some fascinating stuff in there.  Jesus was the original rebel, and even as a teen was bucking the system.  It’s what God sent him to do, and in the end He literally changed the world.

Given what Kohan said about crossing lines, however, I have some serious doubts.  I’m guessing that, in a quest to be “edgy,” her Jesus character will probably be wrestling with issues of sex, drugs, popularity and whatever else she can dump on him from the litany of modern teen angst.  To top it off, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kohan made Mary a single mother and Joseph an absentee dad, and made one of Jesus’ brothers gay.  Hollywood is nothing if not consistent.

What really chaps my hide, though, is the idea that any of this is somehow risky or transgressive.  People like Kohan love to pat themselves on the back for their bravery–quite a feat, considering she works in a town where literally everyone around her thinks exactly the same way she does–but in reality, we’ve seen all of this before.  From Andres Serrano dropping a crucifix into a jar of urine and taking a picture of it, to Chris Ofili flinging poo like a drunken zoo monkey onto a portrait of the Virgin Mary, we Christians have had to put up with a lot of “artists” openly mocking our faith.  In fact, these days, it seems like the only kind of bigotry sanctioned by the popular culture is against white Christian men.  If Kohan wants to take a shot at us, she’ll have to get in line.

And this bit about having to take out terrorism insurance?  That one actually made me laugh.  Perhaps if Kohan was working on a screwball comedy about the Prophet Mohammed, she might have something to worry about.  But until she starts working on Big Love meets The Five Pillars of Islam, I don’t think she has much to worry about.

At any rate, unless Kohan wants to stick a little closer to the source material, I don’t think she’ll get many of Jesus’ biggest fans to watch her show–which would seem kind of silly, especially if the pressure is on for her to crank out another hit.  No matter what happens with the series, though, Christians will soldier on.  That’s because we’ll always have the book–and as everybody knows, the book is much better than the movie.

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Marc Giller

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