Recommending television programs and movies these days is a troublesome enterprise. Lots of programs that have much to commend them will often be marred by a single scene of sex or violence or gratuitous language. If the virtues of that show are so significant that you want to recommend it anyway, you are then faced with the awkward choice of saying, “But be careful of . . .” or of NOT saying that and sending the unsuspecting into the program unprepared.
And there are, of course, all the Christian culture-shamers who will call you a prude or a Philistine or a rube because, of course, you have completely missed the artistic point if you have the temerity to point out the bad language, or sex, or violence—in short, if you do your duty as a reviewer and a journalist and actually report on the content of the show.
The problem is compounded, not alleviated, by the growing number of truly bad Christian movies. The pressure on Christian publications to give good reviews to Christian movies (no matter how bad) and bad reviews to PG-13 and R movies or TV-MA television programs (no matter how commendable), is creating a kind of tribalism in our entertainment culture just as we are already dealing with a glut of tribalism in our political and church cultures.
(For a fuller discussion of these concerns, I recommend a couple of articles, one from the Gospel Coalition by Andrew Barber on “The Problem with Christian Films” and one by WORLD’s Janie Cheaney on the problem with many secular films.)
So with these issues duly noted, and admittedly not resolved, I continue my ongoing survey of Netflix with a list of television programs worthy of consideration. This list is the third in my ongoing series. Previous lists include a list of worthwhile movies and a list of documentaries worthy of consideration. Here’s the television list, in alphabetical order:
Bloodline. We begin with one of those shows that require all those pesky warnings. Some of the content makes this program difficult to recommend, and it is definitely not for children, but as a study in the decline and fall of a respected family, it is worthy of Hawthorne or Poe. The show’s tagline, “We’re not bad people, but we did a very bad thing,” is a clue to the show’s themes: good vs. evil, and whether there are any righteous among us.
Breaking Bad. Yes, this program bends toward the macabre and bizarre regularly, but there are reasons, lots of reasons, that just about every TV critic on the planet believes this is one of the best shows of all time. As for myself: I often say that “Breaking Bad” has one of the most realistic depictions of sin and its consequences that has ever come to television. I imagine that if Flannery O’Connor were alive, it would be her favorite program.
The Civil War. Both epic and highly personal, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” is a model of meticulous history and brilliant storytelling, helped along in both endeavors by the recurring presence of historian Shelby Foote.
The Crown. Netflix is pouring more money into original programming, and “The Crown” is one of its richest efforts. National Review has called “The Crown” a “defense of Burkean conservatism,” and I see that point. I would say it is a fascinating portrait of power, prestige, and the foibles of man. Christianity doesn’t get a full and entirely fair representation here, but neither is it ignored or disrespected on impulse. All in all, worth watching.
Friday Night Lights. I have a few quibbles with this show. The lead actors, who are supposed to be teenagers, are mostly in their mid- to late-20s and most impossibly attractive. A few of the plot twists are melodramatic. But the acting is strong from the top of the bill to the occasional guest. (I’m thinking of Janine Turner and Drew Waters in particular.) And this program treats religion more realistically and respectfully than just about any program on television over the past decade.
Longmire. This program has been called a “neo-Western,” but it has much more in common with “The Rifleman” or “Dragnet” than it does with anything on TV today. Perhaps because this program started out on cable and then moved to Netflix, its DNA is more wholesome than that of most Netflix original programming. (A key story arc reaches fruition when the widowed Sheriff Walt Longmire refuses to have sex with his new love interest. The taciturn Longmire explains himself simply: He and his wife had not had sex until they were married.) The final season of “Longmire” is “in the can” and will release in September, and it will be interesting to see how a lot of unanswered questions get resolved. Till then, it’s great to see “old hands” such as Lou Diamond Phillips and A. Martinez, not to mention Australian actor Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire, do some of the finest acting of their careers.
Stranger Things. Another Netflix original, this program is one that parents and (older) children can watch together. (There are a few intense moments that might not be appropriate for young children.) The kids will relate to the children who are the stars of the program, and the adults will delight in the spot-on recreation of the ’80s.
The West Wing. With more than 153 episodes on Netflix, binge-watching “The West Wing” will result in an overdose, but if you know the characters you can dip in and out easily. Yes, the politics of “The West Wing” are liberal, but compared to today, the Bartlett administration looks positively moderate. The last season even features a presidential race with a pro-life Democrat and a pro-choice Republican. “The West Wing” is a good primer in the use and abuse of information and media spin, power, and the inner workings of keeping an organization—any organization, not just the White House—on-message.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.