I experienced grave disappointment while watching Community recently. In the third episode of the current season, Britta Perry (played by Gillian Jacobs) reacts to a a photo of a child eating a cupcake by saying, “Do you know sugar is like baby meth? That’s what my homeopath says.”
Britta had been one of my favorite atheist characters on TV up to that point.
There have been several prominent TV atheists in the past decade, but their lack of faith is not always seen as an admirable trait. Dr. Cox of Scrubs and House, M.D. are often driven to rage and bitterness by their rationality; Firefly’s Mal Reynolds is a former Christian who ceased believing after a shattering war experience and seems to take no comfort in his newfound doubt; Bones is a victim of her own skepticism, often overanalyzing things to the exasperation of her friends and colleagues.
Britta, however, seems content. Of her peers, only Shirley, a devout Christian, seems perturbed by Britta’s unbelief. In the early episodes of the show, she was allowed to be a voice of both reason and empathy. The Christmas episode in which she acknowledges her atheism, also shows her mocking fisticuffs as a homoerotic pastime and giving a stirring, climactic (and funny) speech about the bonds of friendship.
Now in its third season, Community has taken Britta down a few notches, portraying her as more of a credulous buffoon. In the second episode of the season, she becomes jealous (rather than concerned) upon learning that an old friend from her political activist days has been arrested in Syria and dubbed one of the “Damascus Three.” Feeling inadequate by comparison, she stages a rather pathetic demonstration at her school’s Model UN conference. A running joke has formed about her weak grasp of her new major, Psychology (she thinks that one of her study buddies suffers from an “edible complex”). And she apparently pays someone to dispense health advice along with magical water.
To a religious person, complaining about how atheists are portrayed in American popular culture might seem silly. After all, Hollywood is a very secular place, and devout characters are hard to find in mainstream shows as well. But these two problems go hand in hand. For a while, it seemed like some of the central debates of our culture were being almost completely ignored by scripted television. Evangelicals got condescendingly targeted shows like Touched By An Angel, while the rest of us got series that were largely sanitized of the topic of religion. It is impossible to discuss non-belief without also discussing belief. More honest depictions of faith and unbelief have arisen in the current TV climate, but it’s still not the norm for highly rated shows. Does anybody know what the characters in How I Met Your Mother or Modern Family believe? Not really: secularists and non-culture warrior churchgoers can project as they please.
It’s for this reason that I probably treasured the fact of Britta’s atheism too much. The truth is that the creative team behind Community didn’t do anything wrong by revealing that she retained some superstitions. The show has always avoided setting members of its ensemble on pedestals and Britta often practiced less-than-skeptical thinking prior to the homeopathy comment. If more shows dealt with the topic of religion, there would be more positive portrayals of outspoken atheists, and the loss of a character like Britta to woo and bunk wouldn’t seem like a personal affront. Britta is still one of my favorite sitcom characters, for the simple reason that her exploits are funny. Holding her up as an atheist role model never really made much sense. But it does make sense to wish that more shows would would acknowledge the role of religion in our society and in individual lives, and more characters who decisively reject it.