Media Matrimony for Better for Worse, Part 1

Media Matrimony for Better for Worse, Part 1 January 22, 2014

Recently a friend put me in touch with Christian author, W. David O. Taylor (editor of a book of essays titled For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts), who is writing an article about a two-pronged question pertaining to my profession: Why is there such an overall dearth of healthy onscreen marriages in television and film? And where might we find some exceptions?

Taylor was hoping to reach someone in the industry who might have some insight. Truth be told, though, despite the fact that I’m Christian, a screenwriter, and married, to boot, I often feel as vexed by the question as he does.

Thus what better place to ponder it than here at “Good Letters,” whose incisive readership might shed light upon the matter thanks to the comments box below.

With Taylor’s permission, I share his query in full:

Do you know of any Christians who are writing for TV or film, who happen to have written storylines about marriage, specifically about traditional sorts of marriages, in the “Friday Night Lights” or “Before Midnight” or even “The Incredibles” and “Downtown Abbey” vein?

I’m writing an article for Christianity Today and, while I have plenty of data on how traditional marriages are faring poorly on the small or large screen (by absentia or massive dysfunction, as Jeanine Basinger chronicles in her book), I have no idea whether there might be Christian writers out and about, attempting to produce good stories about husbands and wives in honest, compelling ways. 

Are there non-Christian writers performing this task (per the above examples)?

Is there any reason why the complexities and tensions as well as pleasures and inherent “goods” of traditional marriage no longer capture the imaginations of producers and writers? Is it a dramatically uninteresting subject matter? Is the fact that over 50% of today’s marriages end in divorce a reason why writers cannot imagine it any other way? Is it a matter of a “trend”?

Any clue what might be happening behind closed (studio) doors? Any good writers, unbeknownst to the rest of us, generating compelling stories about traditional marriages?

For starters, to answer the questions that bookend his query, there’s a great divide between what is being written and what is being produced. Let me put this in perspective apropos television, and specifically the broadcast networks (as opposed to cable) since they function so cyclically.

Every summer a network such as NBC will hear roughly 500 pitches from writers for drama and comedy series. Yes, 500. Summer after summer. Keep in mind there are four other broadcast networks in play (ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW). Granted, two or more of them will often hear the same pitches; still, we’re easily talking over a thousand new ideas for broadcast television on a yearly basis. Add to that cable channels that have redefined television in the past decade—HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX leading the charge—and the pitch-to-product ratio tips more drastically.

Out of 500 pitches, NBC may buy, roughly, seventy pilot scripts—around twenty of which will produce pilot episodes.

At the end of the day, a mere handful will get a series order and make it on air.

Five hundred ideas winnowed down to five new series. That’s a .01% chance of success. (Staying on air once you get there is another feat altogether.)

So there’s a numerical factor that must frame any proper answer to Taylor’s question. With such numbers in mind, he can be assured that, yes, “good writers, unbeknownst to the rest of us, [are] generating compelling stories about traditional marriages.” Out of the 490 pluse ideas at NBC that never see prime time any given year, surely there are two or ten or twenty that present a far more nuanced picture of marriage than current content provides.

How many of these writers are Christians, I simply don’t know. I’m not part of any Christian community in the industry, one reason being that I live in New York City, whereas most of the industry is based in L.A.

Someone who founded such a community is Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, a consulting and training program for Christian screenwriters and producers in Hollywood. Taylor would be familiar with Nicolosi by her piece in For the Beauty of the Church, and she would certainly have a more inside sense than I do of just how many Christian screenwriters are “out and about” in the effort Taylor describes.

Nicolosi summed up her reasons for founding Act One with a swift kick in the pants to her fellow Christians in the business: “I realized coming here that it’s not that Hollywood was persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference.… Hollywood wasn’t anti-Christian as much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.”

I’m in full agreement with Nicolosi that Christians stop feeling crucified by the powers–that-be of secularity and pony up with art more excellent than earnest. Her charge of schlock undoubtedly plays no small role in the truths Taylor would uncover.

But her claim as to what Hollywood is and is not against falls a bit short: one would be hard-pressed to prove that the industry does not have at least a certain allergy to Christian subject matter, and all you have to do to disprove its being “anti-bad art” is do some channel-surfing or take a trip to the nearest multiplex.

More to the point is what Hollywood is for, which is money. And this brings us to the heart of Taylor’s question: Why is the seeming preponderance of unhealthy onscreen marriages such a safe bet, literally and figuratively speaking?

Tomorrow I’ll chip away at that question further, and reflect upon the picture of marriage in certain shows that I have watched and/or worked on myself.

Please feel encouraged to comment below and pass this along to others who might weigh in; Taylor welcomes your input as much as I do.

Bradford Winters is a screenwriter/producer in television whose work has included such series as OzKings, Boss, and The Americans. His poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Georgetown Review, among other journals. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.

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  • Tania Runyan

    A really interesting question. I’m not an omnivorous TV or movie watcher, but if anything, marriage isn’t portrayed as dysfunctional as much as not portrayed at all. Single and hapless with dating and sex seems to be today’s MO for comedic characters, anyway.

  • Ben

    I guess it depends on how you define a “healthy…marriage”? From my perspective, some examples of healthy marriages can/could be found in the following TV shows: Malcom in the Middle; Modern Family; The Wonder Years; Parenthood; Everybody Loves Raymond; The Middle. I could go on an on back through the years: The Cosby Show, etc. etc. etc.

    It’s a “conservative” cliche to complain about the absence of “family values” (or family shows, or good marriage shows, etc.), but it’s not a valid complaint.

    “There are things you can replace, and others you cannot…”

    I think you’re overlooking real value in your demand for a false ideal.

    • Brad Winters

      Thanks for weighing in, Ben. I would only say that considering the question posed to me is not the same as having a false ideal. And why you take a political stance is your issue, not mine; does the question immediately have to become a partisan one? I don’t think so. I would also point out that most of the shows you refer to are half-hour comedies, a genre which by its own definition can’t address the full spectrum of marriage.

      • Ben

        Thanks for the direct reply, which is well-taken. I erred by having a knee-jerk reaction and by inferring a political stance in your piece. By the same token, I don’t mean to take a particular political stance, either. It seems we live in a political world, and I’m just weary of it. My apologies for lumping your piece in with the chatter.

        • Brad Winters

          This is much appreciated, Ben. I almost didn’t respond, so as not to engage in any kind of distasteful exchange, but am glad that it led to this resolution. It’s so easy to make such inferences as you did, as we all do in our knee-jerk and overly politicized world — one so infernally compounded by the Internet. I’m equally weary, and equally prone. Peace.

  • Stuart Blessman

    No mention of The Simpsons?

    • Brad Winters

      My bad.

  • susaneisaacs

    One of the best shows on TV right now that has any kind of happy ‘moral to the story’ at the end of every episode is Modern Family. There’s also Parenthood. As you said at the Glen, “The law of conflict is that nothing moves forward except through conflict.” A marriage that has no conflict isn’t interesting to watch. A marriage that has productive conflict IS interesting, but the shows with the ratings are the ones that get renewed. So it’s in part due to demand. I guess we viewers like to watch disasters. Most studios are closing down their indie wings and putting all their money into blockbusters: sequels, franchises, 3D action flicks, etc. And the core audience is the teenage boy, who’s not interested in marriage stories.

    • Brad Winters

      That last point in particular is acutely relevant to Taylor’s question. Glad you zeroed in on it.