Saturday, June 26, 2004

An LDS Prime Time TV Series

What if there was a prime time, Network Television family drama focusing on the lives of an LDS family of 8 living in New York City? In the same way that "The Cosby Show" brought African American culture to America at large, could a TV Series about an LDS family bring LDS culture to the rest of America?
The media can be used as a powerful forrum for enriching people's cultural understanding of groups with whom they otherwise would not come in contact. The portrayal of Latter-day Saints in the media has, as yet, been done mostly by people to whom Latter-day Saint culture, doctrine and lifestyles are, at best, like a second language. This often results in stilted views of the Saints-- some only modestly stilted, as in the recent HBO rendition of Tony Kushner's "Angel's In America"; others downright offensive, as in the Southpark episode dealing with the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon.
Alternatively, media made by Mormon artists tends to be so exclusively Utah-based that it is utterly inaccessible people who are not LDS, and sometimes even to church members who didn't grow up in Utah. (Admittedly, not all films are as alienating as "The Singles' Ward." Some films, like "Brigham City" do a fairly good job of making themselves understandable to outside audiences). Still, though, we haven't yet seen a Mormon mass media production that is a runnaway hit with "insiders" and "outsiders" alike.
In a recent conversation with a non-Mormon, 19-time-Emmy-winning TV producer, I pitched him the idea about having a show focusing on an LDS family of 8 living in New York City. He was excited about it, and wanted me to get him the script for a pilot episode (and a few following regular series episodes) by the end of the summer. As I see it, the show would be balanced with about half Mormon characters, half non-Mormon characters. The children in the family would range from age 3 to 18, providing for an almost endless source of comedy and drama. Sometimes, it could be light-hearted; other times serious. Sometimes, the church could be only a perifery element of the stories. Other times, the show could explore directly issues that LDS kids, teenagers and adults face in being "in the world, but not of the world." It could explore issues of inter-faith dating, ethical dillemas for the father at work, gender politics with the working mother's interaction with other LDS women (or she could be not working, and there could be interactions between her and her non-LDS working / unworking women friends). The father could be called to be the Bishop, and we could explore problmes of people in the Ward. The son could go on a mission, making for a spinoff series...
As you can see, the potential is there. I post this blog because I do not dare to consider myself experienced enough to speak for the entire church body at large in such a mammoth forrum. What do you all, as people who have spent a lifetime consuming both Mormon and non-Mormon media, think the show should deal with? What kind of kids should be in the family? What kind of writing mistakes would make the show lame or inaccessible to non-Mormons? What wrongs have you seen in other Mormon media that you desperately would want to see avoided in a series like this?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


At 6/28/2004 01:19:00 PM,

I think a series on a large LDS family in New York could be very interesting. I think that the stay-at-home vs. professional mother issue would be a good one to explore because it is something that many women, not just those that are LDS, deal with. I don't think it's likely that a family with eight kids could afford New York unless the mother worked, but I also think it would be hard to be successful professional woman with eight kids. After working in this city, it has become quite clear that though companies ACTS kid-friendly etc., you're chances for advancement etc. are badly hurt by leaving for maternity leave--I can't imagine the damage that would be done to a career after doing that eight times.

My sister Alia wrote a short book about growing up in a family with nine kids. I'll have her email it to you. It's not the most well-written book, but it has a lot of great insights about life in a big family that should be helpful.

At 7/02/2004 02:27:00 PM,

I like the idea, and given your zeal not "without knowledge" you of all people could pull it off masterfully. But I do have a couple of concerns and questions.

First, I worry about the line you'd have to walk to make this succeed on a large scale. If the series is to deal with religious/ethical issues as you write in your post, I worry that you'll end up alienating potential viewers. It seems that you average "my big fat fake wedding" tv watcher doesn't care so much about pressing moral dilemmas as much as they do seeing people eat sheep eyeballs for a million dollars. And those that do care about such issues, Evangelicals etc, would be alienated by the mere fact that the family is mormon. On a national basis, the trade-offs seem daunting: either you push the real issues of living a religious life in modern Manhattan, or you present a large family (happening to be mormon) that deals with the banal, over-done kitch that prime time has to offer. A big city "Step-by-step", for example. I'm sure you don't want the second, but I'm not sure the first will fly. So my opinion is that the only way for this to work is the find a middle road, a middle road that is more like a tightrope than a paved highway.

My only constructive suggestion builds on "the Cosby Show" idea. They were a black family with two working professionals as parents. There are relatively few families in America today, black or white, like that. Knowing the cost of housing in Brooklyn Heights the Cosby's were probably in the top 1% income bracket, another feature that sets them apart from the rest of american society. But despite such striking differences with the average american's experience, the show was a success and not alienating in the least. I imagine that this is because the three defining aspects of the family (black, rich and 2 parents that are both professionally successful) rarely, if ever, play a significant part in the storylines.

In any case, I think it coud work, just like the cosby show worked, but it'll be hard. If you need help, I know (quite well, in fact) a person who comes from a family of eight living on the east coast. She might have some good starting points (not to mention the fact that she's an amazing writer herself.)

At 7/02/2004 11:23:00 PM,

I am pleased with much of the recent publicity the LDS community has received. We truly have nothing to hide. Even that which is sacred (yet not public) about our religion is available to all those who investigate with sincerity. We invite all to come and partake, bringing your own goodness to share.

Yet, I hesitate to endorse a reality TV portrayal of LDS family life. Perhaps it stems from my belief that reality TV depicts greatly unrealistic behavior due, in part, to unrealistic settings. This raises the question: is there such thing as a true documentary? Even if the participants are candid (despite camera crews’ presence), can one family’s experience accurately demonstrate a cross-section of LDS values and practices? How can the viewer distinguish between LDS beliefs in action and regular human experiences? Why do I feel like people’s lives in reality TV are placed on display as if they were animals in a zoo?

Further complications could occur due to (what I call) “the problem with focusing on being focused on”. My impression of “The Cosby Show” was that its purpose was not to represent African-American family life in general, but rather to entertain. It seems to me that improving effect on the public opinion of the African-American community was commendable and secondary. Choices made by public figures come under greater scrutiny when they are advertised as exemplary. People have not lost their sense of irony, and someone who purports to live a certain code, but fails, will be labeled as a hypocrite. What ever happened to Rush Limbaugh, anyway? Admittedly, all people are fallible, but the public is not known for its mercy.

However, all of these doubts and more might be overruled with a simple principle: exposure can raise questions regarding the subject matter in the minds of the viewers. This has the potential to open minds and motivate people to find out more on their own.

At 7/03/2004 07:26:00 AM,

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7/06/2004 11:15:00 PM,

Ah... Definitely more potential for control. That resolves most of my thoughts. I wonder if Church public affairs could be involved in any was as consultants. I always feel more comfortable with media ratified by official Church authorities.

At 7/08/2004 02:35:00 AM,

Sorry. I accidentally deleated the response I made to Mark's comment. It was pretty simple, simply to the effect of clarifying that the TV series would not be a reality TV show, but rather a one-hour family drama / comedy.

At 7/15/2004 09:38:00 PM,

I agree with Chris' comment about needing to walk a tightrope to please the consumers and have a successful show.
I raise an issue or two: Should the family be very ideal, and then have the daily events dominate the show? Or should trying to become ideal be the focus? I know that stereotypes may play strongly into this, and being ideal fits the Mormon stereotype (both for some members and some nonmembers). And would the stereotypical ideal be that of perfect Mormons, or that of perfect Americans? Is there a difference?

In my hometown (the one in Indiana), the Mormons are expected to be the talented in running, music, acting, and academics thanks to a long line of musical, mentally-gifted runners and actors that were in the ward--and the Mormon kids continue to fit that mold there today. This is the general stereotype held by much of the high school and peripheral society (involved parents, teachers...). However, I also know that Mormons have a bad rep with some of the business people because of some of the college graduates that have come from Utah to work in the multinational corporation that runs the town and the decisions they've made. Yet another example of the importance of example (sorry, I'll try not to be so so redundant). For the sitcom, to which group do you play your stereotype? I believe the positive stereotype is the obvious choice.

How far do you take it? Does the show follow the children's lives at school where they are involved in every activity and excel at each one, or is most of the influence of school a side note? Are the parents the same way? Should the kids struggle to scrape by academically, should they breeze through, or do they obsess about living up to teen perfection? Should the kids struggle with moral and social problems and fall into error, or should they only struggle and then overcome when they make the right decision the first time? Does the family solve these problems in a peaceful, loving (stereotypical) family counsel where they bring up religious points of view, do they solve problems as individuals or small groups (in a more meaningful, but still stereotypical way), or do they shout it out with whoever is present (the stereotype of the American family)?

Does the family face the problem of being over-extended in their attempts to express and develop every talent and skill? Do they figure out a way around it, or is it the characteristic source for their comedic adventures and mishaps as well as the intra-family drama? I think this last dilemna is visible in many modern families. A working mother would add to mix, and that may be a very important stereotype to fit or refuse in and of itself. Maybe she works at home and tries out marketing schemes....

Perhaps a molding decision would be between having family interaction as the focus, or having the focus be split between the individuals in the family and how their lives progress and intertwine along separate storylines.

I realize I have given few options on many issues that have dozens of answers. I just wanted to give a taste of what I think needs to be decided in an effort to please the most people for the longest time.
I don't have the taste or skill to select the correct answers and see them into action. That's what our man J.D. is for. Good luck, J.D., I think you've got something good to ride out.

p.s. The stereotypical BYU vs. the UofU power struggle may also be a fun thing, but I don't know if it would alienate most of the world or give them a window into life as a member. (I would say "life as a Utah Mormon", but I have been asked in every ward I've visited lately--most of them outside of Utah--which one of the two I attend. I'm glad to remain luke-warm in that argument, but both groups are so fun to get riled up.) Why is that one issue such an important thing in Church membership?
BTW, I believe Ridgecrest, CA is the only place I've ever been outside of Utah where Aggie alumni outnumber Cougars and Utes in the Church membership. It's different.

At 9/01/2005 10:07:00 PM,

If you are going to produce such a TV sitcom, I wouldn't suggest "watering down the fact" that the family is LDS.

Also, I would suggest showing the LDS family members interacting with friends of the LDS church, especially the LDS children.

I think children are much more interesting to examine than adults. Charles Schulz made a lot of money off that insight in his comic strip "Peanuts." (You'll recall that the adults were reduced to faceless people speaking in WAH-WAH tones.

Hope the info helps.

P.S. Keep it clean while keeping it full of conflict. There is a tasteful way of showing conflict, which is different than showing tasteless conflict(s). Gratuitous graphic-ness, violence and the like is completely unnecessary in communicating conflict.

Have a good day, Mr. Payne

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