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‘The Good Wife’ and a new breed of atheism on TV
Will Gardner’s unexpected, violent death last week on “The Good Wife” qualifies as one of TV’s OMG moments.
Sunday’s episode of the CBS drama had what you could call a No My God moment.
Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) wasn’t buying what her recently baptized teenager daughter was selling when Grace (Makenzie Vega) tried to console her mother by telling her Will is with God.
“What does that mean, Grace?” Alicia asked despondently. “He’s in heaven, with angels and clouds? You think God is good. I don’t find any good here. A kid picked up a gun. Didn’t even mean to shoot Will. It’s just some stupid accident. What does it mean?”
Grace continued to rally for Team Supreme Being.
“What does it mean if there is no God?” she asked her mom. “Why is that any better?”
“It’s not better,” Alicia said. “It’s just truer. It’s just not wishful thinking.”
This mother-daughter debate, blessedly free of histrionics, proved to be one of the most poignant scenes in Sunday’s episode. And like Will’s death, it had an element of surprise. That’s because television traditionally has shied away from atheist main characters, especially those resembling Alicia. She’s not a villain or an uber-rational scientist like Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House or Emily Deschanel on “Bones.” Alicia isn’t quirky or off beat. She’s a morally mindful mother of two who stands to lose her broad appeal with a sizable segment of the audience by trumpeting her non-belief.
When Alicia “outed” herself as an atheist to a reporter last season, it outraged some fans. One upset viewer wrote on ReligiMedia blog that many “good wives” had identified with Alicia but now found her “far less sympathetic and frankly a tad bit revolting.”
While I’d like to think most religious people aren’t going to bail on a show because the protagonist doesn’t believe in their God, there’s no doubt that television writers are taking on a degree of risk when they craft atheist protagonists.
What “The Good Wife” and a few other recent TV series have shown is that it’s a risk that can pay off in rich, thought-provoking drama. Lately, more TV shows seem willing to make that gamble.
One of the most memorable scenes in HBO’s “True Detective” saw Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), an atheist and a nihilist, debate the merits of organized religion outside a revival tent.
“Can you imagine if people didn’t believe? The things they’d get up to?” asked his Christian cop partner Det. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).
“If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of s–t,” Cohle said.
Another great series, “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix, features an atheist lead in Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Once again, one of the best scenes all season had Piper expounding on her beliefs when it comes to a higher power.
“I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes,” she told her fellow inmates. “I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel … Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I’m sure I would be happier. But I can’t.”
These examples are iterations of the conversation Sunday on “The Good Wife” between Grace and Alicia, when the latter called believing in God wishful thinking.
“Maybe always believing the bad – maybe that’s wishful thinking too,” Grace said.
Whatever your beliefs, it’s both edifying and entertaining to watch this under-utilized, compelling story line get more airtime on TV.