IVP - Strangely Dim - An Open Letter to ER

December 12, 2006

An Open Letter to ER

I've been watching ER for twenty years now, it seems (even though this is only your thirteenth season). I've lived in Chicago throughout your run and enjoyed the occasional visual and verbal references you make to my city (even though technically my city is not Chicago but its western suburb Lombard). I've gone on the Warner Brothers Studio tour in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Noah Wylie or Anthony Edwards (even though neither of them was still on the show when I took the tour). I've worn ER t-shirts and ignored phone calls during ER broadcasts and badmouthed CSI (even though I've never watched it), all out of loyalty to your show. ER is must-see TV for me--even though "must-see TV" is a relic from a previous century.

So in general I applaud ER for your writers' writing and your actors' acting and your directors' directions. But one thing I have against you: you seem to have no clue whatsoever how to write religion.

That's not always been the case. Luka's struggle, for example, with agnosticism in the face of war and personal tragedy was portrayed very poignantly in his encounters with a dying priest a few years back. But this year you seem to have lost your way, and in the process you're wasting an opportunity that you provided yourself: you're wasting Hope.

Hope is the Christian character written into your show this year, aping the opportunistic antics of shows such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Ever since The Passion of the Christ, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood appears to be that religion sells almost as well as sex. And so giving the occasional nod to religion will prompt religious viewers to give an occasional nod to your advertisers.

I can respect that: I work in an industry that caters to the religious public, and besides that, I'm religious myself, and I enjoy being catered to as much as the next guy. My problem isn't that you're catering to people like me; it's that you're not doing a very good job of it.

The problem with pandering to people is that your creative integrity tends to suffer when you do it. Genesis, for example (the band, not the book), were critical darlings in the music world until they got a few radio hits under their belts. All of a sudden each new release sounded hauntingly similar to their previous release, which sounded hauntingly similar to lead singer Phil Collins's most recent release. It's not exactly jumping the shark; it's more like jumping on the bandwagon.

Now I am not saying that you shouldn't have Christian characters on your show. Call me biased, but I think Christian characters can bring an intriguing and dynamic energy to a story. But to do so they need to be written three-dimensionally, and Hope has not been written as such. I speak only anecdotally, I freely confess, but I have never attended a Bible study in which a group of people huddled in the dark playing the telephone game with the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues, as you had Hope and Archie experience in your very special Christmas episode. Nor have I attended a Bible study in which the guest (Archie) was expected to have the seven deadly sins and their corresponding cardinal virtues memorized in order. Nor have I attended a Bible study in which a person pretending to be a confessing Christian but espousing a nihilistic spirituality was immediately praised as a guru, as Archie was by Hope.

Those experiences are the accidentals surrounding Hope, of course. Surely the person will be granted full personhood in your writing, correct? Not so, I'm afraid. Hope, apparently, managed to homeschool her way through medical school and acquire a residency at a teaching hospital without learning any actual medicine. Her clinical assessments are not medical but maternal; she coos and frets over patients without thinking to discover what's actually wrong with them or propose a realistic treatment plan. A doctor who practiced like that would be dismissed from her hospital before her employer could be sued, but for Hope, that's just another purpose-driven day in a normal Christian life.

Hope, I'm sad to say, is a caricature of a practicing physician, which is unfortunate on a show that portrays the gritty reality of medical practice. Worse in this case, she's a caricature of a Christian on a show that's capable of much greater nuance and sympathetic sophistication. Worse than either, she's a caricature of a human being on a show that has held the bar high in its writing of the humanness of its characters.

If you're going to capitulate to the cultural trend of "just add Christian," please don't surrender your creative talents in the process. ER is a great show and could do a great job exploring the ethical and moral dilemmas of living a life of faith in real time; you've added the Christian, now add the depth.

PS: If you need a consultant, my rates are very competitive.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at December 12, 2006 4:35 PM Bookmark and Share


You go, girl . . . er, guy!

Comment by: Freddie the Freeloader at December 13, 2006 11:33 AM

Dave is pulling out all the stops! Good stuff and great analysis of ER and Hope. I too have watched the show for twenty years (even though it feels like thirteen). I will watch tonight to see if your letter has made a difference in TV land (even though I doubt the writers read Strangly Dim).

Comment by: Roger Feeback at December 14, 2006 1:57 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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