It’s that time of year again: when all our favourite television shows return to our screens and monitors. Two of the most anticipated returns to the small screen this year have been the newest seasons of Showtime’s Dexter and AMC’s The Walking Dead, and they share a striking similarity. Yes, these two dramas, one about a sociopathic cop-by-day-serial-killer-by-night and one about a ragtag group of survivors stuck in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, do have something in common. Apparently this season, religion is in vogue. But is there an ulterior motive for this invasion of piety on our TV screens, and does how each show deals with the subject paint a more revealing picture?
Know Your Audience
Both The Walking Dead and Dexter have displayed their main characters showing varying degrees of interest in religion. We’ve watched Dexter’s protagonist Dexter Morgan enroll his child in a Catholic school and form an uneasy friendship with an ex-convict-turned-street-preacher, and we’ve seen The Walking Dead’s leading man Rick Grimes pray earnestly for assistance and discuss how members of his motley crew have “lost their faith.” While this can make for some great TV, there is certainly an ulterior motive at play. After all, the purpose of television shows is to make money, pure and simple. Money is made from selling ad space, and if a show has a large viewership then advertisers are willing to pay more. To ensure they have a large enough audience for advertisers, networks must adhere to one of the cardinal rules of television broadcasting: know your audience. As a recent Pew poll revealed, 78.4% of American adults claim to be Christians and another 4.7% align themselves with other religions. Do some quick math and you’ll find that over 82% of Americans say they believe in a god. Clearly, religion still comprises a large portion of America’s social fabric and it is in networks’ best interest to, for lack of a better word, pander to these widely-held beliefs. The relationship between broadcasters and advertisers means that any and all content on television is designed to appeal to the largest number of people it possibly can, even (and maybe especially, by virtue of its deep-seated place in Americans society) religion. If religion is in fashion on television, it’s because it sells. The common theme of religion on two of TV’s most popular shows can be seen as less of a decision to critically explore one of America’s cultural cornerstones and more as a calculating strategy to tap in to and exploit something many people hold dear. A cynical statement about the current state of American consumerism if there ever was one.
An Opportunity for Subversion?
Perhaps there is something to be said for how Dexter and The Walking Dead actually deal with the topic. After all, Dexter Morgan has never been a religious character and it has been made clear on numerous occasions that he does not believe in any god. Although this season finds him tangling with the idea of latching on to a religion, it would be in the true spirit of the series to take a critical look at the American religious landscape. Even though the show will be dealing with the idea of religion, it could be in a way that subverts the profit motive that led to the saturation of pious concerns in two of TV’s most popular shows. To illustrate the opposite perspective, The Walking Dead seems intent on appealing to the lowest common denominator in its dealings with religion. In the season opener last Sunday, there was no scrutiny applied to religion, no skepticism and no questions. Only a teary-eyed Southern man praying to a crucifix for the safe return of a lost little girl. A touching story about how a rough around the edges police officer overcomes adversity through his faith may certainly raise the profile of The Walking Dead in America’s hyper-religious public consciousness after losing last season’s director Frank Darabont, who also famously directed the Shawshank Redemption.
For better or for worse, it seems that religion is here to stay on both Dexter and The Walking Dead. Both shows have a stellar track record when it comes to writing characters who are dealing with things that seem bigger than them and that they don’t understand. As their respective seasons move forward, it will no doubt be fascinating to see which show, if any, decides to critique, and which is content to pander.
Dexter Morgan reaches out to touch faith.