Faith and the Small Screen

Blog, Essays, Television, The Idiot Box — By on January 24, 2012 at 5:41 am

“Well, I gotta be moving on. I’m needed up in Chesterton. A couple of girls up there think they’re vampires. This Twilight thing has gotten out of hand…

I laughed before Rev. Tim Tom finished telling Sue why he had to run off . I had just started watching The Middle this season, and would find out later that his character had appeared before, but this episode was my first introduction to him. And his role in this episode– as apologist, youth pastor, ice skating chaperon and much more–while small, also surprised me with the biggest laugh of the evening.   What surprised me was the fact that I was laughing not at the reverend’s foolishness, but at the insanity of the universe he inhabited, a universe in which he stood vigil like some family sitcom version of a superhero. An avid reader finally picks up a Bible but doesn’t believe it’s true? The reverend will be there. Ice skaters appear to be making poor choices? Off he goes. Actor Paul Hipp seems to take his character seriously as goofy, but not ridiculous, and the show also seemed to hold a lot of respect for him as the hero of his own strange story. Oh, and when it came to the Bible, he seemed to be (for the most part) a literalist. As a religious TV viewer since, well, probably birth, this struck me as a new trend on the small screen. As a loyal friend of both television and Christianity all my life, I had long grieved the fact that neither of my friends seemed to get along with each other. Was I wrong?

My dad was the principal of a small Christian school. I believe I was in middle school when he explained to us in chapel, along with other things I don’t remember, how “the world” portrays Christians. Actually, I think he was making the point that the world of media is secular, and a student piped in “The Simpsons go to church!”

Yes, he conceded, but he was sure they attended in a blasphemous way.  No one disagreed. It is called irreverent humor for a reason, after all. But for all the outrage of Bart praying “thanks for nothing,” most Christians’ sights were set on Homer’s too-piously-good-to-be-true neighbor, Ned Flanders. Ah, Ned Flanders. He could probably get an article of his own, and probably will, but his character was more than a stand-out. It was (and is) a representation of many people’s idea of a Christian up to that point.

Many viewers have found redemptive nuggets even in this representation, such as Roger Ebert in his review of The Simpsons Movie. But still, most of the Flanders jokes are drawn from his flaws as a judgmental, quixotic arch nemesis of reason and all things fun. I’d later grow up to defend the fact that this is the sort of thing the Simpsons does with all its characters, but again, Flanders isn’t the point so much as what he represents: pretty much every live action Christian character I’d seen on TV until that point.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and I hope so. There have been exceptions, in shows most readers have heard of and obscure ones I can’t even find online. (Only Wikipedia assures me they were not a dream.) Only now the examples don’t seem as few and far between.  And it doesn’t stop at my own faith either; I’ve seen more characters of different faiths shown as actual people, and not just walking ideologues, scary super-villains or total hypocrites.  I can’t find much to explain what caused this change. Maybe there’s a higher caliber of television writers out there now, or people are evolving, or an Old Testament miracle of some sort is happening as the end draws nigh. I don’t know, but I’m okay with that. For now, I’m content to sit back and enjoy as the stories unfold.

Back to Rev. Tim Tom. I’m still not up-to-date on The Middle, so all my information on his character is limited to what I saw in this episode. I should also mention this is a “B” plot, so the information I shared about him is about as much depth as a viewer’s going to get. Which, granted, isn’t enough to warrant a spin-off or anything, but two dimensions out of three, especially for a tertiary character, is not bad. He’s not the reason I tune in to the show, but I do hope he shows up again. I’d like to see what crises could possibly top that Twilight thing.

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  • I think maybe to the tries-out-for-every-club-but-never-gets-in Sue, Rev. Tim Tom is a hero. She’s allowed into his “club” (youth group), and he accepts her for who she is. He plays the guitar and seems oh-so-cool to the not-so-teenagers. The parents maybe are thankful for him intervening in their kids’ lives, taking them off their hands for a while, making the kids feel a little better about themselves, and keeping them away from drugs, sex, and Twlight. I don’t know that he’s necessarily the town hero or the hero of the show, though. The fact that he couldn’t save the day and magically convince Brick that the bible is true, but that he understood that he wasn’t the hero and that faith happens for different people in different ways and at different times, is what made his character so great. I thought the ending was very nuanced.

  • Matt Miles says:

    Good points. I agree that Tim Tom’s youth group would be the setting for the strange story with him as a hero. And it’s also true that while he wouldn’t back down from a debate, he had the wisdom to know when to stop. And that ending. If I hadn’t of been convinced already to add The Middle to my viewing list, that ending would have won me over. But I think they already had me at “crappy dishwasher.”

  • Kim Gottschild says:

    I absolutely love Reverend Tim Tom. My favorite episode was when he was talking to Sue about her lunch table dilemmas. She wanted the courage to go try and sit with new friends. As the reverend encouraged her with a story about Jesus, Sue said “But Reverend Tim Tom, Jeus isn’t in my lunchroom.” He leaned in closely and whispered, “Or IS he?” Brilliant!

    I say it tom myself now all the time. But Reverend Tim Tom, Jesus isn’t in my job/school/whathaveyou and I imagine him saying “Or Is he?”

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  • barker says:

    why do people think it’s alright for adults to fill vulnerable kids’ heads with superstitious ill evidenced tripe like christianity? You cannot communicate telepathically with the beardy sky man, not least because he’s not there.

    I hate the fact that this fatuous guilt ridden dying cult is given a platform to inflict this rubbish unchallenged in a mainstream TV show.

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