When Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), the skeptical, nihilistic detective who became a breakout character on the first season of HBO’s anthology series “True Detective,” seemed to find a higher power in the finale, some viewers were disappointed, suggesting that skeptical or atheist characters couldn’t be allowed to persist in their disbelief. But even though debates like the one over the relative religiosity of a big-budget “Noah” movie get more press, that angle of disappointment in “True Detective” ignored that this is actually a relatively good moment for atheism and skepticism on the small screen.
On “The Good Wife,” lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) has always found it hard to understand her teenage daughter Grace’s (Makenzie Vega) fervent conversion to Christianity. and in the aftermath of the shooting death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles), that particular source of friction between them acquired a new spikiness.
“What does that mean, Grace? He’s in heaven? With angels and clouds?” Alicia demanded when her daughter told her that Will was “with God.” “What does it mean if there is no God? Why is that any better?” Grace asked of her mother. “It’s not better,” Alicia responded. “It’s just truer. It’s just not wishful thinking.” But Grace, with a sharp insight into her mother’s personality, had another suggestion. “Always believing the bad, maybe that’s wishful thinking too,” Grace told Alicia.
The exchange was as much about who the characters know each other to be–Alicia worries that Grace is naive, while Grace is concerned that her mother denies herself sources of happiness and comfort. But it also allowed the characters their perspectives without any urge to resolve their disagreement. Alicia seems an unlikely candidate for a climactic conversion.
A similar mother-daughter dynamic is playing out on “The Americans,” with different inflections. On that show about Soviet spies living in deep cover in the Washington suburbs, Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell), a true believer in Communist ideology, is confounded when her daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) begins attending a local church. In the most recent episode of the show, Paige told her mother that her attraction to Christianity was the opportunity it presented her to resolve: “My life, my crazy life. I don’t know where to put everything.” Her mother was genuinely and completely stumped by her aspiration. “What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked.
Elizabeth has proven exceptionally immune to the lure of any sort of Western culture over the past season and a half of the show. Paige’s conversion seems more likely to be a way of ratcheting up dramatic tension between her and her mother than a harbinger of a change of heart for Elizabeth. “The Americans” creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields said they considered other options before settling on Christianity.
And every week on “Cosmos,” the revival of Carl Sagan’s classic series, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been using his platform to push back against creationist arguments about everything from the human eye as proof of intelligent design to the idea that the Bible suggests that Earth is only 6,000 years old. Four episodes in, it is hard to measure if Tyson has been winning converts. But the show is an opportunity for Tyson to reach millions of viewers at a time, presenting not just information about the universe, but a sophisticated argument for the value of scientific thinking both as a way to understand world, and as a means of venerating God.