This Christmas, for the spirituality-and-pop-culture enthusiasts on your gifting list, consider the following: Be kind and rewind.
Give them the gift that keeps on giving ... long after the series has been canceled.
This post began when I started snooping around to see when my new favorite show might start shooting its third season. Rev . is a BBC series heading (happily, I learned) into its third season that the British television network describes, simply, as: "A sitcom about a vicar running a modern inner-city church, with a reluctant wife and a depleted, motley congregation."
Oh, but it's so much more than that.
The series, which premiered in 2010, revolves around the Rev. Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), a Church of England vicar serving a down-on-its-luck parish in a dodgy part of East London called, inexplicably, St. Saviour in the Marshes. The humor (and the pathos) derives from Smallbone's wistfully human, begrudgingly believing, perpetually struggling ministry as an urban priest facing the challenges of keeping the ship (of fools) afloat. Adam is forever juggling financial, personal, and political pressures (of internal church politics, that is) while trying his best to best serve his "motley" crew and be a dutiful, loving husband to his solicitor wife, Alex.
I adore this show. It's clever and funny and spiritually intriguing without being goofy, snarky, or facile. And, I was delighted to learn, in August the BBC announced that it has ordered a third (and apparently final) season of Rev. that will begin airing in ... 2014. GADS! It's a long wait. So in the meantime, I recommend tuning in online or ordering the DVDs for yourself and the clergyperson (or fan thereof) in your life.
2. Northern Exposure
It's been off the air since 1995, but it still is, to my mind at least, the very best television series. Ever. Full stop.
Set in the fictitious town of Cicely, Alaska, for six seasons (and 110 episodes), Northern Exposure broke new ground as it followed the denizens of one small town. It was wacky and wonderful, full of smart dialogue and story lines that more often than not contained deep, probing and insightful spiritual questions (and occasionally answers). Led by the resident philosophical ex-convict-turned-disc-jockey and ersatz shaman/guru/pastor Chris Stevens (John Corbett) the characters explored joys, foibles, struggles, and hilarity of the inner and outer life.
I cried when this show went off the air and wrote my first official seminary paper on its spiritual content and message. While it's almost 25 years old now, the content has aged well. If you've never seen it, treat yourself to a season or two. And if you have a diehard NE fan on your list...see below for the ultimate gift.
3. The Vicar of Dibley
Most of your are no strangers to the adventures of the Rev. Boadicea Julie Andrews Dick Van Dyke Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Chim Chiminee Chim Chiminee Chim Chimcharee "Geraldine" (or "Gerry") Granger (Dawn French) and the parish of Dibley. For the few uninitiated, the BBC series that aired first in 1994 and ran (on and off, as those British series are wont to do) until 2007, centers around a female Church of England priest and the rural parish she serves that's never seen a vicar of her persuasion before. Hilarity (and pretty savvy spiritual insights from time to time) ensue.
4. Davey and Goliath
A boy and his dog and their God.
The beloved series of stop-action animation produced by the Lutheran Church in America in the 1960s is an evergreen for all ages.
5. Six Feet Under (**Spoiler Alert** If you haven't watched this series and plan to skip to our next clip.)
The award-winning HBO series went off the air nearly eight years ago, but the issues of life and death, faith and doubt, family and sexuality, morality and transcendence are as fresh and relevant now as they ever were. Not for the faint of heart, Six Feet Under looked life's toughest questions in the eye and didn't blink.
Not enough people saw this series while it was still airing on TNT. An alcoholic female detective from Oklahoma whose sister died in the Oklahoma City Bombings gets one last (or endless, depending upon how you look at it) chance to get right with the world and with God with the help of a guardian angel named Earl.
It's on my desert island TV list along with Northern Exposure, The Vicar of Dibley, and M*A*S*H.
7. The Book of Daniel
Even fewer people saw this brilliant show that aired on television for just four episodes before it was dropped (hounded off the air by a number of vocal, conservative Christian groups that organized a boycott by affiliate stations, by some accounts) by NBC in January 2006. The dramatic series starred Adain Quinn as the Rev. Daniel Webster, an "unconventional" Episcopal priest in Newbury, New York (a suburb of New York City.)
The Book of Daniel was the first television series to air new episodes via online streaming after its cancelation. Eight episodes ran altogether between the month-long television run on NBC and the streaming run on NBC.com.
It's not an easy show and took theological/religious risks, but it's great and brave storytelling, very much worth watching.
8. Lie to Me
Not a clergyperson in site in this show based on the work of real-life Dr. Paul Ekman , a psychologist and expert on body language and facial expressions. Tim Roth played Dr. Carl Lightman (the Ekman-esque character) for three seasons (2009-2011) and I hung on every word of every single one of them.
There's no explicitly religious content in the series, but it explored in great detail and often with admirable nuance, the nature of truth. What is true? What is a lie? Why do we lie? How can you tell? Why can you tell?
Does anyone really know anyone else? Or do we only let people see the truth about us that we want them to see?
Fascinating series. And you'll never look at anyone quite the same way again. (Watch that shoulder shrug.)
9. Pushing Daisies
Ned is a pie maker who has the ability to bring things (and people) back to life by touching them. But rules and restrictions apply. (Don't they always?)
What's not to love about this quirky dramedy -- co-starring one of our favorite people, Kristen Chenoweth -- that ran on ABC from 2007 to 2009?
Nothing. That's what.
It started with a plane crash and ended with ... purgatory?
I don't know for sure. No one really does. And that's why you have to start at the very beginning and watch all 121 episodes in chronological order. Twice, probably. Or maybe even three times.