The Best (and Worst) of Characters --Theology and Madam Secretary

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Like everyone else these days, I admit that my wife and I occasionally binge-watch various television series. Our latest guilty pleasure is Madam Secretary, which is now in its second season on CBS. What has struck me about the show is that our binge-watching hasn't been a guilty pleasure at all. "So far, so good," as the saying goes, is quite apropos: The show has been far less sordid or morally decadent than others we have watched. Watching Madam Secretary has been all pleasure and no guilt.

There are no doubt several reasons for this, the preeminent, perhaps, being that the show airs on network TV not cable. The censorship standards are higher -- no F-bombs, for instance (contrast Homeland), nudity (again, contrast Homeland), or sex (yep, Homeland). And then there's the soundtrack: often upbeat with chipper violins and other strings, which lends a bright hue to the show, even when the episode itself is rather somber.

But the main reason for this less-than-guilty, even uplifting viewing experience is because the main characters, the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni), and her husband, Henry McCord (Tim Daly), are just plain good. Almost too good.

I don't mean that they look good. That goes without saying, since virtually all citizens of TV-land look good, though even here the McCords excel. One suspects that the production crew is doing their best to make Leoni look semi-frumpy or studiously academic, but they aren't succeeding. Elizabeth must be the most stylish and fit politician to ever hold office. And her husband Henry is equally svelte and -- get this -- a former USMC fighter pilot and NSA operative turned theology professor who quotes the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (among others) on a regular basis.

Beyond their looks, the McCords's relationship is also amazingly positive. There's remarkably little friction between the couple, despite the fact that Elizabeth is gone most of the time, and, even when she comes home, usually has to depart quickly because "more intel just came in." Henry is the perfect spouse, holding down the fort, running the family-show, and hardly ever complaining.

Now I must admit that initially I found all this goodness rather refreshing. But almost immediately I started doubting it. I mean, good is one thing, but too good? "These are the perfect people," I said to my wife after one episode wrapped up, "I'm not buying it."

As soon as I said that, however, it hit me that the problem may not be with the show, or its actors or writers, but with me. Or, rather, with us -- the viewing public. Now, please don't get me wrong: Like Henry, I am a theology professor -- a Bible professor to boot -- but I know my way around complicated characters, individuals who manifest significant problems and make terrible decisions, but that we end up rooting for, regardless, perhaps because we can't help but hope for their redemption. Tim Riggins, for instance, from Friday Night Lights, or Nicholas Brody from Homeland. Or, in my bailiwick, King David in the Bible, or Samson, or Saul, or... There's a vast host of such "despicable heroes" haunting the pages of Holy Scripture, and so my own profession has put me in close contact with characters who manifest the best and the worst that humanity offers. Reading the Bible, which is replete with stories of such flawed individuals, has inoculated me to the phenomenon: it doesn't bother me to run into one on television or in real life.

But the McCords do bother me, or rather did, because I think I figured out what was bothering me. Sure, there was my initial disbelief: "They're just too perfect," I thought. "They can't be real. That isn't real." But behind this disbelief was a deeper problem: the fact that I was bothered by the McCords's goodness, period. Perfection is one thing, of course, not usually experienced by mere mortals, but the McCords aren't perfect. The first few episodes reveal that much. They have spats (minor ones!), they don't handle every situation perfectly, and they don't always say the right thing even though they almost always do. But there I was, bothered by their goodness -- their too-goodness. There I was, wanting them to be more flawed. Why? What does that say about me?

I slowly came to the realization that if the McCords were flawed, I could feel better about my own flaws, imperfections, and "complexity" (to use a very generous term). Not only could I feel better about such things, I might even be able to feel better than about them. By that I mean that I would be able to feel better than someone else -- someone more flawed, more imperfect, more "complex." That comparison would make me seem not so flawed after all, but quite the contrary. It'd make me look good, even if I wasn't entirely good. I wouldn't be perfect, but I'd also not be too imperfect.

Watching the McCords's goodness and reflecting on my problems with that has revealed something else, too. Their goodness, perhaps overdone here and there, isn't just good news, it's also bad news. Well, it's both -- complex and ambiguous, I suppose, in its own way. It's good news because these are the best of characters, proof that someone, even if only a character on a TV show, can be good and act with integrity, regularly and repeatedly, in their home and with their family, as well as on the largest of political stages. Surely we need more characters like this, not just on TV but in real life, in our country, in our politics -- politicians like Elizabeth who works tirelessly for the best outcome, not just for her own people, but for all people, including refugees and citizens of other countries. It seems right to long for, even demand, such leaders in an election year --especially in an election year! But we certainly need more characters like this in our neighborhoods and in our homes, too, since it seems that, whether in the public square or the private sphere, we have become all too comfortable with the scandals, impoliteness, inhumanity, and downright triviality that rule the day.

And that's the bad news delivered by the McCords's goodness. It's bad news for all of us who are content only with the most flawed of heroes, the most flawed of selves. We need flawed characters, of course, even in the Bible let alone on our streaming devices. We need them to be redeemed or at least to be redeemable. But we mustn't neglect these others characters, the ones like the McCords, whose peccadilloes are truly that: diminutive and minuscule, hardly significant when compared to the rest of us with our long resumes of vice. We need the best of characters because they do not simply reflect back to us what we already know from a look in the mirror. Instead, the best of characters call us upward and outward, beyond what, where, and who we are content to be. Carry on Madam Secretary. I'll be watching and hoping...for the best.