It has been well documented that Mormons are something of a staple on reality television, from “Survivor” to “The Amazing Race” to “Dancing With the Stars” and many, many more. But LDS references on at least one game show and Mormon characters on a number of fictional programs are also popping up with increased frequency.
If you watch the syndicated game show “Jeopardy!” with any regularity, you may have noticed that every now and then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints figures in the answer/question format.
Of course, when Ken Jennings was winning all those pots ’o gold back in 2004, the LDS Church was often the topic of conversation on the show and also showed up in a category or two.
But a friend and I were recently talking about how often the church seems to crop up on “Jeopardy!” in the post-Jennings era. True, it’s on an irregular basis, but we speculated that perhaps one of the show’s writers is a member of the LDS Church. Why else would Mormon subjects show up so often?
Our discussion was prompted by a category in May that was labeled “Popular Books” with “The Book of Mormon” as an answer (or more correctly, a question).
And we remembered that last fall, for the first time to my knowledge, “Jeopardy!” devoted an entire five-clue category to LDS Church subjects. In fact, the category was labeled “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” sandwiched between “Celebrities’ Kids’ Names” and “Hit Parades.”
The five questions/answers were “missionaries,” “the Mormon Tabernacle,” “apostles,” “Joseph Smith” and “Deseret.” It was the first category chosen by the three contestants, all three chimed in and all five were correctly answered (or questioned).
This was so unusual that a story about it appeared in the LDS Church News.
But it’s not so unusual anymore. This past June, “Jeopardy!” did it again. This time the category was “The Book of Mormons,” and it was the first listed on the board, just before “Quirky News.” (Had it been “Peculiar News,” there would have been some degree of symbiosis.)
The “Book of Mormons” category referred to LDS Church members who had written books. Four clues were descriptions looking for authors’ names, and one was an author and part of his book’s title, looking for the full title. The questions/answers were: Stephenie Meyer, Mitt Romney, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Steve Young and Harry Reid. Only two of the contestants’ guesses were correct.
That was fun but I didn’t think much more about it until I started noticing Mormon characters right and left on fictional TV shows, like some kind of strange “Mormon Moment” revival.
During Episode 4 of the dark, satirical FX cable mystery-thriller “Fargo,” an odd Mormon reference pops up out of the blue. Two of the show’s supporting characters are partnered hit men, and one is deaf, so when he converses using sign language it is subtitled. During a heated exchange between them in a restaurant, the hearing hit man says, “No one likes to be watched while they’re eating.” His deaf partner replies, “Some people do.” His partner asks, “Who,” and he responds, “Mormons.”
Say what? So, does he mean that he’s a Mormon and because he’s deaf he likes to be watched so he can communicate? Or is he saying that Mormons in general like to be watched while they eat? (If it’s the latter, I’m done with restaurants.)
It’s an odd exchange and I half expected an explanatory reference to show up in a later episode, but it never came.
Then there’s “Murder in the First,” a TNT cable police procedural that unravels a single murder case over the course of 10 episodes. In Episode 3, while investigating the murder of a flight attendant for a private jet, two detectives interview the plane’s co-pilot, Stan Shaw, who tells them that the senior pilot had an affair with the victim. He also expresses sadness over her death. “I can’t believe she’s gone. Thankfully she’ll live again through resurrection.” When one detective looks askance he adds, “I’m an elder in the LDS Church.” The detective says, “Oh, right, Mormon.” Shaw says, “That doesn’t make me a prude. OK, maybe it does.” When the detectives confront the senior pilot, he asks who told them about the affair, then adds, "Let me guess, Saint Stan? ... Don't buy his Good Samaritan act. That Mormon's got motives. Just like everyone else." (Despite this intriguing declaration, Stan’s character hasn’t shown up again; Episode 9 airs on Monday.)
Much worse is the third season of “Hell on Wheels,” which came my way a couple of weeks ago for a DVD/Blu-ray review. This is an AMC cable Western set against the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and beginning with the second episode, a new murderous villain is introduced, Aaron Hatch, the head of a homesteading Mormon polygamist family whose farm is in the path of the oncoming tracks. Not content to simply portray Hatch and his family as stock-villain fanatical crazies (a throwback to such weird silent-era movies as “Trapped By the Mormons” and “A Mormon Maid”), the show goes after the church at large. One character describes Mormons as racist and “a nasty bunch,” while another, a female preacher, says Mormons are not Christian, that they “treat their women as slaves” and are “a violent people.” Yikes! (They show up again in the season’s final two episodes and will return in Season 4, which begins Saturday.)
As an interesting contrast, the second season of “How the West Was Won,” a late-1970s Western/pioneer series, made its DVD debut around the same time, and a few episodes feature a somewhat similar story arc, although the Mormon polygamists here are victims instead of villains. The season’s first episode begins a subplot about Mormon persecution, and while it’s true that a few aspects are a bit off-kilter, at least the characters are sympathetic in this instance. As the Mormon story wraps up, someone says, “You know, I think the Mormons will give up polygamy one day.” Another character asks, “Why, because it’s wrong?” The response: “No, dear. Because it makes too fierce a demand upon the human heart.”
What a difference a few decades have made in the way Mormons are portrayed on television.