I’ve already had a couple of friends ask me what I thought about Under the Banner of Heaven, the new mini-series that’s out, adapting Krakauer’s book of the same title. It’s focused on a murder investigation in 1984 in rural Utah, and it very much delves into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portraying events both from the church’s history and its “present” (in 1984). As an active media review and active member of my religion, it makes sense people would ask for my take.
I’d read a fair bit about the show before I watched the first episode last night. All about how much effort had been put in to “getting it right” when it came to how my religion is portrayed. I was hopeful, based on many of the reviews I’d read, as they said the faith was treated quite favorably in some aspects. I haven’t read the book, but I know there’s a fair bit of “not favorable” in it toward Latter-day Saints, arguing that much of the church’s history has a direct impact on some of the bad things in the church’s present. I actually agree with that premise: I do believe there are things in the faith that can lead some to get really carried away into whackadoodle land. You just have to look at the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping to see that’s still going on. I also acknowledge that for a long time, the church at best looked at its history through rose-tinted glasses, and often actually just ignored some of it, or claimed it was misinformation. So I don’t have anything against a show that explores how the history of the church can relate to the present.
I say that on the offset, just to put it out there. I didn’t go into the viewing loaded for bear. With a solid cast and creative team around the show, I expected to like it.
What I got, instead, was something that’s very hard for me to accurately review. I realize that my religion is large enough that many people will have many different impressions of what it actually feels like to be a member. How things were in Utah in 1984 will be different than how they are in Maine in 2022. However, I lived in Utah for stretches of time in the 80s. My family out there is large and sprawling and tight knit. Almost all of them are active members. My mom literally grew up with the Lafferty’s. They’re from Payson, though the town’s never mentioned in the show. She knew them. The murders happened in American Fork, about 10 minutes north of where I lived in the early 2000s. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m so far out of touch with the source material that I can’t evaluate it at least to an extent.
Black (the writer) might have done a lot of research into the religion. He grew up a member, but left years ago. But regardless of the amount of research he put into it, the end result leaves much to be desired.
To begin with, the use of Latter-day Saint lingo by all the members in the show is just off. Perhaps if you’re not a member, it all sounds like how we talk, but it’s sort of like having Google translate do your interpretation of a novel. Yes, the words are technically correct, but they’re used in ways that don’t ring true. At one point, Brenda says “The Savior would want me to go to BYU.” But we view Christ and God as distinct beings. We pray to God for guidance, not Christ. I’ve heard plenty of people ask “What would Jesus do?”, but I don’t remember anyone asking “Where would Jesus want me to go to school?” Again, maybe there are some that do, and so I just am out of touch there, but that’s simply one example.
Characters use the term “Heavenly Father” like it was on sale at Walmart. All the members are throwing it in left and right, to an extent that just doesn’t happen (in my experience). They talk about “vows” and “oaths” and generally come across as wide-eyed idiots, even in the cases where they’re supposedly sympathetic.
I get it. Plenty of people think we are wide-eyed idiots. The religion is definitely on the “Religions we can make fun of as much as we want list,” even with many or most who would staunchly defend any who might try to ridicule Judaism, Islam, or mainstream Christianity. But I’m here to say that while we might have a few whackadoos in the religion, they’re not the flavor of whackadoo being presented by the show, if that makes sense.
Every single member shown on screen acts off. The show doesn’t hesitate to show how strange we are, right down to our garments and (from the screen shots for upcoming episodes) temple rituals. I don’t know who they got to do their cultural sensitivity consulting, but it feels like they were asleep at the wheel. The closest analogy I can think of is a show focused on Islam that has an actor portraying Allah. Yes, you can do it for the shock value, or to really “explore the subject,” but you better realize that what you’re doing is stomping all over many people’s sacred beliefs, and it would be nice to ask yourself if the price is worth the end product.
But like I said, maybe this is how the rest of the world looks at me and my family. There’s a scene where the Lafferty family gets together to clear a field of rocks, and it’s done almost like an Amish barn raising. The men are out working, and the women are providing food. I don’t object to showing that some Latter-day Saint families can be very restrictive when it comes to how they treat their wives and daughters. (Though I’d point out that’s not unique to the faith.) But the show makes a point of saying how respected the Lafferty family is. “They’re like the Kennedys,” is how the main character puts it. And when you say that, and then show the Lafferty family all behaving very bizarrely, then you’re saying that’s the norm for members out there. That’s the ideal we’re all shooting for.
And it just plain isn’t.
Besides, “the Kennedys”? The Lafferty family might have been well known in Payson, but Payson was anything but the center of the religion.
Anyway. I could go on, but I won’t. This isn’t a show (so far) that I would really recommend to anyone. Perhaps it gets better. If my opinion changes, I’ll write about it, but I’ll be surprised if it does. And please, if you’re watching the show as a non-member, don’t assume what’s being portrayed there is par for the course. I can’t say authoritatively that it’s never like that, but I can say I’ve never seen it like that in my 40+ years of living in it. To make it seem like it’s the norm is disingenuous at best.
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