In a recent interview, Pope Francis said he has not watched television since July 15, 1990, when he swore to the Virgin Mary that he’d cut the habit. It’s clearly worked out well for the Pontiff, who’s become one of the most important figures in the world—but what has he been missing out on in his television-free years?
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
The 1990-1991 television season, the first to commence after a young Jorge Maria Bergoglio swore off the tube, saw the debut of Will Smith’s breakout role, as well as hits including Beverly Hills 90210, Dinosaurs, and Law & Order. That’s how long the Pope has been refusing to watch TV: The entire Law & Order universe has escaped his notice. (With 456 episodes of the flagship series alone, it’s no wonder he’s so much more productive than the rest of us.)
The leader of the Catholic Church stopped watching TV before NBC’s “Must-See” Thursday lineup entered its 1990s renaissance. The appeals of the sometimes-raunchy Friends and the openly amoral Seinfeld gang might have been lost on him, but Frasier, assaying as it did an aesthete’s search for contentment and meaning in the universe, might have provided some light entertainment. We’ll never know!
Sex and the City
This Sarah Jessica Parker series, along with The Sopranos, established HBO as the 800-pound-gorilla of cable TV in the early part of the 21st century, and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on TV. (Not that the Pope would know!) But both HBO series, too, came in for criticism from Catholics in America; the mob drama for its depiction of Italian-Americans and the louche comedy for several plotlines, including one joking about the baptism of Miranda’s child. Perhaps it’s for the best the Pope missed out on the pay-cable boom!
The reality series, about a group of Americans marooned in the wilderness for 39 days (one fewer than Jesus in the Biblical story of the temptation of Christ) has earned more than its share of faithful viewers over its 15 years on the air, but the show’s pan-theistic tone would seem to be a turnoff for viewers in the priesthood. Contestants, for instance, flout the First Commandment when they compete to win immunity “idols”—to say nothing of their hunger for a cash prize.
Don’t ask Pope Francis whether or not he thinks Don collaborated with Peggy on the Coke ad! But other aspects of the recently-concluded AMC drama, and of Peggy’s story arc, might resonate more poignantly with any Catholic. Through the conflicted copywriter, the show examined the evolving role of the church in the lives of the faithful in the years following Vatican II. And there’s, perhaps, an argument to be made that streaming it on Netflix isn’t quite the same as watching TV, which brings us to…
Grace and Frankie
Series star Jane Fonda, like the Pope an icon born in the mid-1930s, is an avowed fan of the Pontiff. That may not be enough to lure the Pope back to watching TV, but the series’ chilled-out, live-and-let-live attitude has a little in common with Francis’s famous humanism. And just as no one expects the 78-year-old Pope to watch TV again, 77-year-old Fonda’s star turn was something of a surprise—a testament to just how central to the culture television has become in the past 25 years.