Louie's "God" As Cathartic Television

Curator's Note

A scene that precedes this one from Louie's episode "God" has been described as disturbing, graphic, creepy, and horrifying. In it, a group of Catholic school children sit in church pews, forced to listen to a medical doctor (Tom Noonan) relate in detail the scourge and crucifixion of Christ. To the kids, the doctor raises a whip and narrates, "The leathers of the flagellum rip the skin of [Christ's] back, and then they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing spurts of arterial bleeding; his body hangs down in ribbons." At lecture's end, he demands of the children, "Why'd you drive in Jesus's nails with your sins? You let him die with your careless, faithless sins." The scene is undeniably unsettling. However, as a Jesuit priest advises, it's also "powerful and filled with reversals worthy of some serious mental wrestling."

The scene I'm curating results from the one above. Here, little Louie (Sawyer Swanson) has been punished for breaking into the Church to free Jesus, literally plucking the plaster Savior from the cross and removing the spikes from its wrists/feet (his actions, a result of the doctor's words and subsequent nightmares). What follows is a sincere, sensitive discussion between Louie and his mother (Amy Landecker), the former terrified he caused the death of Christ, the latter assuring her son he did no such thing and that she's even uncertain of God's existence. In other words, it's an honest conversation in popular culture about God (via an experimental comedy series no less). Viewers noticed and reacted in turn.

After watching "God," some fans recalled terrifying youth-camp skits dedicated to Christ's suffering and their sins, "being brainwashed with horror stories of hell and torture," and surviving twelve years of Catholic education only to spend their forties wrestling with feelings about the Church. Similarly, other viewers wished publicly that their parents had "talked to them like that when they were a kid" while many simply labeled the viewing experience so cathartic. Equally affected by the episode was a "closeted non-believer" who struggles daily whether to impart his atheist views to his children or, like Louie's mother, "give them the gift of faith in case they decide they want it later." Tough decisions, especially in a country wary of atheism. But at least for twenty-two minutes of TV time, he (and others) realized they weren't alone.


Thank you for collecting all these passionate responses to “God”. When I saw the episode, I too was moved by the complex and weighty childhood memories it evoked. Spending most of my pre-college years actively involved in a midwestern Presbyterian church (I’ve since left Christianity), I heard gory, shame provoking retellings of Jesus’ crucifixion at least once annually. In my church, the ironically named “Good Friday” functioned like a Christian Halloween--it’s the one day of the year set aside for dwelling on how painfully Jesus died (followed by guilt about our sins having necessitated his brutal, bloody death). I do recall that on this holiday, one member of our congregation, a general physician, was typically called to the pulpit to provide a more thoroughly disgusting account of torture-and-crucifixion science.

Of the responses you’ve collected, I am particularly interested in Todd VanDerWerff’s Los Angeles Times write-up, in which he reflects on his reaction to the crucifixion story, which he experienced as a 10-year-old: “I, at least, alternated between sad compassion for Jesus and sickened fascination with all he went through (mostly because I hadn't discovered horror films yet).” VanDerWerff’s observation about horror films as interchangeable with religious doctrine draws an important parallel between the Church’s influence on the developing brain, and that of Hollywood.

Broadly speaking, I believe this parallelism is worth further investigation by media scholars today. That’s especially true for the United States--where, as the Slate article mentions, much of the populace remains religiously affiliated, and where (I think, not coincidentally) media decency guidelines more readily allow children to consume violence and gore than profanity and sexual content. My point is not that Christianity is capable of satisfying/encouraging childrens’ appetites for gore as effectively as Hollywood. Rather, I’m advocating research in the likeness of your post, which uncovers the connections between religious pedagogy and media works, and furthermore examines how both address young people’s imagination and emotional desires.

Yes, I think this is worth exploring further, Jeremy. Thanks for your comments! I'm not sure if you've read it, but I recently taught the essay “Tarantino’s Incarnational Theology: Reservoir Dogs, Crucifixions, and Spectacular Violence,” which attempts a similar analysis. In short, the author links Reservoir Dogs to the anchoritic writings of Julian of Norwich as both give pride of place to brutality against the male body. It might be of interest to you...

PS. So sorry for the delayed response; I've still not figured out how to subscribe to the RSS Comments feed for this site. :)

Kelli thanks for this great post. I hope you don’t mind if I hijack it for a moment to investigate the relationship in television between your analysis of the show's cathartic quality and televisual teaching. The episode you cite recalls the “very special episode” trope frequently employed by earlier television sitcoms, which also attempted to provide what you explore as a cathartic moment, an identification and release through drama. But they were also moments when the programs, perhaps like the post from Louie, were attempting to teach a lesson, such teaching, even when it isn’t as obvious as a “very special episode,” proposed as imbuing television with a role in citizenship and politics, in studies such as John Hartley’s frequently cited “Democratainment” (The Television Studies Reader, Allen and Hill eds., Routledge, 2004, pp. 524-533). Hartley might deem this Louie clip an example of “transmodern” teaching--of “ethical, ideological and moral precepts, prejudices and perspectives” (Hartley, 524-5), and I think your post provides an insight into the limitations and problems of television as such a citizen-teacher. In my own meager experience of the show (this one clip you’ve posted), I may be missing out on some of its nuances, but it seems to me that both perspectives provided by the clip--the church that confuses the young Louie, and the parent who tries her best to mediate its instruction, thereby possibly “teaching” the audience while providing a moment of catharsis--display limited and/or confused points of view that don’t completely satisfy Louie’s difficulty (possibly reflecting the limitations of the screenwriters). Such limitations are what allow so many people to identify with the show's depiction of childhood confusion, but I wonder if they equally improve individual thinking or the public discourse. Thinking about such television moments as the one you’ve posted, my question is always whether we want television, produced as it is by people as imperfect as its audience, to be a teacher of “media citizens” (526), even though, as you've shown, we appreciate the cathartic role it provides.


Thanks, Nicholas, for reading and commenting. And as mentioned to Jeremy above, my apologies for not replying sooner (I've still not figured out the RSS Comments feed for this site, and I keep forgetting to check back!).

I understand that "God" might appear to be a "very special episode," but I wouldn't read it that way. Sure, it has a message, which apparently resonated with many viewers, but I'm not sure it was intended to be didactic. After all, many (most?) of Louie's episodes/sketches focus on matters this serious/political/controversial, e.g., suicide, bullying, divorce, sexual assault (at the dentist!), single fatherhood, war. A list of episodes may be found here. Hope that makes sense. :)

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