I suspect a fear among some conservative Latter-day Saints is that a blockbuster, widely viewed movie will come around that presses on uncomfortable pressure points in a sophisticated way, and the 1-3 things that people know about the Church offhand will include whatever seeped into the public consciousness because of said blockbuster film. Similarly, a hope of the antagonist community is that said blockbuster film will gain a lot of traction and everybody will at last know the Truth about the Church, painting it into a corner.
Either way, the first two episodes of the new Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t it.
Besides Andrew Garfield’s performance, these were pretty standard B-grade Netflix style episodes of which there are thousands already in a crowded market. While there was a lot of historical license taken with some of the scenes (although part of me did enjoy seeing a more aggressive Joseph Smith), that’s expected given the lack of documentation in some cases.The writing was pretty mediocre. (I enjoyed Lance Black’s Milk and the episodes of Big Love that I watched, but not so much his biopic on J. Edgar Hoover, and this is definitely more in the latter camp). I very much doubt this will become a major cultural reference point for Mormonism in the non-Mormon corridor, or that it will penetrate into the public conciousness as far as its namesake book or Big Love.
Production quality aside, in terms of how it treats religious topics it’s pretty ham fisted. Tropes were dropped so frequently it became a bit eye-rollish at times, as if one was watching a Jewish sitcom where they sit around and talk about kosher meal prep, Israel, studying, and investments all day, or an archaeologist in the future tried to reconstruct Mormonism solely based on rediscovered memes. They could have easily reduced the explicit Latter-day Saint references to ¼ of what it was. In terms of messaging, it had the subtlety of a John McNaughton painting, with the message basically being a dozen or so didactic ex-Mormon Reddit points sprinkled with some CTR references.
I suspect these shortcomings are apparent enough even to non-insiders that I don’t think these episodes will do much to convince the not already convinced about anything Mormon related, and I doubt the average Joe Schmoe just wanting something to unwind with after work will think this is some sophisticated documentary-type take on the faith, or some solid argument for the Mormonism/violence thesis. Of course, we have more episodes to go, but given the predictable trajectory of the series I don’t suspect the substance of what I’ve written above will become less relevant as new episodes drop.
One of the best missionaries in a mission my parents were serving in first learned about the Church from the South Park Episode on Joseph Smith, and called the missionaries because he thought it was weird and that there must be something more to it; who knows what the fruits of this will be….