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Catholicism: Two and a Half Stars
I mainly wanted to write an essay about Forrest McNeill
Hi everyone. This is an essay about Catholicism and also a TV show I like. I don't know what to do with it; it was part of a larger book of essays I was working on and eventually scrapped because most of it was, as it turns out, not very good. This one turned out okay so on a whim I’m just going to put it here. It contains significant spoilers for a comedy that was on basic cable eight years ago. I hope you are all doing well and staying safe. -Tony
The first 3 minutes of Review, Comedy Central’s 2014 mockumentary series starring Andy Daly, seem pretty simple and kind of dumb. Daly plays Forrest McNeill, a chipper, bespectacled “life reviewer" and host of the fictional show "Review with Forrest McNeill", where he takes submitted suggestions for life experiences to review on a five-star scale. His first suggestion is “stealing", so he heads off to the grocery store to shoplift some malted milk balls. He’s clearly uncomfortable, and awkward, and sheepish about what he’s doing, and you start to think that you get what the show is going to be : we’re going to watch a series of short sketches where this goofy character does somewhat questionable things and we all laugh at how awkward it looks.
When he makes it out the door to the parking lot, McNeill considers that he didn’t get the full “stealing" experience, given the impersonal nature of his crime. Inspiration strikes as he sees an older woman struggling to carry her groceries to her car — he offers to help her, then immediately dashes away with her groceries. As we hear her gratitude turn into shock and anger, Forrest mutters to himself, in minute three of the series, with a mixture of dread and the realization of his own power to hurt another human being, “oh…this is different.” And with that hilarious line, you plunge into one of the darkest series to ever air on basic cable.
Forrest’s final review after the incident is “STEALING: two stars!”
Review is not a sketch show. It is a heavily serialized story, told over 22 episodes, of a man destroying his life and the lives of everyone around him, because he's trying to fulfill his professional obligations as a television host. It was unbelievably funny, and it’s a miracle that it got to 22 episodes at all, because, as a 2015 Vox review that called the show “one of TV’s boldest experiments” said, “Approximately a dozen people watch Comedy Central's Review, and half of them are probably critics.”
The third episode of the series is perhaps the most illustrative of the show's sense of humor. Forrest McNeill receives a submission for a life experience to review: "What's it like to eat fifteen pancakes?" Forrest thinks this is kind of a silly task to complete - he wanted to review the ultimate highs and lows of life, not some idiotic eating challenge! - but his job is to take on the submissions, so he heads to the nearest diner with his camera crew and orders fifteen pancakes. Forrest's experience is miserable: the pancakes aren't hot after the first five minutes, the servers mock his slog through the pancakes, and Forrest eventually vomits in the parking lot. Eating fifteen pancakes in one sitting is awful. It's not at all what Forrest envisioned for his show. He glumly submits his review back in the studio. "Eating fifteen pancakes: half a star."
Then the second submission comes in: "What's it like to get divorced?"
Forrest is stunned speechless by the submission; he is, of course, happily married with a supportive wife and lovely home in suburban Los Angeles, and really has no desire to get divorced at all. But, after some egging on from his producer, Forrest makes the decision: if his job is to review the full range of what life has to offer, then he has to divorce his wife in the service of the show.
What follows is a squirm-inducing scene in which Forrest shocks his wife by demanding a divorce, shattering her life. She all but breaks down, and Forrest, clearly upset by the damage he’s doing to her, reluctantly presses ahead and says that the divorce has to happen, avoiding talking about the show and instead lying about how he can’t stand his dedicated and kind wife. She asks, in anguish, what’s going to happen to their son, and Forrest winces because, of course, he forgot about his son when deciding to get divorced so he could have an interesting TV show. Shame and fury and guilt and betrayal and regret play out over the course of minutes, and you stare in open-mouthed horror at the brutal domestic drama playing out in front of you, all for the dumbest reason possible. At the end of it all, Forrest returns to the Review studio and stands there silently, staring at the ground, while his co-host looks on, mouth agape. There is no star-rating of getting divorced. Forrest is too broken to say anything more.
But we’re only fifteen minutes into the episode, and finally the third submission comes in: “What’s it like to eat thirty pancakes?”
After some work to confirm that the submitter was, in fact, a different person than the one who submitted the “fifteen pancakes” challenge, Forrest shambles back to the diner, where the servers make fun of him again. But Forrest refuses to let thirty pancakes break him. As he narrates, plowing through the ten tall stacks, a look of grim determination on his face, “I knew that the pancakes could not kill me…for I was already dead.” He finds something life-affirming in the challenge and holds his head high as he walks out of the restaurant, until he has to vomit in the parking lot again. The final review? “EATING THIRTY PANCAKES: FIVE STARS!” This was probably the hardest I had laughed at an episode of television in a year.
Shortly before I wrote the first draft of this essay, a German law firm released a 2,000-page report on clergy sexual abuse in the diocese of Munich over the past several decades. The story is basically the same as all of the other stories: hundreds of children were abused, and the bishops who ran the diocese knew about it and did next to nothing to prevent or stop it. One of the bishops faulted by the report was Joseph Ratzinger, who was bishop of the diocese from 1977 to 1982 and, of course, eventually became Pope and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who, of course, is still around. Benedict did release a statement in response to the law firm’s report, and the statement did seem to express some regret for his actions, but it was also accompanied by a separate statement from Benedict’s attorneys that said the report “contains no evidence for an allegation of misconduct or conspiracy in any coverup, on the part of Benedict.” So, maybe he didn’t feel any regret at all, since his official position is that he did nothing wrong.
Ultimately, Benedict had a job to do in Munich. He had to take care of the diocese that he oversaw and the church he loved. That job didn't extend to doing anything about heinous crimes that his employees were committing, about the suffering that he had the power to stop but chose to ignore. In fact, in order to keep doing the job effectively, without interruption or distraction, he had to carry on as if none of that was happening at all, and as if he certainly couldn't have done anything about it. And in order to keep doing the job, he had to maintain that position decades later, long after it made any sense to do so.
You see where this is going.
Again: the episodes of Review are not isolated sketches. The damage to Forrest’s life compounds in each episode, and the consequences of one review can easily spill over into subsequent reviews and episodes. A large part of the series focuses on Forrest’s unsuccessful quest to win back his ex-wife, and his continued descent into misery as the failures pile up. One notable segment was when Forrest got the submission “space travel”, and paid tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to secure tickets on a low-orbit passenger space flight with his former father-in-law, in order to impress and win back his ex.
The father-in-law - played by the legendary Fred Willard - is so excited to travel into space and share this experience with Forrest. He even tells Forrest that he'll put in a good word with the ex, he's just so grateful to get a chance to go into space. Forrest, obviously, is thrilled; so thrilled, in fact, that he kind of rushes through checking Willard's safety harness before takeoff. So when the rocket launches, Willard flies out of his seat, hits the ceiling, and dies. His corpse floats throughout the cabin, ruining another passenger's planned marriage proposal. Needless to say, Forrest does not win back his ex-wife as she comes to pick up her father from the flight and finds him getting carried out in a body bag.
But traveling to space is still a once in a lifetime experience, so Forrest's final review is "a VERY SOMBER...five stars".
I used to spend a lot of time writing about how the American bishops responded to the protests for racial justice during the summer of 2020. Generally, they didn’t respond well. Many of them decried property damage, much more severely than they decried any extrajudicial murders at the hands of the state. Some of them performed public exorcisms to try and make amends for toppled statues. Some of them denounced Black Lives Matter and similar movements as “pseudo-religions, and even replacements and rivals to traditional Christian beliefs”, and told protestors to go home because “who even remembers George Floyd anymore?”. As Americans took a harder look at their history and how the powerful tend to treat the powerless in our country, the bishops - bishops of a church that had been a major institutional slaveholder, cheerleader for segregation, exterminator of indigenous people, and vocal opponent of racial equality at various points in its history - maintained that we had nothing in our history to be ashamed of.
Did they not see the video of George Floyd’s murder, which was seen worldwide and also submitted as evidence in a nationally prominent murder trial? Did they not see the videos of the other murders before that? Did they not see the people in their diocese bleeding and starving and dying, suffering as their neighborhoods are choked out of resources and converted into fascist police states? Did they not see the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, globally?
Or did they actually see all of that and think “there’s not anything even worth paying attention to here”? Was it all just something that was getting in the way of them doing their job? Were the bishops just dead set on spewing their talking points and sitting in meetings and managing the funds, and did they just see the overwhelming suffering in the world as something they just kind of had to press through in order to keep doing their jobs? And what does that say about what their jobs actually were?
You see where this is going.
After multiple failed attempts to enter the mile-high club, Forrest uncomfortably thrusts into a sex worker in an airplane cabin while his tweenage son watches. After a misunderstanding caused by spending too much time researching conspiracy theories, Forrest shoves his producer off a bridge, permanently paralyzing him from the neck down. After being asked to start a cult, Forrest finds himself responsible for dozens of deaths when an FBI raid goes awry. Forrest impersonates "being a little person" by walking on his knees, but after refusing to return to his normal height to reach a fire extinguisher, he ends up burning down his father's house. Forrest uses his once-a-season veto after a viewer suggests he review "murder", but when a different viewer in the same episode also submits "murder", well, Forrest finds himself without many options. He gets stranded at sea, imprisoned, committed to a psych ward, shot with an arrow, kicked out of an orgy. All of it is anchored by Andy Daly's brilliant comedic performance as Forrest, who begins each episode with a happy-go-lucky curiosity that quickly turns into gibbering madness as he digs irreparable psychic scars into himself and everyone he loves, as his misery gets deeper with each episode. Through it all, Forrest never loses his hardheaded view of what he's doing and why he's doing it: the job is to host a television show where you review things. Everything else is secondary, and it doesn't matter who else gets hurt or dies.
At the time I’m writing this, over nine hundred thousand Americans have died from COVID. By comparison, seven hundred thousand soldiers died in the Civil War. I’m not really sure what the job of the Catholic church is during a global pandemic, but I figure it can’t be “pretend it’s not happening and actively resist anything that could make it better”. But that’s what the bishops did. They said the disease wasn’t serious enough to make us change anything we did, even if it was out of concern for protecting others. They said maybe the disease wasn’t even real. They said the people who were suffering didn’t matter because they were probably going to die anyways. They said that we couldn’t force anyone to get vaccinated or wear masks or do anything that might help each other out, because personal freedom was the most important thing to protect as the bodies piled up. They said we had to vote to re-elect the man who let it get this bad through his own vanity and ignorance, who was sending us off to our deaths.
I’ve lived through a lot of once-in-a-lifetime scandals in the Catholic church, but nothing shook me - continues to shake me - like the American bishops’ response to the pandemic. The sex abuse scandals are appalling, of course, but a bishop trying to cover up sexual predators in his diocese is acting out of an uncomplicated fast-twitch desire to protect himself legally; even if covering up abuse is horrible, a person scrambling in the interest of self-preservation is not exactly a mystery.
But this pandemic. There’s no way that the bishops didn’t see this suffering. People are sick, they’re worried about their children, there are hundreds of thousands of families with orphans and widows and lost grandparents. Students saw their teachers die. Parishes saw their musicians and readers and ushers die. And there were things we could have done to prevent those deaths, to display the bare minimum of concern, to look at the person next to us and say “I would take on a mild inconvenience because I don’t want that person to die”. And we didn’t do them. And part of the reason for that is because the men in charge of our churches said that doing it was a sign of weakness, a sign of wokeness, a sign of Satan, a sign of disrespect for life or freedom or whatever. They found some explanation that didn’t make any sense and they had to stick with it. That was the job. The job was not to respond to the suffering, or even notice that the suffering was there. It was to plow ahead, no matter what, without regard for the damage.
You see where this is going.
As you have probably guessed from the first few thousand words, this is a piece about Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day occupies a unique position in Catholicism; she didn't grow up Catholic and then draw from her understanding of Catholicism to try and change how power worked in the world. Day was active in the IWW, in socialist and communist politics, in militant labor activism to upend the existing structures of economic power…and then she converted to Catholicism. And she didn’t convert to Catholicism because she thought the Catholic church was doing a very good job challenging the existing power structures. She thought the opposite, as she wrote in her memoir The Long Loneliness:
"The scandal of business like priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, the worker, the Negro, the Mexican, the Filipino, and even the oppression of these, and the consenting to the oppression of them by our industrialist-capitalist order - these made me feel often that priests were more like Cain than Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” they seemed to say in respect to the social order. There was plenty of charity but too little justice.”
I don't know, maybe that's not blunt enough for you, so here's another passage that says - I don't know if any of this sounds familiar to you - that times were extremely bad, people were suffering, and the leadership of the Catholic church wasn't doing shit:
"More and more people were losing their jobs, more families were being evicted, the Unemployed Councils were being formed by the Communist groups and the Workers Alliance spring into existence. It was a time for pressure groups, for direct action, and radicalism was thriving among all groups except the Catholics. I felt out of it all. There was Catholic membership in all these groups of course, but no Catholic leadership."
It's remarkable that Day came to the Catholic church, considering that she was very good at recognizing and responding to suffering, and thought - correctly - that the authorities in the Catholic church were extremely bad at those things and woefully unmatched for her moment in history. It almost suggests that Day trusted the suffering around her as a more urgent and consistent moral authority than the men who were supposed to be the actual moral authorities. And perhaps that is what made her a better Catholic than most of us.
Day didn't come to Catholicism for anything that her priests or bishops were saying or doing. She didn't even come for the actual teachings of the Catholic church on the poor, even though that body of teaching is very good and Day would have agreed with most of it. But she didn't know about any of Catholic social teaching when she converted:
"...a priest wanted me to write a story of my conversion, telling how the social teaching of the Church had led me to embrace Catholicism. But I knew nothing of the social teaching of the Church at that time. I had never heard of the encyclicals. I felt that the Church was the Church of the poor, that St. Patrick’s had been built from the pennies of servant girls, that it cared for the emigrant, it established hospitals, orphanages, day nurseries, houses of the Good Shepherd, homes for the aged, but at the same time, I felt that it did not set its face against a social order which made so much charity in the present sense of the word necessary. I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions."
Day didn't become Catholic because the church was especially good at helping the poor, but because the poor people were all in the church. Day saw people suffering in front of her, and to keep the suffering people in front of her, she became Catholic. She became a member - and maybe someday a saint - in the church that inspired her to say, uh, "charity was a word to choke on". But the way Day saw it, she never really had a choice. She had to choose the side of those who were suffering, and that is what led her to her faith:
"It is natural for me to stand my ground to continue in what actually amounts to a class war, using such weapons as the works of mercy for immediate means to show our love and to alleviate suffering...Going around and seeing such sights is not enough. To help the organizers, to give what you have for relief, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty for life so that you can share with your brothers is not enough. One must live with them, share with them their suffering too."
I don't see a lot of myself in Dorothy Day; to make a bold statement, she was a better person than I am. But let's think about how she saw the church in her era, and specifically how she saw the authority of the church, the ability of the bishops and clergy to tell people what to do and what to care about. It does not appear that Day put a lot of value in that authority, because she saw suffering around her all of the time, suffering that was getting worse, and the church authorities were choosing to ignore it, or remain complicit in the systems making it worse. They stood up and said the same stupid things they always said, while obvious suffering - suffering that nobody had to look very hard to find! - played out in front of them.
But Day became Catholic anyways, because of the suffering. That was the authority she trusted, more than the bishops, to tell her what to do and what to care about, and she trusted that recognizing and responding to it would be inseparable from being Catholic.
Take a second and think about how you respond to authority in your life. Not just in the church; it can even be somebody on TV or in the government telling you that “you should do this” or “you should care about this”. You will make some assessment on the value of this person’s authority, and probably land on either “okay, this person makes sense, maybe they know something I don’t, I’m going to listen to them” or “I don’t need to listen to this guy and he can piss up a flagpole.” If you’ve read any of my previous writing, you already know that I tend to place Catholic bishops into the latter group. I was never especially subtle about it. I called Charles Chaput a "shithead". I called Tim Dolan a "perpetual disappointment". I called Thomas Tobin a "vile online troll", "one of the biggest assholes in the episcopate", and a "stupid thirsty shithead" because I felt the original insult I drafted, "thirsty little bitch", was too gendered. I suggested that people should physically block Charles Thompson from using public restrooms until his body exploded from being too full of pee. I called Robert Barron a "guy that looks like a ham who got surprised," which seemed to really resonate with my readers for some reason. I compared Jerome Listecki, unfavorably, to David Cross' character in the 2006 Amanda Bynes movie She's The Man. And, in perhaps the most devastating insult ever lobbed at a church prelate, I called Salvatore Cordileone "just some guy".
All of these insults, and the ones I haven't listed here, to be clear, still hold up, and listening to American bishops tell you what to do and what to care about inevitably feels like taking a trip to Dipshit Night at the Asshole Club. But there's a reason that it feels that way, there’s a reason why I assess their authority in this way, and it has to do with suffering. These men would have no trouble finding suffering in their diocese, and in many cases, they even cause that suffering, through the policies they implement upon their employees, through their advocacy for policies and politicians who starve people of resources and inflict state violence upon them, and, in some cases, through their vigorous efforts to cover up clergy sexual abuse instead of doing anything to address it. This is real, material suffering that makes people literally bleed and starve and die. Unarmed men get shot by the police, people lose their jobs for stupid reasons and can no longer provide for their families, the elderly and vulnerable die of a preventable disease, children get abused.
Not only is it real material suffering, it’s suffering that reveals long-standing structural problems - a prolonged abuse crisis, a once-in-a-century pandemic, a reckoning over racial injustice - and the knee-jerk response of many of our bishops isn't a disagreement on how best to address that suffering, it's to assert, loudly, that the suffering isn't even there. They say we shouldn't change any of our behavior because of a pandemic, sue the government to get out of capacity restrictions at Mass, and roll back mask mandates in diocesan schools, all as thousands of bodies drop around them. They tell protestors to go home, call "wokeness" "vile" and "repugnant", and refuse to engage with the history of their own church, a church which kept very good records on which slaves we bought and which indigenous people we whipped. They say we need to move on from the sex abuse crisis, as more stories come out, more people get implicated, and the responsible parties stay in positions of power.
So I don't put a lot of stock in the authority of the bishops we currently have. I say “these guys don’t know what they’re talking about” specifically because it’s so easy to find suffering today and they can’t see it. I don't care if they're the successors of the Apostles, and you have to wonder if we really couldn't have found better successors than these. As long as a bishop can’t recognize or respond to the suffering right in front of him, his authority isn't worth dick. And suffering is a very interesting way to assess authority, because it’s very hard for people to deny that suffering is happening right in front of them, and when they do deny it, you find it a lot easier to dismiss the value of their authority. A bishop who can’t respond to the suffering right in front of him is less a shepherd and more, say, a television host, making the lives of everyone around him a living hell, hitting his marks and reading his lines without regard for any consequences.
I've been far less adversarial towards Pope Francis than I have been to the guys who work for him. The reason for that is not because I think he's a secret leftist who's going to make the church more leftist (he's not), and it's not because I love everything he's said and done (I don't). The reason is, once again, how he responds to suffering. In many cases when Pope Francis writes and speaks, and especially in what he’s said during the pandemic, he actually talks and acts like he knows that people are suffering and that, even if he can't fix it, he can at least acknowledge it and do something, anything, to try and ease some of that suffering. As I’ve written about before, he went out into St. Peter's Square, two weeks into the pandemic, to say that this event was going to change the world, and we couldn't pretend like nothing was happening. He said that the pandemic had exposed all of the other structural problems that had been causing us so much suffering for decades, and that we had a chance to address them head-on in the wake of this crisis. And those words, by themselves, aren't going to get us out of the pandemic, but god damn it, he's at least doing the bare minimum, and his bishops aren't. So I pay a little more attention to his authority, because he can at least see when someone is suffering right in front of him.
That same year, Franci released his encyclical Fratelli Tutti; a central piece of the encyclical is an in-depth analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which contains this passage that I’ve cited in multiple pieces and that still sticks with me a year and a half later [emphasis mine]:
“The parable is clear and straightforward, yet it also evokes the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters. Sooner or later, we will all encounter a person who is suffering. Today there are more and more of them. The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders...It is remarkable how the various characters in the story change, once confronted by the painful sight of the poor man on the roadside. The distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth.”
This is not subtle and it’s not supposed to be. Pope Francis is literally talking about “every economic, political, social and religious project.” He is saying that the only distinction between the characters in the story, and the people involved in any of these projects, is whether or not they help the suffering person in front of them. He is saying that being the kind of person that helps to ease the suffering in front of you makes you a fundamentally different kind of person in the eyes of God. When it comes to authority, this is the kind of thing that makes me say “okay, this person makes sense, maybe they know something I don’t, I’m going to listen to them.”
Should the Christian life on Earth be, primarily, a material response to the suffering in front of us? If our bishops can’t bring themselves to respond to obvious suffering in front of them, have they failed in their roles, and is their authority worth anything? I’m not a good enough person to answer these questions, but our God, in pretty unambiguous language, does tell us that the people suffering in front of us are blessed, and that He will personally view the way we treated them as the way we treated Him.
In the final episode of Review, Forrest's ex-wife makes one final plea for his safety. She submits "never doing reviews again" as his next experience for review, hoping she can finally convince him to abandon the show, stop destroying his life, and return to his family. Forrest can't do it; he's too committed to the show. He uses a veto, makes the final choice of his show over his wife and son, and pulls his next experience to review: "getting pranked".
As Forrest excitedly awaits a prank, he's informed by his producer that "Review with Forrest McNeill" has finally been canceled. As the crew packs up and the studio begins to shut down over the next few days, Forrest is convinced that none of it is real, that he's just witnessing a delightfully elaborate prank. Finally, he's gotten a review that's fun and entertaining, made even more enjoyable by everyone else on the show warning him that no, this isn't a prank, the reviews are over, this is real, you're not hosting a show anymore. You have to go home, you have to live a different life now, you have to maybe face the consequences of everything that has happened over the past 22 episodes. Forrest is delighted by all of it - such great commitment to the bit!
So it all goes over Forrest's head, and the final scene of Review is him shouting out a bright-eyed "Getting pranked: FIVE STARS!", by himself, to an empty, echoing television studio. There's probably not a metaphor for the Catholic church anywhere in there.