Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons in Pop Culture

HBO's Room 104

Peculiar Portrayals is our segment that dives into the ways Mormons are portrayed in film, television, and literature.  We look at common themes, tropes, and trends when people outside of the LDS faith depict Latter-Day Saints in pop culture.

Airing every Friday night on HBO at 11:30 is the anthology program Room 104, brought to us by Mark & Jay Duplass. The premise is simple enough: the series is set in a single motel room that explores the stories of different tenants week to week. Some are funny, some are scary, some are moving. So far in the season there are episodes dealing with spirituality and the supernatural. The 7th episode of the series features a companionship of Mormon missionaries who start to question their decision to be faithful elders. Before we dive into the portrayal of the elders, here's a play-by-play of the episode:

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Synopsis

Two missionaries return to their motel (yes, they're staying at a motel) and one of them, Noah, begins to wonder what they are doing on their mission. They haven't seen any success and he has his doubts about the work. He suggests spending their mission money on orphanages and says he has a hard time dealing with his “urges.” He also says he had coffee a few weeks prior at a Holiday Inn Express (Why the heck are these elders frequenting so many hotels?). His companion, Joseph, freaks out and begs him to pray with him to ask Heavenly Father for forgiveness. But Noah has more to say. “I'm 20 years old and I have urges. I feel them. Is that a sin?” Eager to erase the tension in the air, his companion Joseph recommends they pray and ask God for a sign. As soon as he sits on his bed, the TV set turns on and a pornographic movie is playing.

Joseph frantically unplugs the TV and covers it up with not one, but two blankets. Noah sees it as a sign from God. “We prayed for a sign from God and pornography appeared on our television set!” But Joseph is quick to point out that he accidentally sat on the remote. But after the tense night they've had, Joseph seems shaken. We eventually see him sneak back in room 104 carrying a six pack that glows in the eyes of the elders the way the briefcase does in Pulp Fiction.

Joseph explains to Noah that St. Augustine was a very real sinner who later found God and was better missionary because he had sinned so much. He had really tasted the dark side. The elders drink beer, share “wild” stories from their past (Joseph tells how he held his hands up on a roller coaster when the announcer told him not to). They watch some pornography on TV, masturbate, and go to bed.

The next morning, Joseph walks in with coffee and suggests they go to a movie. He is ready for his Rumspringa. Noah is now hesitant to embrace an Augustinian lifestyle. Joseph tries to kiss Noah (because he wants to explore and figure things out), and Noah pushes him back, causing Joseph to hit his head on the nightstand and die. Instead of calling an ambulance, Noah sits at the base of the bed and prays aloud. Eventually Joseph gasps back to life. It's a sign! He has come back from the dead. They eagerly begin talking about missionary work and speak with a renewed commitment to the work. But then, they catch each other's eye and make a dash at each other, chalking it up to St. Augustine before the camera cuts to black.

Analysis

The first image of the episode is a large, orange book titled “Mission Handbook” (seriously, it looks at least 300 pages long). Mark Duplass, who wrote the episode, is highlighting the large amount of rules Mormons abide by rather than showing the actual “white handbook,” the one missionaries really use, which is much smaller and thinner. To outsiders of the faith, Mormonism can seem like a lot of rules. The setting of the episode also makes one wonder what the heck are two elders doing staying multiple nights in a motel? Don't they have an apartment like everyone else? I digress.

To non-Mormons, Latter-Day Saints can often appear to be pretty Victorian. No drinking. No drugs. No premarital sex. No pornography. Not even a drop of coffee. The Book of Mormon musical makes it seem like Mormons deal with their “urges” easily: just “turn it off,” a line which Joseph parrots when he says he has “those thoughts,” he just doesn't entertain them. He just prays them away. So how does one make a dramatic engaging half hour of television when even the clothing of missionaries is boring? Throw in a crisis of faith and a crisis of sexuality.

In the first few minutes, Noah wonders aloud why God isn't helping them after they have been praying for so long. “I'm not sure this isn't a big waste of time,” he laments. These are not uncommon thoughts for a missionary to have. It is easy to become discouraged. Beyond their moments of doubt, the 30 minute format doesn't allow the characters to really develop, so it relies on short hand cliches and stereotypes. They both go nuts when they have a can of beer,  like 13 year old boys who just had their first beer. To non-LDS people, drinking coffee or having alcohol is usually not a big deal. The episode demonstrates an understanding that that is not everyone's reality. With that being said, it happens quickly and dramatically, which sure, perhaps that has happened in the lives of some Mormons, but it's not the norm. The episode is chock full of routine Mormon missionary signifiers: bike helmets, saying phrases like “darn it all” (although, I don't recall any Mormon I've ever met saying that), and praying for the salvation of others. Joseph is portrayed as a hyper-active, uptight Elder who refuses to discuss anything but the positive aspects of missionary work and the Gospel. Noah engages directly with his doubts and entertains them, wondering what it all possibly means.

There is something that resonates about these two young men. They are 18 and 19 years old. They are trying to figure out life and figure out themselves, just like their non-missionary peers. What I found odd about this episode is the rapid pace at which these elders undergo change. Noah doubts himself and his purpose while Joseph doesn't. Then Joseph is suddenly the one going all in, buying beer and coffee, trying to kiss Noah while Noah is the one pushing back. As I mentioned, the 30 minute time constraint does not help. Duplass writes Joseph as being liberated from his constrained and oppressed life. “I think if Heavenly Father actually exists, then I think he was there with us last night. I think he was guiding us through this change...my world has opened up and I can't go back to my old world...I'd like to drink beer and laugh and explore like normal people our age do.” He has recognized he is an outsider and no longer wants to remain as such.

As much as the episode might resonate, it takes some short cuts and makes some long leaps.  I am not saying that no Mormon has ever experienced things similar to what these elders went through.  I am also not here to say that every single depiction of Mormons needs to be sympathetic and well-rounded.  But this episode, as well as films like Latter Days demonstrate a lack of effort to understand what makes Mormons Mormon.  It's not rule books.  It's not substitutes for swear words.  It's not special underwear (which the episode displays but doesn't draw a large amount of attention to).  Yes, to those merely observing followers of the LDS faith, those are often the highlights.  Those characteristics can make for boring TV, so writers are often looking elsewhere to spice things up.  This is another example of a lack of interrogation or thoughtful writing on peculiar people of faith.  This episode doesn't offer anything new; it emphasizes similar themes that the musical The Book of Mormon and other mainstream portrayals of Mormons offer.  In other words, this episode is the same old song and dance (if Mormons were allowed to dance).