Sunday, April 8, 2012

So help you, God: Mentions and omissions of God and religion on Perry

Happy Easter, everyone! I have another special request post that I fully intend to get to this coming week. But today I’ve been pondering on a different topic: mentions and references to God, religion, and books of scripture on the series.

Of course it would be impossible to write such a post without discussing the truncation of the witnesses’ oath in court. In the first couple of episodes it’s complete with the “so help you, God” part (although I think they still omit the Bible). And it resurfaces that way now and then, such as during the coroner’s inquest in The Perjured Parrot. But by and large they do not keep the “so help you, God” part. Sometimes they even cut the “nothing but the truth” part, too.

I have certainly wondered what the explanation is behind this. Contrary to the common thoughts of whether the powers at be didn’t want it there because they didn’t want references to God, I’ve heard that it wasn’t wanted because some God-fearing viewers thought it would end up becoming too trivial if repeated over and over multiple times per episode. I have no idea if either is true or if it was something else. But it does make me roll my eyes a bit that it couldn’t have always been included.

Such a glaring omission doesn’t mean that God and the Bible were never mentioned, however. Particularly in the later episodes, some characters seem to address God with agonized exclamations of “Dear God!” and other variants, and with relieved expressions of “Thank God!” A handful of times, I seem to recall a character outright praying.

It’s unknown if any of the main characters are particularly religious or spiritual. Perry and Della both seem quite up to date on the Bible and occasionally quote verses when they fit into the context of discussion. Paul doesn’t appear able to rattle off verses as easily as they can, and is surprised at their knowledge, but that means little. Some religious and spiritual people love the scriptures, but don’t have many verses memorized. And by contrast, some people not necessarily involved in worship might have verses memorized but mainly be studying for academic reasons.

Sometimes I wonder if Perry might fall into the latter category. He seems greatly interested in the various cultures of the world, judging by some of his art choices in his office (and by the assorted random facts he knows). I can easily picture him studying all kinds of books of scripture from many religions, in his desire to understand people and their beliefs better. But he could be like that and be an active participant in religion, too.

Della I really do picture as a quiet, church-going sort. Who knows; she and Perry might even attend church together and study the scriptures together. Maybe that’s one reason why they can both deliver verses seemingly on cue.

It’s in season 7, episode 14, The Accosted Accountant, when I clearly remember them doing this. Perry mentions a scripture in Proverbs, Paul wonders what it is, and Della quotes it. I seem to remember a similar scene in another episode, but I can’t place where it is offhand.

Several episodes earlier, in The Festive Felon, Perry actually makes a Biblical reference in court. While talking to one witness he comments that she and a man broke two Commandments. I believe it was that the man coveted another man’s wife and the woman stole. Or they both stole. I believe something similar to this happened in another episode as well.

Season 5’s The Missing Melody opens at a wedding rehearsal at a church. Della comments in surprise about the modern music being played by the band. Perry remarks that more and more, some churches are becoming open and welcoming towards such things.

EDIT: Gah, I can't believe I forgot to say anything about The Renegade Refugee, which is not only one of the best of season 5 for me, but one of the best and most unique of the whole series. The murder takes place at a spiritual retreat, and there are several fascinating points of dialogue through, particularly when Perry converses with a monk about Francis of Assisi. (And, as a wonderful bonus, William Boyett appears in a small role.)

I don’t recall anything throughout the series that gives any possible indication of the stance the police and Hamilton take on God and religion.

Of course, Hamilton is quite well-known for his skepticism on anything supernatural and paranormal; we see that in all four episodes that brush such subjects—The Meddling Medium, The Fatal Fetish, The Fatal Fortune, and The Wrathful Wraith. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s also skeptical about the existence of God. It could, but that’s such a cliché in media that I wanted to explore a lesser-visited possibility when I addressed the subject in The Broken Ties. One of my most favorite passages is this exchange I wrote between Hamilton and Mignon in chapter 8:

“Tell me, what made you the way you are? So skeptical, unable to take anything serious if it’s the slightest bit supernatural?”

Hamilton raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think anything really made me that way,” he said. “Well, I mean, if you’re trying to ask if I had a specific experience that made me a cynic, the answer is no. Not everyone who disbelieves had some life-shattering experience that made them bitter. Some people just never see the sense or logic in it. It sounds ridiculous, even crazy, to them.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Now that really has nothing to do with it,” Hamilton frowned. “Yes, actually, I do believe in God. But not everyone who believes in God also swallows everything supernatural hook, line, and sinker. In fact, in some cases it may shape why they don’t believe in stuff like that. I guess the way I look at it, I honestly can’t believe God would’ve created a world where things like magic or spells run rampant. If He’s supposed to be a God of order, then to me it doesn’t make sense. It would result in complete chaos!”

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Mignon said. “But there are so many things that don’t make sense in this world. And there is already chaos without the aid of magic and spells.”

“Exactly. So why make more?”

“I believe that magic can be used for good as well as for evil,” Mignon said. “And therein lies the balance. With a proper balance you have order and not chaos.”

I confess that I believe in ghosts, unlike Hamilton, but on many other paranormal subjects I’m as skeptical as he is. And I do believe in God.

Mignon, by the way, we also don’t really know about where it comes strictly to episodic information. I write her as a believer in vodun, but the episode itself has her relate misleading and inaccurate information on the religion to Hamilton. Since the episode seems in general to stick to Hollywood’s basic incorrect assumptions on vodun, however, I bulldozed that and had her give correct information in The Macabre Mansion. After all, if we are to assume that Mignon is an outsider and doesn’t really know much about vodun, we must also assume that the “expert” Paul talks to doesn’t know much, either—as he delivers misleading information as well. So I prefer to just dismiss all of that and assume that if the writers had known more themselves, both Mignon and the expert would have used proper explanations. (Although it could also be decided that Mignon only knows more Hollywood-ized ideas about vodun, and that it’s the case from hearing them through her various spots as an entertainer. But I think it’s more interesting for Hamilton’s friend to be a staunch believer in the actual religion.)

In the end, it becomes clear that despite the omission of the “so help you, God” part of the oath there are many interesting little theological references throughout the series. That makes me wonder all the more why there was never a Christmas episode. Even though a lot of dramas did not do Christmas episodes in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t unheard-of. Dragnet did several.

Ah, well. The lack of a Perry Christmas episode will remain, most likely, an unsolved mystery.


  1. Very interesting angle on the series. It sometimes seems difficult to find positive, or even neutral, depictions of religous belief systems on mainstream TV; as a Christian I very much appreciate this show's relatively inclusive attitude. And you're spot on that faith in God can (and IMHO should) go hand-in-hand with healthy skepticism in regards to supernatural/paranormal phenomena. Also, William Boyett is awesome.

    On an unrelated note, I just saw TCOT Shattered Dream on my local station. If you haven't seen this one, especially the courtroom scenes, I highly recommend that you check it out.

    1. It definitely is, especially these days. It was much easier in the shows of decades past.

      I was just watching The Renegade Refugee again. That's such an amazing episode. I love when Perry quotes from the prayer in court.

      I'm going to do a guest-star spotlight post on William Boyett at some point.

      Oh, I love The Shattered Dream! Season 2 is filled with so much awesomeness. That's interesting that your station just showed it; mine did the other day.

  2. I've really missed so many of your posts, and guess which ones I'm working through first. LoL. The ones tagged Della Street ofc. Don't say you are surprised. ;o)

    Great choice of topic, religion, btw. I've always loved their quiet way of including spirituality btw, without imposing anything on their audience. Although the PM audience in the 1950s and 60s was probably more welcoming to the topic at large than it is now, 50 years later.
    Personally, I adore Perry's interest in the scriptures and Della's apparent "expertise". I don't know why, but it does ring true to me, too, to see her in church and hear her reciting verses or prayers. Your picture of Perry and Della going to church together made me all warm and mushy inside. :o) You know I'm a big shipper and I def always love those stories that have them secretly (or not so secretly) married. And since spirituality is important to me personally, I guess it just makes sense to break into a smile at picturing my favorite characters showing the same kind of interest - on screen or beyond.

    1. Haha! I am not surprised at all. :)

      Yes, I adore that too. And I love the image of them attending church together. Too cute! Maybe I'll have to slip a mention of that into one of my stories.