I’m tempted to say that a satire on Puritan morality is entirely appropriate at this moment in American history. But a satire on Puritan morality is appropriate at every moment in American history.
Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” used the Salem witch hunts as a way of talking about the McCarthy witch hunts. Though it’s not Arthur Miller, in its small, sitcom way, “Thanks” does lay bare the Puritan underpinnings of contemporary life.
The (impossible) desire for purity of heart and mind is imprinted on the American moral DNA. In its rather heavy-handed tobacco episode, in which tobacco from Virginia is introduced in Plymouth and the town gets hooked, one citizen points out, “I suppose we should try it before we condemn it.” To which the magistrate responds, “We’ve never done that with anything else before.”
A line like that calls this show’s function into question. Who is it for? On the one hand, a program about a Puritan family in colonial New England has all the outward trappings of a family show with family values for families to watch. Christian families, that is. It appears wholesome — wholesome enough for fundamentalists, say, to view “Thanks” instead of sex-obsessed “Ally McBeal.” On the other hand, that line about trying something before condemning it completely undermines organized religious practice. Would one of the zealots who protested Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” without having seen the movie think that line was funny? Would that person be offended? Ask questions? Get mad? Even though “Thanks” appears on the same network as “Touched By an Angel,” it’s really more about the devil within.
Americans are so titillated by pleasure, because pleasure is still suspect. Can anyone imagine George W. Bush standing before reporters, being asked why he tried cocaine (if he did, in fact, do cocaine) and the man simply blurting out, “Because it felt good.” Which is the most obvious, sensible answer to that question. And yet there is still some tiny, nagging Puritan voice inside the American collective head screaming — as the Rev. Goodacre character does at his “Thanks” congregation — “Fornicators! Sinners!”
All of America’s greatness, and all of its problems, were all there even back then, toughing out the winter in 17th century Massachusetts. It’s worth remembering that not everyone aboard the Mayflower was “one of us.” The ship was divided between the Puritan “saints” and the damned “strangers.” Strangers and saints have been living side by side from the get-go (most often in the same body — just ask the president). “Thanks” gets at the origins of American xenophobia, too, notably in the guise of sensual French fur trappers. When Winthrop erupts after a trapper asks his daughter to a dance, the girl harangues her father, “Because they’re different? You people are so judgmental!” Winthrop retorts, “Well, of course we are! We’re Puritans!”
The funniest gags — and therefore the most disturbing — on “Thanks” are bound up in another kind of religion. Namely, the American national mythology. The ongoing setup in “Thanks” is that everyone wants to high-tail it back to England, where there’s warmth and food. The Winthrop family exhibits a heroic pioneer spirit. Which means they are often the butt of the joke.
When their cabin burns down, even the Winthrops consider packing it in. But daughter Elizabeth reminds her parents, “Think of all the times we’ve had here together as a family — building our own house, plowing our own fields, watching the misty sunrise over the verdant landscape of our new world.” That kind of talk now sounds like a joke, just as arcane and odd as a Cotton Mather sermon warning that “Devils are Walking about our Streets with Lengthened Chains.”
Inspired by her daughter’s words, Winthrop’s wife, Polly, exhorts the townspeople of Plymouth not to give up, proclaiming, “We came here with a dream … that we could build a society based on virtue and morality, that we could make a country every bit as good and noble as our finest dreams.”
“What’s with her?” asks the magistrate.
What’s with her? Fine and noble dreams one minute and xenophobia the next. What’s with her? Schizophrenia. America. Plymouth, Mass.
We’ve all been there.