Let us now give "Thanks" some praise

It's no Arthur Miller masterpiece, but TV's silly, subversive "Thanks" just might be "The Crucible's" sitcom equivalent.

Published August 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"It is sinful to seek any form of pleasure. Overt joy is to be avoided," begins a current magazine ad for a Saab convertible, pictured parked next to a pristine white clapboard church. Headlined "Saab vs. the Puritans," the spiel ends, "Be careful, modern-day Puritans. Who knows what this car could lead to?" Probably cocaine and the theory of evolution, if recent news is any indication. And the modern-day Puritans are out in force.

Not that they ever went away. They're angel-dusting George W. Bush's presidential campaign with allegations of youthful drug abuse. The Kansas Board of Education has evolution in its science testing standards. And why? To stare down the libertines and smite the wicked. To take this country back to its roots -- when there was one all-powerful creator but 80 million rules.

Could nostalgia for the straight and narrow of this country's original Puritan mandate explain the arrival of the weirdest sitcom in recent history? As we stand on the verge of a fall television lineup crammed with yet more slick and sexy teenage dramedies, here comes a situation comedy set in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. "Thanks" (as in Thanksgiving) is meant to hilariously chronicle the Puritans' first year in the New World. Because nothing is funnier than Puritanism, right?

Airing Mondays on CBS at 8:30 p.m. (for now, anyway: How a 17th century concept piece got the network green light is beyond me), "Thanks" focuses on a shopkeeper named James Winthrop (appealingly played by Tim Dutton) and his family. Its frequently clerical humor hinges on a group of Protestant separatists whose sole purpose was to sever ties with the Church of England and sail across the ocean, and who now find themselves freezing and starving to death.

"We're not the kind of people who are easily discouraged by a few snow flurries, a couple of head colds, a 50 percent mortality rate," cries Winthrop. No doubt named for the Massachusetts Bay Colony's John Winthrop, who delivered the famous Puritan sermon, "Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill," Winthrop delivers his own speech to cheer up his grumbling fellow citizens:

I have decided in hopes of lifting the spirits of the community to hold a gathering in the shop tonight. Everyone's invited. There will be music and, well, not dancing, because that's a sin. It will be a, well, not a party, because that would be wrong. But I assure you we'll have lots of, well, not fun, because that's against everything we stand for.

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.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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