This week the first season of The Book of Jer3miah concluded, a 20-webisode Internet drama that can only be described as a spiritual thriller based on Mormon themes. Praised as "a tight, suspenseful little series" in a Salon.com blog post, it has garnered a respectable fan base reaching well beyond LDS or Utah audiences. In addition to lighting the blogosphere with animated arguments (as much from within as outside Mormonism), the series has caught the attention of mainstream media, including the New York Times.
Like Mormonism itself, the series is a bit of a curiosity. Its protagonist, Jeremiah Whitney, is a reluctant Joseph Smith figure--in touch with spiritual promptings he both follows and resists, visited by otherworldly beings, but also caught up against his will in a dark conspiracy plot. The closest counterpart in LDS literature is the Alvin Maker character in Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son. But in many ways Jer3miah has more the pulse of the TV series 24--with less gloss obviously, but approxmating its intensity. It has the quirkiness and endangered innocence of Twin Peaks, but without David Lynch's dark vision. What it lacks is any connection with the institutional aesthetic of official LDS films. There is no easy edification, no hagiography, no proselytizing, and certainly no hint of public relations here. Its cousins on the big screen are a few independent Mormon films such as Richard Dutcher's murder mystery, Brigham City, or the lesser known direct-to-DVD spiritual thriller, Perry Shumway's Familiar Spirits. Jer3miah is hard to categorize in both content and form, and that is a very good thing.
One could say Jer3miah is more intimate with things Mormon than more official Mormon productions. For example, inherent in Mormonism is a deep-seated sense of history and a connectedness to past and future generations. The dramatic translation of those concepts within Jer3miah is cliff-hanging events that turn on genealogical information and on strange visitors invoking the ancient Nephite setting of the Book of Mormon. Like the embattled hosts within the more epic portions of the Mormon bible, Jeremiah finds himself facing secret combinations of evil.
Yet Jer3miah has a more contemporary vibe than the costume drama Mormon mini-epics based on scripture. This is hosted on Vimeo and YouTube, and it channels the youth culture of the net generation. The prankster roommates and high-tech surveillance criss cross with Mormon folklore and scripture in a hybrid bound to simultaneously upset and spellbind various audiences.
But the through-line for the series is character, and this gives the series authenticity despite its obviously experimental nature. Jeremiah must resolve his aching need for an orienting identity. Ironically, that is what Mormonism is all about. Latter-day Saints claim an eternal identity; however, the media productions of Mormonism are seldom about feeling all the more lost and endangered for having a spiritual and eternal identity. This series sits on the edge of Mormonism, taking its ideas of eternal progression and individual mission so seriously that the stakes are realized in human terms, with evil as present and potent a reality as God.
The protagonist of Jer3miah fights with his heritage and destiny--almost as though he is director Jeff Parkin's doppleganger. Parkin (pictured here), a popular and outspoken film professor at Brigham
Young University, has called for more authenticity in Mormon
storytelling (see his February 2009 university-wide lecture,“Story and Authentic Messengers: Meditations on Film, Originality and Poisonous Art")
. Jer3miah is Parkin's proof of concept. The series has made waves among Latter-day Saints precisely because he has chosen to make Mormonism central to the
storytelling: LDS youth really do feel a sense of destiny, they really
hear and follow spiritual promptings, and they really do get in trouble
in the process. Following God is displayed as a dangerous prospect in
Jer3miah; not because religion is a fraud, but precisely because it
isn't. I have heard people preach that discipleship is an adventure,
but the idea takes on a whole new dimension when Jeremiah--held hostage
at gunpoint--must choose between his girlfriend's life and breaking a
sacred oath. Believe me, atheists and anti-Mormons will hang on for the
resolution of any of the series' many cliffhangers like this.
Parkin's creation swims upstream against the well-established modes of Mormon media, but there is a confidence to the production, a palpable enthusiam echoed in the fanbase and the ancillary media filling out the series folklore. Not all of this will succeed, but more than enough already has. Parkin is testing the adequacy of new media for cinematic storytelling and for his own religion. It is a brave series for all of that, with good omens for coming seasons.