My wife and I don’t watch any shows with nudity or gratuitous sex scenes. This is a personal choice we’ve made, and we don’t make a federal case out of it. I know plenty of good, moral people who are just fine seeing naked bodies and sexy depictions of sexy sex while binging their favorite shows. If that’s you, then I’m not going to judge you for it. (I will, however, lift you up before the Lord in my prayers tonight.)
Before you can enjoy your Game of Thrones burrito, VidAngel presents a variety of fillings from which to choose . . .Of course, holding to this self-imposed restriction means that I miss out on a lot. A show like Game of Thrones, for example, is completely off-limits, no matter how many times you tell me, No really, it’s literally the best show ever, man. I’m sure it’s great. But I’m also culturally savvy enough to know that Game of Thrones is notorious for cranking up its HBO-mandated quota for sexy sex to the extreme (and that’s to say nothing of its repeated depictions of rape and an impressively above-average amount of incest).
Call me old-fashioned, but as much as I really want to see a big-budget, epic fantasy series on TV, I don’t want to see that.
But last week, for the first time ever, my wife and I binged several episodes of Game of Thrones, and we did it without witnessing a single frame of nudity. You may ask, how is that even possible? Allow me to introduce you to VidAngel.
VidAngel is an online streaming video service that connects directly to your existing Netflix or Amazon account. For $7.99 a month, you can stream shows from either of those services while skipping or muting all the nasty bits you don’t want to see or hear. Whether it’s naked bodies, violence, drugs, or colorful language, if it’ll make you blush in front of your pastor, VidAngel probably has a filter for it.
But there’s a catch.
VidAngel operates in legally murky territory. It turns out they don’t actually have permission to filter the studios’ copyrighted material. And while VidAngel insists their service is 100% legal under the provisions of the Family Movie Act, that hasn’t stopped studios like Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros from dragging them to court to shut them down. Likewise, they don’t have an agreement to sync with Netflix or Amazon either, which means there’s no guarantee that your account will actually keep working if VidAngel finds itself on their bad side.
In addition to the legal questions it raises, I also found that the process of deploying VidAngel’s filters was one of the more awkward TV viewing experiences I’ve experienced (and yes, I’m including that time we all watched Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?).
Let me explain it this way: most people attracted by the promise of filtered entertainment will sign up for VidAngel assuming (like I did) that it’s akin to ordering from a McDonald’s drive thru: “I’d like to order an episode of Game of Thrones without nudity, please.” Instead, it’s a lot more like walking up to a Chipotle counter. Before you can enjoy your Game of Thrones burrito, VidAngel presents a variety of fillings from which to choose, except it’s actually a list of every conceivable moment of sin or vice that can be excluded from your evening entertainment. I found that by choosing the things I wanted to leave out of my show, I couldn’t escape a nagging sensation that I was somehow admitting a desire to see everything else.
Picture for a moment how it feels to nuzzle on the couch with bae and fire up the ol’ VidAngel account:
OK VidAngel, show me Game of Thrones without nudity.
We can do that. Are we talking about male nudity or female nudity? Or both?
Sure. Do you really mean all the nudity, or just the nudity in sex scenes?
Seriously, just remove all the nudity.
There are sex scenes that don’t have nudity. Are you okay with that?
Oh, good question. I guess I’m fine with that.
Actually… [mentally reciting Job 31:1] …no, let’s remove that too.
How do you feel about implied sex?
Does “implied” mean you know that people are having sex, but you just can’t see it?
It’s just a yes or no question. Do you want it?
Yes, I guess.
There’s cleavage in some of these episodes. Do you still want us to show you the cleavage?
[starting to sweat] I wasn’t expecting—
Yes or no?
Yes. My God.
Should we take out all the suggestive dancing?
No, don’t take it out.
So you like suggestive dancing?
I didn’t say that.
But you’re okay with it?
Um. Yes, I’m okay with it.
What about kissing?
I’m not worried about kissing.
Yeah, but some of the kissing is really passionate.
It’s fine, really.
Homosexual or heterosexual kissing?
Oh dang. Gimme both.
In the off chance anyone at VidAngel is reading this, I suggest you guys add a disclaimer to your website: WARNING! Our filter selection process may make you feel like a big pervert.
I kid. Because while I found myself laughing at the awkwardness of telling VidAngel to leave in the “suggestive dancing,” it nonetheless forced me to think critically about why I watch the things I do. What does it say about me if I’m presented with the opportunity to remove every objectionable moment from my viewing experience, but I proceed anyway?
Perhaps we’ll soon live in a time when VidAngel (or some similar service) is as ubiquitous as Netflix, where not only can we practically watch every show on demand at any moment, but watch it on our own terms, filtering every possible moment of discomfort away from our watching eyes. While it may be a helpful tool to have (I’d certainly appreciate some aspects of this), taken to its extreme, we’d probably lose something of value in the process.
Arguably one of Jesus’ most beautiful parables is also the most salacious when you think about it. Imagine if Hollywood ever made a true-to-life adaptation about a young man who squandered his father’s wealth by “making it rain” with a bunch of sex workers. Do you suppose VidAngel would need to create some filters so that people like me would feel comfortable watching something like that?
I know, I know. That analogy only goes so far.
The part I’m leaving out is how images are pesky, powerful things, especially when compared to oral or written stories. Even though it’s biblical to learn cautionary tales about depravity, that’s not the same as watching depravity with an uncritical eye, expecting I could resist using explicit entertainment to indulge every sinful, lustful desire of my heart. Especially not when shows like Game of Thrones are intentionally engineered to be as sexually tantalizing and alluring as possible.
I let my free VidAngel trial expire a few days ago, but I’m not writing it off completely. In a lot of ways, despite the awkwardness of it, I still see a lot of value in a service that lets me skip past the most triggering or unhelpful aspects of my entertainment. One day I may feel compelled to go back and finish Game of Thrones LITE.
But for now, I think I’d rather just operate the way I’ve always done. If I really have that much of a problem watching something, it’s no skin off my back to not watch it at all.