I Watched Christian Netflix for a Week and It Was Worse Than I Thought
I love bad movies. When people around me start talking about celebrity encounters, I get giddy at the thought of sharing my, let’s say unconventional, brush with glamorous Hollywood: Meeting Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero of The Room. I imagine no child on this continent has as much innocent joy when they speak of meeting Santa Claus as I do when I think of the uninterrupted 15 minutes that my friend and I got to spend having Tommy make us laugh uncontrollably in our first year of University.
So, when I heard about Pure Flix some time ago I knew it was something I should keep in the back in my mind.
There’s a rip-off of Netflix solely for Christian cinema? Of course I’m interested!
But, life gets in the way and I imagine I might have not had the best luck if I tried to turn movie nights with friends into a cringe-fest of whatever Pure Flix holds in store. So, far to the back of my mind it went.
Until last week, that is. When I woke up groggy, and before my coffee I dared scroll my Facebook news feed. There it was.
I had convinced myself that it was nothing more a nightmarish amalgam of all that I love and hate. Just a foggy memory of an alternate-reality version of Netflix I had created to torture myself while I was too high to use a microwave. An ad on my news feed for Pure Flix. “Free one week trial!” it whispered darkly.
I don’t know if you guys follow the news, but for whatever reason, I’ve been at home way more since Mid-March. Weird, right? Almost like Evangelical Baby Jesus was trying to save me by forcing me into isolation, cornering me with the words of his children. First he sent a literal plague, then he sent that ad. He knew that I had too much free time at home and he wanted, neigh, needed me to experience Pure Flix.
Or, maybe Pure Flix just paid for the ad space. Who’s to say?
One program that especially sold me on to the platform to satisfy my appetite for bad productions was this sitcom that seemed to be front and centre in many of their branding. It’s called Malibu Dan: Family Man. It stars a middle aged man sporting a five o’clock shadow with unusually sharp edges, and hair that’s left to be a little bit wild with frosted tips. That’s right, the year is 2001 when it comes to the style of Pure Flix. Anyways, I watched a P.S.A. on Pure Flix’s Youtube channel regarding Covid before I started my trial. The P.S.A. was from the founder of Pure Flix and… fucking hell, he’s Malibu Dan.
I will feel blessed if at any point in my lifetime I meet someone who’s ballsy enough to make his own version of Netflix and then star in its key sitcom. His real name is David A.R. White, but in my head he’s just ‘Malibu Dan: Pure Flix Man’. Upon flipping through the Pure Flix interface I found out that Malibu Dan stars in an absolutely ludicrous amount of their programming.
After checking IMDB and subtracting the titles that are not Pure Flix originals, I can see that Dan’s been a producer of 48 Pure Flix original shows or movies listed on IMDB. I also know for a fact that his IMDB page is missing some of his acting credits in Pure Flix originals, because I’ve seen him in crap that isn’t listed on there. So, I don’t know how many Pure Flix originals he’s starred in but I suspect the real number is even higher.
From what I can tell, a good portion of the big-ticket original shows that the platform pushes are very evidently made by the insiders at Pure Flix. The same few names pop up as producers frequently and the same actor is the lead in an absurd number of them. You know, that one actor who’s also coincidentally the founder of the whole platform?
The remainder of the Originals seem to come from more diverse backgrounds, and range drastically in terms of studio quality. Some are very clearly amateur or indie productions, and of these only some of them seem to film within their means. A series about a young woman who becomes the legal guardian of her five siblings overnight mostly takes place in easy-to-film locations like people’s houses, and mediocre cinematography can be forgiven when they’re not dealing with fast paced scenes or complicated frames. There’s even a generic crime drama Pure Flix original, and for the most part it seems pretty well put together. The camerawork is good and even if none of the actors are getting put in Scorsese films anytime soon, they give believable enough performances.
These shows seem to be made in the vein of generic television tropes and some, I would say, succeed at being just that at first glance. Unfortunately, that success means that they’re less riveting to watch for the sake of punishing myself and less interesting to write about, so most of the fights I’ve picked with Pure Flix are with ‘insider’ programming like Malibu Dan: Family Man.
The key dead giveaways that most of the programming is still owned by Pure Flix — both first and third party shows — are the fact that none of them run for more than one season (Malibu Dan is the only original I could find with multiple seasons, and the show even changed titles in its second) and the platform’s inability to differentiate between a miniseries of shorts and a television show. By that I mean that a great deal of both of the ‘insider’ Pure Flix shows and the originals that I assume are commissioned or purchased by the platform have run times of less than 10 minutes and last six to eight episodes. So, pound for pound, there’s probably a hell of a lot less total run time for 10 assorted Pure Flix originals combined than any 1 popular network cable show. This aspect of the platform felt kind of cheap to me, I couldn’t help but get the impression that unknowing subscribers would be disappointed in how few hours they’re getting out of the shows.
What’s odd, too, is that the platform does boast what appears to be a collection of classic hit shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Dennis the Menace, but none of these classics are put front and centre on the platform’s layout or on their website. Instead, the take the backseat to anything labelled a Pure Flix original. Which includes, among so much more ‘interesting’ content, the infamous God’s Not Dead.
God’s Not Forcing You To Make These, You Know
God’s Not Dead is Pure Flix’s golden child. Even though its owned by Pure Flix, the film was given a theatrical release and remains undisputed as their most popular film.
Turns out Pure Flix isn’t just a streaming platform, it’s also a film production studio that makes the vast majority of its popular content. I had assumed that Pure Flix’s obsession with emulating Hollywood would mean it was based in L.A., but alas, it turns out Pure Flix is headquartered in the next biggest showbiz town around… Scottsdale, Arizona. This should probably explain to me why the acting pool in their productions appears less than ideal. Anyways, God’s Not Dead stars, among others, a man who played television’s Hercules in the 90s and — you guessed it — Malibu Dan.
A short book could be dedicated just to discussing problems with God’s Not Dead, but I’ll refrain from writing just about that because Alissa Wilkinson — the former chief film critic at Christianity Today — has summed up most of the core issues it has pertaining to Christianity much better than a non-Christian could (and, for that matter, better than an amateur such as myself). I cannot — however — mention the movie without bringing up the absolutely insane subplot of the film’s depiction of it’s only Muslim characters:
- A boy who is first seen playing on what is scripted to be a Gameboy, but is very clearly a calculator with video game sounds edited in after filming. Apparently the Pure Flix guys could afford to shoot on-location in all sorts of College locations but couldn’t afford to borrow anyone’s Nintendo DS.
2. His sister, who secretly falls asleep to Bible readings from Billy Graham’s son on her knockoff Ipod as she converts to Christianity — you know, the one good religion (I say while winking at my computer screen).
3. Their father who obviously beats them. Because, all patriarchs in cultures that we here at Pure Flix deem to barbaric do. He, of course, kicks out his daughter for listening to Bible verses in her spare time. Oh, and it’s not the “you have a week to find a new place for yourself” kind of evicting, he literally just leaves her outside their house with absolutely none of her possessions immediately after hearing of her dark secret. They don’t even have any dialogue to explain the aftermath. All it should take is one line later in the movie to be establish that she’s crashing on a friends couch and her dad left her clothes in the driveway for her to pick up, but apparently that sort of explanation is too complicated for the benevolent scriptwriters of God’s Not Dead.
Obviously as someone who’s never been Muslim I don’t reserve any offence taken from the Islamophobia there, but as a human being living on this planet I do take offence to the monstrosity that is the Minstrel Show of that subplot. For a take from someone who is offended by the Islamophic aspect of it all, you could check out Muslim blogger Daniel Saïd likening a women who was raised Muslim and enjoys listening to Franklin Graham to ‘a fish endorsing a bear’.
There’s also a-not-so-subtle effort to shit on the holy trifecta of words that your MAGA-hat wearing friend from high school gets triggered by:
Leftist. Journalist. Vegans.
One of the atheists ‘saved’ in the film is a Journalist for the ever so realistic fictional Newspaper “The New Left” (There is a real publication called The New Left Review, but it’s unrelated). I noticed that she’s also the only woman in the film who has a career, but I can only make an educated guess if that’s planned. The film makes an effort to emphasize on multiple occasions that not only is she vegan, but she believes anyone who isn’t vegan is “offensive”, as she explains it.
Offensive to whom, you might ask? I guess we’ll never know for sure. Her significant other in the film — played by Dean Cain — is also an Atheist, and naturally he treats her like garbage. I’m not entirely sure if there are any real character themes in this movie, but if there are, I guess that “leftist vegan women aren’t inherently bad, it’s that their victims of their own life choices” must be one.
I didn’t learn anything about the evils of independent newspapers from this movie, but I did learn that someone at Pure Flix was bullied by vegans in high school.
One last absolutely bonkers thing about God’s Not Dead to leave you with: According to IMDB it is currently the 6th most profitable movie in cinema history based on ROI. It’s score on Rotten Tomatoes is 13%.
All that said, I will admit that the theme song is catchy as hell. Seriously guys, it slams.
Trying to figure out the intended audience for what I referred to earlier as ‘insider’ Pure Flix originals feels like trying to figure out a Rubix cube with every other square missing its colour. Every show has the same vibe to it. They’re all acted very plainly, all themes are light and surface level, and all conversations are slow and deliberate. There’s no subtlety or mystery to any of the plots I’ve seen so far.
This all seems to emphasize the family oriented appeal of Pure Flix: The shows are made for children to enjoy, duh. In fact, Disney Channel originals and Nickelodeon sitcoms are pretty much the only shows I’ve seen that I feel like I can compare them to.
Except that most of the conflicts the shows tackle are not child-oriented. The first episode of Malibu Dan is about Dan suffering a middle-aged crisis. I can’t even tell if it’s supposed to have any deeper meaning than serving as a plot device to inject some terrible humour about Millennials, but either way I’m sure the concept — or the millennial, let’s call them ‘jokes’ — are not going to be a relatable to children. The television show Power Couple also emulates that signature Disney Channel Original atmosphere, only to spend more than half of it’s first two episodes on scenes on relatively benign marriage counselling. Probably not the most riveting subject matter for kids who’s attention spans are being targeted by a thousand better programs.
The millennial-targeted quips also break the illusion that the show is apolitical, as do so many badly targeted jokes in other Pure Flix originals. There’s a constant racism-lite brand of Hispanic jokes as a recurring undertone, and despite the fact that it looks like there’s moderate representation of LatinX actors there’s a ton of bits about characters who are supposed to be relatable not being able to tell Spanish-speaking countries apart in Pure Flix originals.
This further leads me to what most of you probably assumed before you knew anything specific about Pure Flix: The shows are written for baby boomers, with the sales point being that they can watch it safely with their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews etc. A great (and terrible) example of that targeting is the entirety of Malibu Dan’s token Millennial character, a young professional woman who works with Dan, presumably in her thirties or late twenties. Despite her age, she mostly speaks in teenage slang, she’s addicted to her smart phone, and one of the jokes at her expense is that she hasn’t ever heard of Paul McCartney. So relatable, am I right?
The thesis I get out of it is that children are our precious little angels, they’re the future, and we the audience are the golden generation. New technology is also bad, and we will do nothing but criticize it and instant messaging as unnecessary complications to our lives.
Resembling Hollywood — Somewhat
Having the means to get Kevin Sorbos and Willie Robertson (no, I’m not kidding) to star in your movie but not the means to get a Game Boy for a scene is just one of many examples of Pure Flix focusing on emulating Hollywood with gaping oversights. (I know, I know, I’m really stuck on the calculator thing. But come on guys, it would have been so easy to hand him someone’s Ipad for the scene). Anyways, Pure Flix is full of these kinds of massive indicators of having low or mismanaged budget, while spending an almost admirable effort to look like bigger productions. From what I’ve seen, it seems like most of the effort is spent on the cast with incredible exceptions (hint: 90% of those exceptions involve frosted tips).
For example, the show Malibu Dan has an assorted sitcom cast mixed with actors who are half decent, and actors who are so terrible they would probably make even a well-scripted show completely unwatchable. Malibu Dan’s wife on the show is played by an actress I recognize from Two and a Half Men. She may not winning any awards anytime soon, but definitely she has enough charisma to pass as a sitcom wife in short doses. I emphasize her role as a wife, because in what I’ve seen from the show it’s been her only purpose. Her and Malibu Dan have a daughter too, but most of her character is really just consoling Dan while she folds laundry or sits on the couch.
In contrast, Malibu Dan the actor (you can call him David A.R. White if you’d like) is generally God-awful. He has exactly one emotional expression and the charisma of a Church potluck egg salad that had been left out for four hours too many. He’s also, in layman’s terms, plain looking compared to most of his female costars. So, imagine watching Emma Stone co-starring in a romantic comedy with Ted Cruz and the whole movie he’s got some gas buildup from a plate of jalapeño poppers he just massacred (with the added knowledge that Cruz is getting paid more). The actress for his coworker on the show is better than him, but still obviously amateur. Turns out there’s a simple explanation for her as well, and that explanation is — of course — that she’s his wife in real life. Shocker.
The Power Couple could be considered student-quality production at best and amateur-quality at worst, but it still had at least enough FX budget to match at least bad early 2000s television. It also starred an actress who I thought looked familiar, and stood out to me as being not horrible. Upon Googling her found out she — Abigail Cowen — plays a recurring role on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and played a minor character on Stranger Things before her Pure Flix role. An impressive portfolio for a young actress, especially considering that this show has an entire ‘restaurant’ scene that’s very clearly filmed in someone’s suburban living room.
Seriously, the scene is supposed to be a first date between the superhero’s marriage counsellor and — unbeknownst to her — the big bad villain in the show. It honestly feels like the start to what I imagine an amateur Playboy-style shoot that got ahead of itself, the key difference being that I’d probably be more likely to let a kid watch this if it ended with a naked lady and not a weird plug for Christian marriage counselling.
So, what I get from Pure Flix originals is that they spend the time and money to best try to resemble high quality productions, but often take too many shortcuts or mismanage budgets enough that nothing I’ve seen so far gets there. It’s like they pat themselves on the back for having a few good actors, then call it day and settle for having the rest of a cast be whoever they bump into at the grocery store. One of the scenes wasn’t shaky? Well, then don’t worry about the rest of the episode being shot with what I assume is a GoPro mounted to a good-natured Golden Retriever.
A Tearful Goodbye
My prior expectations of Pure Flix was that it would be bad, but honestly, not this bad. In terms of quality, it sank below the standards of the worst Hollywood productions in all but one of the shows I tried to watch. Every category would be rated worse than the tackiest D level slasher I’ve ever seen.
I also thought it would try to pander more obviously to the political leanings of its viewers. Exhibit A: There’s obviously no gay characters in any of the shows I watched, but there also weren’t any direct calls against gay marriage that I saw. So, I guess that’s nice? The lifestyles the shows present are about as cherry-picked as can be, but they don’t thrust any outward bigotry on to you (with the glaring exception of God’s Not Dead, which I assume was made just to own the libs). The politics are there, but rather than show a negative impression of alternative lifestyles besides Evangelical ones, the aim seems to be showing you how totally super fun the Evangelical life can be.
From an outsider perspective I’m going to go out on a limb here and say if they were trying to show that to any non-evangelicals, they failed miserably at it. I’m 99% sure that they weren’t, though. I can’t see a world where any of the shit I watched was meant for someone like me.
In the future I’d like to dig deeper to get a better grasp of what Pure Flix is all about. Even with its short run times, the service still has many hours of original shows and movies that I couldn’t get to even with a few more weeks. This experience was only a shallow dive. Next on my Evangelical watch list is probably Unplanned, Pure Flix’s controversial movie about, let’s see here… Planned Parenthood? Yikes.
Upon cancelling my trial, Pure Flix offered me a chance to provide feedback on why I did not wish to continue using their service. I wasted no time in providing Fair and Balanced(TM) criticism:
“You guys are worth 195 million dollars but you can’t afford to put up two shitty paintings from Value Village on the wall to make your restaurant setting as believable as a high school reenactment of Shakespeare shot on one of their older brother’s flip phones?
Next time you swindle technologically inept boomers into subscribing to your Christian Savior service, you should probably let them know that they’re only getting six 8-minute episodes of whatever porn parody you’re pitching that somehow shows less skin while simultaneously being more degrading to the performers than the Digital Playground equivalent, and that they’d probably get more of their money’s worth just emailing Mike Pence’s secret lover their grandkids’ college tuition in exchange for pictures of his naked feet, which I assume is like third base to you people.
My experience with Pure Flix has been so disappointing that I just burned down my local church because it was supposed to be showing God Is Dead 14: God Cocked and Reloaded next Sunday. It’s gone now, but I’m content knowing that I saved them ever being exposed to your service.
The male characters in your shows are actually so repressed in their sexuality that I turned gay watching them, partially as an act of solidarity with and partially as an involuntary side-effect of seeing how incredibly boring all of the women on your shows were for a whole week. If your actors are what men who have sworn off masturbating are like then my promise to G-d right now is to rub seven out by midnight tonight.
Oh, and for the sake of the Almighty Father in Heaven, who’s shaking his head that he murdered all of Jobe’s kids but somehow let this abomination exist for fifteen years, what the fuck is with that calculator?
Peace be with you,
[The alias I used]”
I really did send this to Pure Flix. In my defence, it was late at night and I was exhausted at Evangelical TV Jesus. I also figured whoever (if anyone) checked their support messages would know I was joking and might even get a chuckle out of it. But, the thought occurred to me that that might not be the case and they might take their jobs seriously. So, I also sent them a second letter within ten minutes, with the same first and last name and the same email address to write back to.
“Hey Pure Flix. I just wanted to apologize for the last message my email sent you. I’m not trolling this time, I’m actually just trying to be a nicer person. The idea of an always family-friendly streaming service isn’t a bad one, and although you’re very deserving of some harsh criticism, I shouldn’t resort to jokes about burning churches down. Although many of your programs are patronizing and offensive, that doesn’t mean your support staff deserve to be at the end of my stress-relief strategy of taking all my quarantine anger out to strangers on the internet.
Apologies, and here’s to hoping we all become better,
[the same alias]”