“The Family” is best understood as a black comedy. In a comedy, it’s traditional to have a straight man – the character who doesn’t realize he’s in a comedy, and interprets things through the lens of “normalcy” – not quite an audience stand-in, because he doesn’t break frame even when any sane person would be expected to, but someone who in every instance is surprised by the absurdity he encounters.
In “The Family”, the straight man is a Jewish (“I’m half-Jewish, actually”) journalist who ends up researching and for a short time joining the titular Family, or The Fellowship. At every instance, he is surprised that elite power networks would cultivate a facilitation vector that gives them the excuse to be in the same place at the same time, spot talent, and get some free lawn care, in the guise of a quasi religious organization of young people.
In the first episode, we get the thrust of the rest of the show. Jeff, our straight man, is asked by some upper-class family to look into their son, who has abruptly truncated his promising finance career and moved to Arlington to join what they fear is a cult. Jeff goes to investigate and finds the Fellowship, aka the Family, which is a quasi organization of menial service to the powerful that operates out of a mansion in Arlington. Members are invited to join, and spend their day in prayer, household maintenance, and minor recreation, until God tells them it’s time to move on (often to an entry level staffer position serving one of the politicians they had impressed during their stay).
The Family’s primary role is to host nonpartisan prayer breakfasts, including the annual National Prayer Breakfast, invite various government officials, ambassadors, and prominent foreigners to hang out at various events, and generally mingle. That’s about the extent of their nefarious activities. There’s not a single policy ever mentioned in the series that The Family used their supposed influence to achieve – or even a single concrete policy that they wanted on an institutional level. The most we get is the implication that although they counseled a couple of legislators to break off their affairs, they ultimately didn’t try too hard to shun them when they demurred.
The point of such a network is that it doesn’t have intrinsic goals – if it were dead set on prioritizing, eg, restricting abortion, or low marginal tax rates, it would suddenly become just another actor on a stage packed with them, as opposed to the neutral group facilitating a network valuable to all parties. You might as well be upset at the existence of golf, or the Congressional gym.
The novel part of their theology, to the extent there is one, is that leaders are implied to be chosen by God, akin to King David. There is a hilarious scene where a Bill Mitchell lookalike declares by Socratic method at a prayer meeting that King David was allowed to sin because he was chosen, and inquires what they should think of a man there who (uh, hypothetically) had “raped three little girls”. “It’s not my job to judge”, he replies. “I’m here for one thing – Jesus”.
The journalist finds it horrifying that someone would construct ethics by which a set of chosen people would be, because of their chosenness, forgiven their sins (if even they counted as sins) and arrange to cultivate networks of powerful people who can do favors for each other. It’s particularly terrifying that they might pursue a strategy of crypsis where they’re not open about the existence of the network they cultivate. The irony here is hand-kissingly good.
That takes care of the comedic aspect of the series – now, let’s take a look at the horror show.
The cultivated shock throughout the series leans heavily on the implication that nefarious Christians are plotting to secretly control the government via their sinister prayer breakfasts (they take a detour to pile on the vile slander of Maria Butina, that resulted in her railroading and sexual assault in prison, on the basis that she attended some of these breakfasts as a Russian national and so ipso facto a bad actor). This is the same crowd that breathlessly predicted that George W. Bush was going to lead us into a dictatorial theocracy. The experience of the last decade has shown pretty clearly that they don’t necessarily have a problem with a cabal secretly arranging to control the government and railroad all political opposition, as long as they’re the right kind of people.
Nonetheless, given the composition of our ruling class, when you hear “nonpartisan meeting of elites in the name of X” klaxons should start ringing in your ears. “Nonpartisan” of course means united in the service of a higher set of ideals – at this juncture, seeing the priorities of this set of elites, it would be absurd to infer that by this they actually mean the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In fact that last bit, Jesus Christ, is an interesting bit of departure from what hints of theology we get from The Family. They say at one point that “we’re not necessarily Christians, we’re followers of Jesus. We’ve got to take Jesus out of the religious wrapping”; on another occasion they say The Family “helped bring me out of religion and into Jesus”. This should result in a Big Think emoji and a sneaking suspicion that perhaps they do not actually think Jesus is Christ, that is, the messiah, the Son of God, et cetera. There really is no reason to go out of your way to make your tent big enough to encompass that particular heresy unless it actually is a core part of your theology.
So an elite that in some sense “believes in Jesus”, but does not believe he is a divine figure or that he places any practical restrictions on their behavior (in fact the opposite – the fact that they are in positions of responsibility indicates their higher power is down with their behavior), and seems to worship above all else their own worldly power, cultivates a network of young men selected for discretion and absolutely devoted to serving them personally. This starts to look rather less like a spooky Christian cabal and more like the opposite.
Because of the author’s paranoia and projection, we don’t get this exploration of the actual network – just a point-and-sputter on the basis that when two putative “followers of Jesus” meet together they could easily be plotting a pogrom, and that when US politicians meet with foreign dignitaries who aren’t from Israel they’re probably being subverted by “agents of influence”.
Because of these depths of incoherence, I don’t recommend actually watching this miniseries, certainly not beyond the first episode. But it bears keeping in the back of your mind as you interpret the news that according to The Family, “the future king is coming. Not just of this country, but of the world.”