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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV Turns the Other Cheek Again : Television is a victim of the You Can't Win Syndrome. Once, its violence was criticized as unrealistic; now, 'L.A. Law's' Christian character is under fire.

October 18, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

P ow! Bam! Whomp! Crrrrrrunch!

Much of the pummeling of television is deserved. This is a medium that dances around the ring leading with its chin.

Even when it attempts to do the right thing, though, some of its harshest critics (there's a nasty rumor that this category even includes TV columnists) are not mollified. It's called the You Can't Win Syndrome.

For example, for years TV programs and theatrical movies were justifiably faulted for glamorizing violence by sanitizing it: Someone got shot, the victim crumpled to the floor bloodlessly and peacefully, as if suddenly in slumber. No muss or fuss. Next scene, next death. In this milieu, violence was nothing more than a harmless game.

After stubbornly resisting, the industry ultimately came around and began pairing its depictions of violence with the consequences of that violence--the horrible, ugly, intolerable, obscene consequences.

But that, too, has been criticized by some of the most stringent foes of TV violence. A shotgun blast that rearranges body parts and splatters blood? Too graphic, too shocking, too disturbing, the critics now insist.

It's a given that TV is rampant with unwarranted violence. Everyone should oppose violence presented solely for the purpose of titillation. Yet when the violence is not gratuitous, when it is crucial to the telling of the story, when its inclusion is justified, should it still be tidied up?

The too-vivid/not-vivid-enough debate continues with attempts to have it both ways causing confusion.

And now comes a new phase of the You Can't Win Syndrome in the person of the revolutionary--and she's nothing less than that--Jane Halliday, a "born-again" Christian who was one of several characters introduced recently on NBC's "L.A. Law."

Halliday (played by Alexandra Powers) is a newly hired attorney out of Bob Jones University and Harvard Law. What's truly subversive for network TV is not her faith--"born-again" Christians do very occasionally surface there--but that her beliefs aren't challenged in a way that invalidates them.

Because she's a looker, that creep Arnie Becker immediately came on to her. But she sternly gave him what's what, saying she planned on remaining a virgin "until the night of my wedding." You can bet she meant it.

When it comes to all varieties of religion, network entertainment programs have followed a policy of near abstinence that flies in the face of studies that show how significant religion is in the lives of many Americans.

These programs have an especially appalling record when it comes to depicting identifiably devout people, especially Christians. On rare occasions when "born-again" Christians are depicted, they're either demonized or their beliefs ridiculed, as if anyone with such feelings must be either criminally insane or comedic.

So the creation of Jane Halliday should be celebrated, right?

Well, yes . . . no . . . maybe, according to a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece last week by Bob Jones IV, whose grandfather founded the university that bears his name. Jones used the emergence of Halliday mostly to savage Hollywood for its "anti-Christian" bias and to mock "L.A. Law" co-creator Steven Bochco, suggesting that he resorted to a "born-again" Christian character only after failing to hold viewers with "lesbian lovers" and "interracial intrigue."

A bias in television against "born-again" Christians clearly exists. Yet using this occasion to rip the industry for it recalls the old joke about the son who phones his mother, only to have her ask: "So why don't you ever call?"

Although too little and very, very late, in this instance television is calling.

In the 15th of 20 paragraphs, Jones got around to acknowledging that the "L.A. Law" premiere was "surprisingly candid in its portrayal of the hostility 'born-again' Christians face in the professional world." And only still later did he praise "L.A. Law" for having "the courage to introduce a capable, intelligent, attractive character who is also a committed Christian."

And a probable super-heroine?

One got that impression from last Thursday's episode in which Halliday lost a case but possibly won a life, talking her distraught client out of jumping from a freeway overpass by quoting Scripture and telling him that when she feels confused herself, she prays.

Well . . . it could happen.

Yet little is accomplished by supplanting old sins with new ones. Rarely known for subtlety, "L.A. Law" must avoid making its "born-again" character a towering inferno of goodness, a kind of living, glowing, saintly shrine to religious faith who is as unrepresentative as the repellent TV Christians preceding her. Pray for it.

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