Worshipful TV executives continue to seek divine guidance at the altar of the CBS super hit "Touched by an Angel."
The industry's growing chumminess with religion in prime time charges boldly forward this fall when ABC sends its new drama series about a rebellious young Catholic priest before the archdiocese of public opinion.
Although yet to air, "Nothing Sacred" already has been touched by anger.
It has been denounced by the traditionalist Catholic League, which claims a membership of 350,000, as "nothing more than a political statement against the Catholic Church" and "fodder for dissenting Catholics and anti-Catholic bigots alike." Well, maybe not.
Fact is, Father Ray, the devoutly independent, strikingly fallible, heroically flawed cleric played by Kevin Anderson, may turn out to be prime time's most interesting, thoughtful and complex new character, and "Nothing Sacred" its most challenging new series.
That impression is available, at least, from the pilot episode, which finds Father Ray seriously questioning the existence of God, being tempted by an old flame whose husband is a jerk and counseling an unmarried young woman who is contemplating ending her pregnancy to follow her own conscience instead of the church's stricture against abortion. In addition, a nun associated with his inner-city parish is adamant about God being female. Whoa!
Compared with this, the opening shots of Father Ray in his underwear seem earthily quaint.
There hasn't been such tumult over the depiction of Catholicism in a TV program since 1991, when a stinging documentary titled "Stop the Church" didn't air on the PBS series "P.O.V." after being condemned by some Catholic groups, including the archdiocese of Los Angeles, because of the intense anger it aimed at some church teachings. It later did run on some individual public stations, including KCET, which sandwiched it between talking heads to provide more balance.
"Stop the Church" was Robert Hilferty's low-budget short film capturing the raw rage behind a 1989 demonstration in New York by the boisterous AIDS activist group ACT UP. Incensed by a church they felt had abandoned them, protesters disrupted a service Cardinal John J. O'Connor was conducting in Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral and pilloried him for statements he had made about AIDS and gays, an action that infuriated many parishioners.
Despite its catchy title, "Nothing Sacred" is neither as combative nor as polemical in its pilot as "Stop the Church," even though resistance to tradition in the ABC series comes from inside the church.
Actually, Father Ray's inner conflicts humanize him as being as much a work in progress in search of answers as are those in his flock, and the crises he faces are a dramatic turn-on. Although some of them are too tidily resolved, you get the impression that angst will be no stranger throughout "Nothing Sacred," should it somehow survive long in its murderous Thursday night slot opposite NBC's smash comedy "Friends."
And his attitudes and behavior, although risky for a priest hoping to keep his parish, seem pretty reasonable to me, and the issues he raises about God and Catholicism worthy of exhuming in a prime-time drama. And besides, as the show's producers have noted, he's merely one priest, not Everypriest.
However, as you may have guessed, I'm not a Catholic. I should note also that I was one of those taking issue with the broad depiction of an elderly Orthodox Jew in an episode of "Touched by an Angel" last season. Not that the show's regular trio of angels approaches gritty realism, either.
Yet one can see where some Catholics at the very least would be troubled by "Nothing Sacred," if not outraged. Ever the more so because of television's near half-century, with few exceptions, of puking on the pious by either ignoring or denigrating organized religion in entertainment programs.
That is changing in the mid-'90s, however, as TV, benefiting from a belated epiphany, has begun tapping an audience for holy themes in prime time that industry wizards for years had insisted didn't exist, despite the importance of religion to millions of Americans. In the greatest of ironies, "Nothing Sacred" surely owes its existence to the huge throngs assembling weekly for the latest spiritual catharsis on "Touched by an Angel," a series as driven by schmaltzy reverence as the ABC newcomer is by skepticism.
In another irony, featuring dueling tones on religion, "Nothing Sacred" also will be facing the returning CBS drama "Promised Land," another series sprung from the triumphant piety of "Touched by an Angel." As are the WB Network's returning "7th Heaven," a drama about a minister's family, the returning ABC comedy "Soul Man" and the new UPN gospel sitcom "Good News."
Thus, those faulting "Nothing Sacred" on religious grounds would carry more weight had the series arrived a decade ago or back when Father Ralph de Bricassart was carrying on so scandalously in the ABC miniseries "The Thorn Birds." Prime time's house of worship is now larger and more diverse, enough so to accommodate a priest whose views some consider too wayward to gain exposure on the airwaves.