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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Is a Priest With AIDS Too 'Sacred'?

January 09, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Courage has its limits.

Credit ABC with doing what CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB network haven't had the audacity to do. Yet the network daring enough to air and stand behind a revolutionary sitcom about a lesbian ("Ellen") and a bold series about a faith-questioning Catholic priest ("Nothing Sacred") seems to lack the stomach for showing the latter's deeply moving episode about a gay priest with AIDS.

The network refuses to air it, Richard Kramer, former co-executive producer of "Nothing Sacred," said this week.

"ABC's decision to bury it was based on cowardice, cruelty and co-option of the religious right's agenda," charged Kramer, who wrote the hour in question with Father Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest.

Encumbered by lockjaw on this issue, ABC is saying little in response.

Typical of "Nothing Sacred," which premiered last fall, the episode that you apparently won't see is provocative, yet also emotional, thoughtful and the essence of spirituality.

Series protagonist Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) is aware that his close friend, Father Jesse (John Michael Higgins), with whom he was ordained, is secretly gay and HIV-positive. Now Ray, who is straight, learns from Jesse that he has AIDS and spends the hour blowing off his own duties while trying to dissuade his despairing, self-critical friend from leaving the priesthood. Ray knows that without Jesse, his own sense of isolation will increase.

Directed by James Hayman, the episode features a hauntingly symbolic long shot of Ray and Jesse sitting on stairs in a mall between twin escalators carrying shoppers from one floor to another, signifying the two priests' lives being on hold while others live theirs.

Implicit here also is that Jesse has broken his vow of celibacy, as did the lustful straight priest played by Richard Chamberlain in ABC's popular 1983 miniseries "The Thorn Birds," the latter's lapse causing a relatively minor snit compared with the one continually dogging "Nothing Sacred."

In Father Jesse's case, the AIDS episode depicts a Catholic Church of charity, grace and forgiveness, not one of icy severity. "It's not about this man's sexual preferences but about the nature of tolerance and compassion and about trying to get a man who doesn't feel worthy to come back to the table," said executive producer David Manson.

Even so, this religion-affirming episode of "Nothing Sacred" likely would anger its most relentless critic, the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which rigidly sees everything the series does as anti-Catholic and has pressed for a boycott of its advertisers.

Kramer, whose 1998 role with the series is consulting producer, said he and fellow producers were told recently by officials "at the absolute highest levels of the Disney / ABC organization" (the Walt Disney Co. owns ABC) that the AIDS episode "is not going on the air." He would not identify by name those he said had snuffed the episode but said, "They did not want to court what they felt would be the inevitable controversy this show would attract." He added: "They prefer that it be like Mr. Rochester's wife in 'Jane Eyre,' hidden in the attic, waiting out the occasional moan."

ABC's response to Kramer was somewhat less literary, with network spokesman Kevin Brockman declining to go beyond its previous terse answer when asked about the episode's future: "The show has not been scheduled yet."

That reads like code for "Don't hold your breath," given that the 1997-98 season is past its mid-point and that low-rated "Nothing Sacred" is unlikely to resurface next season.

If Kramer is correct about ABC's intent (and his take is shared by Manson), so is his condemnation of ABC, undercutting Disney Chairman Michael Eisner's vow to stockholders Monday that "we will not let a mayor or congressman or a senator or a particular interest group or even a president control our content."

On the contrary, wilting to outside pressure is exactly what appears to have happened regarding the AIDS episode.

Peaceful protest is the American way. Yet scrapping the AIDS hour--one of the show's strongest--would unravel ABC's reputation for daring and signal other special interest groups of all stripes that ABC's spine, in effect, is pliable and negotiable. And by extension, so are those of other networks.

This is a case of shrill resonance equaling might. Although supported by many Catholics, "Nothing Sacred" has been loudly savaged by the Catholic League since its inception, and some Southern Baptists later joined the protest. In urging an ad boycott of "Nothing Sacred," Catholic League President William Donahue has called the show "pure politics [and] propaganda for those whose alienation from the church makes them itch for its radical transformation."

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