The Schism Between Faith and Punditry

About three years ago I was visiting with some executives from NBC Entertainment. Asked why their network wasn't airing any family drama series, one vice president gave me this extraordinary explanation: "Ever since Michael Landon died, we just can't make that format work." Several months later, CBS launched "Touched By an Angel." Like Landon's "Highway to Heaven," it featured an angel in the lead role, yet the new series was far more spiritual in nature, and ultimately far more successful in the ratings.

Some folks just don't get it. They just don't understand what the public wants - and doesn't want.

Take Howard Rosenberg, TV columnist for the Los Angeles Times, whose August 6 piece dealt with ABC's fall entry "Nothing Sacred," which has drawn considerable fire from Catholics and non-Catholics. Rosenberg explains that in the pilot episode the protagonist, a young priest named Father Ray, "seriously question[s] the existence of God, [is] tempted by an old flame... [and] counsel[s] an unmarried 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 [Ray's] inner-city parish is adamant about God['s] being female."

Rosenberg writes that "one can see where some Catholics... would be troubled by 'Nothing Sacred,' if not outraged." He also notes "television's near half-century of puking on the pious by either ignoring or denigrating organized religion in entertainment programs." All of this is true, and gives the reader a fairly good understanding why "Nothing Sacred" is yet another example of Disney/ABC's ongoing anti-religious bigotry. Except for one thing. Rosenberg doesn't agree. He's too busy asserting that Father Ray "may turn out to be prime time's most interesting, thoughtful and complex new character, and 'Nothing Sacred' its most challenging new series." In the eyes of the church, Father Ray's pro-choice message is heretical, but, thinks Rosenberg, Ray's "attitudes and behavior, although risky for a priest hoping to keep his parish, seem pretty reasonable to me." Forget that pious tripe about the sanctity of the priesthood, and that a man called to service by Our Lord undertakes a responsibility far more profound than anything Rosenberg (or I) could ever imagine. Rosenberg sees it another way: "The crises [Ray] faces are a dramatic turn-on." Rosenberg's apologia is absurd. He thinks Catholics should take solace in the fact that "'Nothing Sacred' is neither as combative or as polemical in its pilot as 'Stop the Church'" - the 1991 PBS documentary about an ACT UP protest during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Even more inanely, he argues that given the presence of "Touched By an Angel" (which he belittles as "driven by schmaltzy reverence") and other traditional faith-based series, "prime time's house of worship [is] large... enough to accommodate a priest" like Father Ray, even if the Father Rays of Hollywood are created to offend worshipers.

Then there's Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly magazine, who gives the WB network's "7th Heaven," centering this time on a Protestant minister and his family, a B grade. Some of Tucker's reasons for enjoying this wholesome series, however, betray the same naivete regarding religion. "On '7th,'" he writes, "moral lessons are taught regularly but without self-righteousness or cant; this is one of the rare shows in which religious beliefs are shown to be a part of a family's everyday approach to life rather than a set of functions. Wasn't that the beauty of "The Wizard of Oz," or "Miracle on 34th Street"? There may be much truth to what Weinraub writes. But rather than accept it, Hollywood and the public should dedicate themselves to changing it.