Religion tiptoes lightly through the soap

Jeanne Marie Grunwell

January 29, 1992|By Jeanne Marie Grunwell

YOU KNOW, they say everything that happens happens for a reason," offered the convent-bred Jenna in an attempt to console her bereaved boyfriend on a recent episode of the daytime soap opera, "Another World." "At least, that's what the nuns used to tell me."

While this dialogue probably sounded remarkably unremarkable to most veteran viewers, for me it gave new meaning to a conversation I had had earlier in the week with a writer from another TV soap. "We try to be as general as possible in the story lines so as not to offend any one [religious] group," she had explained.

Sensible, I decided. But it got me thinking. Surely there must be some occasions -- weddings and hospital chapel vigils aside -- when soap plots have taken on a religious bent. I managed to come up with a precious few.

In the last decade, soaps have been graced (loosely speaking) by a handful of regular characters who found their calling in the ministry. Rev. Saul Taylor of "Days of Our Lives," for example, was a shining example of humility and faith -- until it was discovered that his ministry was a front for a drug-smuggling ring. "Santa Barbara's" Lily Light was similarly unpopular with townsfolk after the revelation that her revival meetings were a cover for a racketeering scam. Most recently, "Loving's" Reverend Ford, God-fearing man that he was, raped several teen-agers in his parish and tried to finger his stepson for the crimes before the truth was discovered and he was carted off to jail.

In fact, the only truly upstanding minister in recent soap history appears to be Andrew Carpenter, of "One Life to Live." As he only appeared a few months ago, however, it is difficult to proclaim this with the utmost certainty.

Catholic soap clergy seem to experience similar difficulties when it comes to the Ten Commandments. When "Santa Barbara's" Michael Donnelly joined the priesthood, he apparently hadn't anticipated the temptations he would face in Julia Wainwright. It was only a matter of time before they fell into bed together (with Breathe's "Hands to Heaven" as background music). Michael felt obliged to leave the priesthood shortly thereafter. A similar fate was in store for "One Life To Live's" Father Tony Valone, who renounced his vows when he fell in love with the scheming Gabrielle Medina. Both ex-priests eventually left their respective soap towns upon the failures of their romantic relationships.

The road to daytime oblivion may be a short one for wearers of the cloth, but nothing can be compared to the sad plight of the typical Jewish character. Several years ago on "General Hospital," lawyer Jake Meyer became involved in an angst-filled interfaith relationship with devout Catholic Rose Kelly. While he showed considerable religious fervor at the time, upon the arrival of a new head writer Jake was promptly de-ethnicized and married off to ex-prostitute Bobbie Spencer. When "Days of Our Lives" tried to depict a similar relationship between Orthodox Jew Robin Jacobs and Protestant Mike Horton, the plot was hastily short-circuited, despite positive fan response, just as a wedding date for the two had been set.

Robin subsequently left town, and the remainder of her family was never heard from again. More recently, "Guiding Light's" attempt to introduce Jewish fashion designer Matt Weiss as a continuing character fizzled when the show's head writer was fired and her long-term story plans consigned to oblivion. An "educational" depiction of the Jewish Sabbath was squeezed into one episode before Matt decided to remain in New York, and Springfield (the show's fictional locale) became an all-Gentile town once more.

Devout Jewish characters on soaps (as all Jewish characters seem to be) generally can be described as likable, and their faith is usually portrayed in a positive light. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the few pious Christians. On "As The World Turns," for example, Bible-thumping Hannah Lafferty can be described as a "master manipulator," according to Fritz Brekeller, of the show's production staff.

Mr. Brekeller claimed, however, that "it doesn't really have a lot to do with religion aside from the fact that she appears to be an upstanding person." Apparently, then, it only appears to have something to do with religion.

In any case, one current scenario over on "Days" definitely has something to do with religion. In recent months, the Catholic Brady family has found itself torn apart by patriarch Shawn's insistence that his eldest daughter, a recent divorcee, is still married "in the eyes of the church." As his other daughter is dating her sister's ex-husband, the situation has proven rather sticky, sparking intense family strife. Prayer, of course, has never occurred to any of those involved as a possible means to a peaceful solution.

Is it my imagination, or is there a pattern emerging here? And is it really so inconceivable that there are viewers who might find some of these scenarios offensive?

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