GOD in his prime Television: There's a heavenly emanation coming from the small screen, as angels lend helping hands and religious themes get major play.

November 17, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In a television season defined by the abundance of older performers such as Bill Cosby and Ted Danson returning to prime time, there is one such venerable star whose presence and hit ratings have been overlooked: God.

Whether it is CBS' "Touched by an Angel" this month becoming the first overtly religious drama to crack Nielsen's Top 10 during its 46-year history, or Bill Moyers' much-discussed 10-part series about Genesis on PBS, or the Jesuit-educated Frank Pembleton wondering why God allows the kind of evil he witnesses on NBC's "Homicide," talk of God and religion is at a level never before seen in prime time.

"It seems as if it's everywhere you turn this season on television," says Joan Thiel, who teaches courses in television and culture at George Washington University.

"I don't think there's ever been more of it at any one time -- certainly not enjoying the kind of success our shows on CBS are. Clearly, America is sending Hollywood a message that there's a craving for entertainment that deals with religion and values," says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, which airs three religiously themed series.

For its part, Hollywood appears to be listening. In the other half of what's thought of as Hollywood, the motion picture industry, such high-priced stars as Denzel Washington and John Travolta will be playing angels in feature films soon to be released. And virtually every major studio has at least one religiously themed film in the works.

In terms of made-for-television movies, next month brings Elizabeth Hurley in "Samson and Delilah," the latest release in cable channel TNT's highly rated Old Testament series, and Dolly Parton in CBS' "Unlikely Angel."

So much for what some politicians and religious leaders were calling "Godless Hollywood" not too long ago.

Not all talk about God on television is the same. It ranges from classic theology to New Age and angels.

PBS has been in the forefront with a record number of nonfiction series about religion and faith this year. Its five series -- which account for 32 hours of broadcasting among them -- are part of a "national conversation exploring basic questions about our relationship to the divine and holy, the proper place of religion in the public square and what it means to be a good person," says Ervin Duggan, the president of PBS.

Meanwhile, a similar conversation is being carried on in the very different realm of dramas on commercial network television, thanks primarily to the remarkable success of "Touched by an Angel," a Sunday-night drama about two angels sent from heaven to inspire people at crossroads in their lives.

In only its second full season, "Touched by an Angel" was moved to the highly competitive time slot of 8 p.m. Sunday, where it not only beats its competition but has rocketed to eighth overall out of 113 shows (as of last week) with an audience of 23 million viewers. It is a certified crossover mainstream hit that on some weeks draws an even bigger audience than its celebrated lead-in, "60 Minutes."

Two direct descendants of "Touched by an Angel" already have appeared on the CBS schedule as weekly series -- "Promised Land," a spinoff starring Gerald McRaney as a downsized worker who becomes an earthly angel, and "Early Edition" with Kyle Chandler as a former stockbroker devoting his life to helping others. "Early Edition" is the highest-rated new drama of the season.

"We are getting more mail respectively for those three series than any other on our schedule," says Moonves. "They are obviously connecting with viewers in a big way." That's no small claim in light of CBS' other highly rated shows, including "Murphy Brown," "Cosby," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Chicago Hope."

And while it is less obvious, yet another kind of prime-time conversation about God is taking place -- this one embedded in nonreligiously themed weekly series ranging from a gritty drama such as "Homicide" to adult sitcoms such as ABC's "Grace Under Fire." In "Homicide," Pembleton's struggle to believe in God is central to the character, according to executive producer Tom Fontana, and will play a large role in this year's major story line about his comeback after a stroke.

The big question

The question is: Why all the God talk now?

"The subject of religious beliefs and individual values has relevance in different ways at different times," says Kathy Quattrone, head of programming at PBS. "I think currently it's both a personal question many people are seeking to explore and also, clearly, a very public debate as evidenced by the election and many of the issues left as we begin another four years."

Adds CBS' Moonves, "A lot of the time, television reflects what's going on in the country. America went through a cynical time in the 1980s, and now I think we're back to caring more about each other. One message of these shows is, 'Help thy neighbor.' "

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