TV Gets Religion

A surge in Christian-themed programming could be one more sign of the conservative times. Or perhaps it's the almighty dollar.


April 13, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In the beginning was the Left Behind, The Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ. Then came the re-election of the Bush and all the talk about "faith and values" by prophets of the exit-poll data. Now comes network television trying to capitalize on religion.

That's the gospel behind a slew of new programs, including NBC's Revelations, infused with religious themes, plots or characters. The highly publicized, six-hour miniseries, which debuts tonight, stars Bill Pullman and Natascha McElhone as a skeptical Harvard scientist and an outlaw Roman Catholic nun investigating what appear to be signs of the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelations. Ratings permitting, the producers are poised to make Revelations a weekly series starting in the fall.

Also in production for a possible fall debut as a weekly series is NBC's The Book of Daniel, starring Aidan Quinn as a drug-addicted Episcopal priest who has conversations with what NBC publicity materials describe as a "contemporary cool" Jesus. As if that weren't enough to make the bishop's head spin, Quinn's character also has a daughter who is arrested for dealing drugs, a gay son and a brother-in-law who steals money from the church and is found murdered. Think Robbie Coltrane's Cracker with a clerical collar.

Fox, meanwhile, has a series in the works about an excommunicated priest with a drinking problem who uses a gun in his self-ordained "battle against evil." Titled Briar & Graves, the series is characterized by the network as "The X-Files goes to church." At CBS, there's an untitled series in development about a world-class physicist "with strong religious beliefs."

"The answer in Hollywood is always follow the money," said the Rev. Frank Desiderio, president of Paulist Productions, a Hollywood production company owned by the Catholic order of priests. "Start with the Left Behind books and their $650 million in sales. Then, there's The Da Vinci Code with 25 million books sold, and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with a $1 billion box office. That's where this current wave of religious programming began."

The Left Behind series, written in 1996 by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim F. LaHaye, is a fictional account of the Rapture of the Saints, a biblical story about believers being swept into heaven while nonbelievers are left on Earth. The Da Vinci Code, a 2003 thriller by Dan Brown, involves a secret society dating to the death of Christ. The Passion of the Christ, a graphic crucifixion film, is now the seventh all-time box-office earner in film history.

"You have those three phenomena, and then you have Bush's re-election, which put religion on the cultural center stage - and that's why the networks are now making shows like Revelations," said Desiderio, who co-produced the 2002 ABC made-for-TV movie Judas.

NBC bought Revelations long before The Passion premiered, points out Gavin Palone, executive producer of the miniseries. But he doesn't doubt that Gibson's film catalyzed the current run on religiously themed series.

"I made a pitch to the networks based on certain cultural trends that I saw, " Palone said. "I talked about such things as The Da Vinci Code. But I also gave statistics on the number of people who were Christians who believe that the events as foretold in the Book of Revelations would come to pass [59 percent, according to a 2002 CNN/Time Magazine poll]."

Nonetheless, when he initially made his pitch, neither CBS nor Fox would listen. "If you look at what we've seen on television for the past 40 or 50 years, any time that you have some kind of spirituality scene on camera it's more of the Highway-to-Heaven, Touched-by-an-Angel, Joan-of-Arcadia variety where there is no specificity to it and where nobody is really a Christian," he said.

"Nobody says, `I believe in Jesus Christ.' Nobody ever says, `I believe there will be an end of days coming as foretold in the New Testament.' Nobody even references the New Testament. And that's really surprising since so much of America does think in those terms."

Primetime network television's approach to religion generally has been narrow, peculiar and dominated by superficiality. The first series to feature a religious character - and to become a ratings success - was ABC's The Flying Nun, which went on the air in 1967. It portrayed a flying nun played by Sally Field.

NBC's Highway to Heaven, starring Michael Landon as an angel sent to Earth to spread love while earning his wings, debuted in 1984 and left the air in 1989. It was followed in 1994 by Touched by an Angel, which featured Roma Downey as an apprentice angel sent to Earth to help mortals while earning her wings. Only the gender changed.

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