Peter Jennings took some deserved grief in February when he lent his name to a two-hour UFO special — the kind of aimless, pandering fluff that seems particularly wasteful when weightier topics theoretically should be commanding news division resources. Fortunately, Barbara Walters has made a pretty good living in the pandering-fluff department, which should deflect similar heat from charring this thumb-sucking exercise, which draws justification from the fact that most people believe in heaven, meaning it’s worth two primetime hours to absorb their conceptions of it.
Credit producer Rob Wallace with at least making every effort to demonstrate that ABC took this commerce-over-substance enterprise seriously, enlisting commentary from the Dalai Lama, a failed Islamic jihadist suicide bomber and even the head of an atheists organization. Yet despite input from Maria Shriver and Richard Gere, Jackie Mason and Mitch Albom, there’s no escaping that all this verbiage about who you meet in heaven won’t bring us any closer to answering the title’s two provocative questions.
Cynically, “Heaven’s” most enlightening aspect comes from listening to various clergy, religious zealots and famous people articulate their views, heightening the realization that anyone whose opinion doesn’t mirror your own can very easily sound like a lunatic on this topic.
Evangelical Ted Haggard, for example, states flatly that accepting Jesus is “a guarantee for eternal life” and that everyone who doesn’t is going to hell. This isn’t a new aspect of the evangelical movement, but it’s always a trifle jarring to see someone with such a pleasant demeanor cheerfully sentence every nonbeliever, regardless of their good works, to everlasting damnation.
Walters also tosses out some especially dubious tidbits without documentation along the way, among them the unsubstantiated claim that “18 million Americans may have had a near-death experience.” If that refers to brain-death, and 18 million people sit through all two hours, then maybe so.
Still, all this begs a larger question: So what? Let’s stipulate that most people believe in heaven, and there are myriad variations on what the concept means to different religions. Unless the viewer just jetted in from Mars, it’s hard to see this representing a major news flash to anyone.
Then again, Walters can interview Dakota Fanning with the same urgency as if she were speaking to Tony Blair, so it’s hardly surprising that she’d lend her name to such an endeavor. Besides, listening to a woman discuss happy dogs and cats climbing the staircase to you-know-where during a near-death experience might just be the campiest thing ABC has put on this season, and who can’t use a good laugh around the holidays?