Networks channel religion

With America frequently cited as the most religious country in the West, characters with personal relationships to God were bound to take their places alongside cops, lawyers and doctors on network television. The question is: What took them so long?

Not until NBC debuted “Highway to Heaven” in 1984, with Michael Landon as an angel sojourning on Earth, did a network plunge into these sometimes placid, occasionally roiling waters. That show’s success prompted rival nets to try similar ventures. Some efforts — “Touched by an Angel” and “7th Heaven” — were even more successful at placing faith center stage. Others — “The Book of Daniel,” “Nothing Sacred” and “Joan of Arcadia” — proved less viable.

Barbara Hall, a practicing Catholic and the creator of “Joan of Arcadia,” suggests one reason it took the nets so long to embrace religion: “I think there’s some hesitancy to turn this subject into entertainment.”

Yet, once popular examples overcame that barrier, the nets realized they had tapped into something powerful. “Everyone has a relationship to this subject, even if it’s that they don’t buy into it,” Hall says. “I just think it’s a fascinating discussion to be had — if people can just look at it and avoid being offended.”

Brian Bird, a co-exec producer of “Touched by an Angel” as well as a writer on the show in its later seasons, says such programs fill a void. “Across America, there’s a hunger for uplift,” insists Bird, who comes from a family of Protestant pastors and calls himself an evangelical Christian.

He maintains that such shows remind viewers that God loves them. “I don’t think offering people a sense of hope is a bad thing, though it’s not necessarily hip. Urban folks don’t necessarily know how it is for folks living in other parts of our country,” he says.

Yet Bird acknowledges that these programs risk being perceived as overly sectarian. “If ‘Touched by an Angel’ had become too much of a Christian show, the network wouldn’t have liked that,” he says.

Religion is a touchy subject in any case, and there are plenty of folks happy to stoke the fires of offense. Jack Kenny knows all about that. A self-described “recovering Catholic” who remains a “spiritual person,” he created “The Book of Daniel.” Only four episodes of his droll, thought-provoking show made it to air before NBC pulled the plug after pressure from the American Family Assn.

“There’s something about the Puritan values of this country that make it taboo,” says Kenny regarding the irreverent depiction of religion. “It’s the quickest way to piss people off. Religious people will hate an irreverent religious drama, and non-religious people will hate a reverent religious drama. So you’ve got to keep it soft.”

But a show that’s too soft is also risky. “If you want to do a story about redemption, you have to contrast it with something,” says Bird. “You need the sin.”

Thus an artful balance is required, something easier said than done.

“I don’t have an agenda, but I always have a purpose,” says Hall, noting that the point of her series was “advancing the discussion, not advancing a particular view.”

“People think religion is about what happens when you die,” she says. “But it’s not; it’s about what happens while you live.”

Kenny had slightly more earthbound goals when he pitched his series. “I wanted to explore the world of religion in the same way that ‘Six Feet Under’explored funeral homes,” he says.

His misstep, he says, was in bringing to life a vision of Jesus that existed purely in the head of Father Daniel, the show’s protagonist, played by Aidan Quinn. “The reason Jesus was in there was I wanted Daniel to have a friend,” Kenny says, “and it seemed he would have a personal relationship with Jesus. As I’ve said, it wasn’t the actual Jesus Christ.”

He doesn’t blame auds for not perceiving this distinction. “I don’t think I should have put Jesus in it,” he now says. “I could have found something else. We like to think that we’re different from Islam, but it’s just like you can’t show the Prophet Mohammed. Here, you can’t show Jesus. Maybe I should have made him an angel.”

Yet despite his lingering disappointment over “Daniel’s” swift cancellation, Kenny anticipates greater sophistication — to say nothing of tolerance — ahead. “When doctors were held in high esteem, we had ‘Marcus Welby,'” he says, “and now we’re at ‘House.’ We’ve gone from ‘Father Knows Best’ to ‘Married … With Children’ or ‘According to Jim.’ Eventually, there will be that version of a priest.”

Though he and Kenny have vastly different worldviews, Bird would seem to agree. “I think the whole industry is still wide open to us,” he says. “I don’t think network TV will ever be closed to a good idea. So I’m optimistic about opportunities for faith-based shows.”

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