Well-timed to bring TLC a new evangelical franchise after its cancellation of “19 Kids and Counting,” “Answered Prayers” extends power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s faith-based efforts into a logical realm for the “Survivor” producer: reality TV. Constructed like an Investigation Discovery show, the series weaves together interviews, actual footage and dramatic reenactments where the real people are played by younger actors, unabashedly presenting its stories as moments of “divine intervention.” As such, it should be wholeheartedly embraced by those inclined to see God’s hand working in matters that, for others, could be attributed to mere happenstance.
Hosted by Downey, who appears gauzily lit so as to cast off a beatific glow, “Prayers” moves quickly, featuring two distinct stories within each hour. In each, the participants face harrowing ordeals, with the former “Touched by an Angel” star intoning, “only unwavering faith can turn things around.”
The premiere opens with Trish Gilles, a woman who claims she heard a voice telling her to go pick up her three children shortly before a tornado ripped through their small Indiana town and decimated the family home. The second story involves Jake Bainter, whose leg was accidentally mangled by his father’s lawn mower at the age of three, forcing the family to grapple with guilt and painful decisions about whether the damaged limb needed to be amputated. It’s hard to think of material more directly designed to manipulate an audience’s emotions than that which involves young children placed in jeopardy, as both segments here do.
Slickly produced, the hour incorporates security footage of the tornado’s effects, home movies of the boy, and the kind of overwhelming music normally associated with films starring Charlton Heston.
Downey and Burnett have already catered to the Christian market with scripted projects like “The Bible” and its sequel, but the proselytizing here is more direct and overt, through both the testimonials and in Downey’s narration. “Where there is faith, there will always be hope,” she says at the end. “Please, keep believing.”
For those within the Christian community who see the media in general, and TV in particular, as being hostile toward their values, this series will likely come as a kind of tonic. Yet the show’s willingness to herald happy outcomes as clear evidence of the divine (hardly a spoiler, since it’s called “Answered Prayers”) requires at the very least a lack of skepticism, and in the case of Gillies’ assertion in regard to her family, “I know we were protected,” simple acceptance.
With heightened receptivity for such inspirational fare — especially after their success with “The Bible” — Downey and Burnett have found a sweet spot in joining their desire to spread the good word with commerce. As for TLC, a network whose programming isn’t always exactly high minded, one might want to borrow phrase that isn’t actually in the Bible: The Lord helps those who help themselves.