January 1, 2022

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,” which has become the first overtly religious drama to crack Nielsen’s Top 10 during its 46-year history of tracking audiences, 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 Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, which airs three religiously themed series.

For its part, Hollywood appears to be listing. In the other half of what’s thought of as Hollywood, the motion picture industry, such high-priced stars as Denzel Washington and Jhon Travolta play 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, this month has brought Elizabeth Hurley in “Samson and Delilah,” the latest release in cable channel TNT’s highly rated Old Testament series, and Dolly Parton’s Tuesday CBS movie “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. PBS has been in the forefront with a record number of nonfiction series about religion and faith this year. Its five series 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.

Two 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.

While it is less obvious, another kind of prime-time conversation about God is taking place – this one embedded in unreligiously 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 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 programing 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.’”

Politics and changing attitudes are part of the equation, but a trend like this doesn’t start on a dime. It takes at least a year in most cases to move a television show through the production pipeline from idea to onscreen.

The election that matters most in this case is the one in November, 1994, which sent a wave of conservatives to Congress. Shortly after that election, NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield said, “We have spent a lot of time with the election results trying to be in touch with the audience out there. We look at what the audience is telling us, like, ‘Why is network television avoiding religion?’”

Littlefield says NBC’s own research found that “Religion is something that, across America, viewers seem to be seeking out more strongly than ever before. And we very much have felt that sensibility.” Responding to those findings, NBC went into production on “Amazing Grace” with Patty Duke as a minister.

Littlefield says. But the road to successful religious prime-time drama is a largely uncharted one, and the series was canceled after only a handful of episodes aired last year.

Historically, network television has mainly tended to stay away from overtreligious messages in prime time, although what’s happening today is not totally new.

The precedent most relevant here involves “Highway to Heaven,” a drama starring Michael Landon as an angel, and “Amen,” a sitcom featuring Sherman Hemsley as a deacon. Both shows made it into Nielsen’s Top 20 during the 1985 and ’86 seasons – the first overtly religious series to do so.

Both were obviously helped by being on NBC, which dominated the ratings in the mid-1980s. But they clearly also connected with something in the larger society – the popularity of conservative values associated with Ronald Reagan.

The lineage of CBS’ current shows can be traced back to Frank Capra and his 1948 meditation on angelic intervention, “It‘s a Wonderful Life,” as well as to the influence of the conservative Congress of ’94.

Just as the ’94 election led to the network dramas, the ’94 congressional debate over funding for PBS led to the inclusion of such conservative voices as former Reagan aide Hugh Hewitt and Reagan Cabinet member William J. Bennett in the public television series we‘re seeing today.

Thus, conservatives in the Congressional Class of ’94 – and those who helped elect them – can look over the prime-time plain and legitimately claim a major culture-wars victory in getting Hollywood, the commercial networks and public television not only to include religion but to treat it and those who believe in it seriously.

Martha Williamson, executive producer of “Touched by an Angel,” goes a step further, calling her series revolutionary.

“If” you look at it, we are dealing with the same issues on ‘Touched by an Angel’ or ‘Promised Land` that ‘NYPD Blue` or ‘Law & Order’ deal with. We just come from a very different point of view, which is God’s point of view. And we have a message; ‘God loves you. God exists.’ Which is pretty darned revolutionary for network prime-time television,” Williamson says.

She attributes the success of “Touched by an Angel” to the fact that, “We don’t give the option of believing or not believing in God …or the option of ethics. We don’t have situational ethics. It’s not okay to steal sometimes. It’s wrong. And so, as a result, I believe people consider that to be a breath of fresh air.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about some of the new religious programing.

“What bothers me about most television shows is that when they do deal with religion, they make redemption seem so easy that they really trivialize the struggle,” says Fontana, who, during the mid1980s, was executive producer of “St. Elsewhere,” a series that regularly dealt with matters of faith and religion in the same hard-edged questioning way as his current hit, “Homicide” “I think that diminishes the impact of what true faith is.”

Disagreement about which kind of God talk is best? You best. That television is carrying several examples from each of the various camps is perhaps the best indication of just how alive and well God is in prime time today.

“In one way or another,” says George Washington University’s Thiel, “it is all religious in that it is concerned with transcendence, or something more than this life.”

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