Sympathy for the Devil

What you're watching.
Sept. 14 1997 3:30 AM

Sympathy for the Devil

The Hollywood pieties of Nothing Sacred.

Nothing Sacred
ABC; Thursdays, 8-9 p.m. (premieres Sept. 18)

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Father Ray is a liberal Catholic priest, the sort of caring, embattled, crusading realist who, after a hard day on the job pep talking suicidal teen-age boys ("Aren't you a little young to be thinking about death?"), counseling young women about abortion ("I can't tell you what to do. I can just tell you what the Church teaches"), and fighting heartless real estate developers who want him to shut down his churchyard soup kitchen so they can gentrify the neighboring block ("This man is bringing in yuppie scum into what has become one of the few stable racially mixed neighborhoods in the city!")--tugs off his collar with a grumpy flourish the way tired stockbrokers remove their neckties. Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) has almost had it, see; he's sick and tired, disgusted and confused. He's not even sure that he believes in God, what with all the suffering he sees. "God," he blurts out one especially dark day, "had better show his face around here pretty damn soon!" And, damn him, God obliges. God appears. Not in a burst of flame, of course, or in a hovering angelic visage, but in--you guessed it; you knew it all along; you knew it deep down but somehow you forgot it--a child's smile, a father's warm embrace, a sip of hot coffee on a crisp fall day.

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There you have the essence of Nothing Sacred, the only new hourlong network drama whose subject is neither cops nor aliens but, unbelievably, existentialist theology. It seems that some softheaded maverick at ABC has put his career on the line for this one (the Catholic League has already complained to Disney, which owns ABC), has asked the big bosses to trust him just this once (Imagine Touched by an Angel, but gritty!), and though the result is as hokey as it gets, as nauseatingly tender-tough and suffocatingly mammalian as any prime time series since St. Elsewhere, only a Satanist wouldn't wish it well. Any TV show where characters debate the writings of St. Thomas--even if they don't say anything smart and even if the actors betray no trace of knowing who it is they're talking about (call it phonetic intellectualism, the television-actor equivalent of ABBA singing in English)--is still, in principle, worthy of wide support.

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I t's hard, though. It's hard to be good sometimes. There's just so much to hate about this show. Start with the lighting. Technically, it's great. The characters' faces look warm, autumnal, mild, bathed in the mellow radiance of God's pity. When Father Leo, the wise old mentor figure (whose wisdom, of course, is knowing that he knows nothing), smiles his tiny, pained, ironic smile, the web of distinct little wrinkles around his eyes conveys a lifetime of intelligent suffering. Father Ray's face is not as ascetic. It's chubby and vaguely sensual, betraying an ongoing struggle with fleshly urges. (This struggle dominates the pilot episode and, I suspect, will dominate the series.) As for the supporting cast--the various priests and nuns who joke and banter, squad-room style, in the church's kitchen--all its members have been made, through some miraculous subtlety of camera work or makeup, to look celibate. Besides an unnatural brightness in the eyes, their faces share a kind of elfin quality, as if their grown-up features are being masked by a translucent fetal overlay. Quite a few of them wear glasses.

Such rich production values come off as smug in a show that claims to be about anxiety. Father Ray may wonder if God exists, but the gorgeously somber backdrops against which his crisis of faith plays out practically throb with big-budget holiness. God's warm breath fogs the lens in every shot, and the only one who can't see it--until the end, that is, when the clockwork epiphany strikes--is Father Ray. His doubt is a rigged game. It's like watching someone wandering around the Louvre wondering if there's such a thing as art.

On the evidence of the pilot, Nothing Sacred will be a series about ideas. As a certain class of Hollywood writer never tires of reminding us, life's biggest questions don't have easy answers. Take the question of why a person dedicates his life to God and others. Father Ray gets asked this question point-blank by a woman he used to sleep with in divinity school and is considering sleeping with again, partly to satisfy his own desire and partly to rescue her from the cold, stern husband who can't let himself be sexually vulnerable because he hasn't vented his rage over the sudden death of his first wife. Father Ray--so constitutionally honest that he refuses to bluff in poker games--answers this way about his priestly call: "Alcoholic father, demanding mother. Start to notice other people's needs before your own. Find you can help, and that makes you a little bit like Jesus. So you become more and more like him until you wind up just like him: a little wooden, nailed into a life you aren't sure you want." The woman nods knowingly and remarks, "Sounds like a marriage to me," to which Ray says, "So why don't you leave?" The woman looks at him. "Why don't you?" she asks. Silence. Yet more silence.

So determined is Nothing Sacred to deliver the very latest in pop philosophy with all the wounded-child trimmings that it can barely generate strong conflicts. In the pilot, there are three bad guys--a greedy developer, a cold Church bureaucrat, and the meany husband I already mentioned--and I dare the viewer to tell them apart. All three are crisply dressed and groomed and share a crippling reluctance to feel their feelings, the show's original sin. So instead of the battle of good vs. evil, we get the skirmish of sensitive vs. numb. Personally, that's not enough for me, especially in a religious program that could, if it only had the orthodox balls--not every week, but maybe every third week--actually bring on Lucifer himself. Flannery O'Connor, the Catholic fiction writer, had it right when she peopled her novels and stories with seers, seducers, fools, grotesques, and demons. O'Connor's garish caricatures were more involving, and possibly even truer to life, than Nothing Sacred's all-too-human humans.

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W hat guts this show about Christianity of any conceivable weight is that it's not really Christian at all. Or anti-Christian. Or anything. It's nothing. Just more phony Hollywood iconoclasm, achieved at no cost because the alternative--traditional piety, sure belief, a priest who actually calls a sin a sin--was never really a consideration and would have been far more offensive to the masses than a clergyman in sweats and sneakers who doesn't completely oppose contraception. The risks that TV shows credit themselves for taking are almost always ingenious safety plays, and Nothing Sacred is no exception. After healing the sex-starved wife, the blocked husband, and the gloomy teen, Father Ray is shown in the program's final scene seated on a pewlike bench, watching the sun rise in his apartment window. Bold ecumenical image or fancy cop-out?

There are some questions that do have easy answers.

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"Alcoholic father, demanding mother ...": Father Ray explains his calling (30 seconds):
Sound04 - tv-nothingsacred2.avi or Sound05 - tv-nothingsacred2.mov; download time, 2.25 minutes at 56K Sound02 - tv-nothingsacred2.asf for sound only

 

Walter Kirn is a regular contributor to Slate.

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