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GOD in his prime Television: There's a heavenly emanation coming from the small screen, as angels lend helping hands and religious themes get major play.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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" this month becoming the first overtly religious drama to crack Nielsen's Top 10 during its 46-year history, 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 of it at any one time -- certainly not enjoying the kind of success our shows on CBS are. Clearly, America is sending Hollywood a message that there's a craving for entertainment that deals with religion and values," says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment, which airs three religiously themed series.

For its part, Hollywood appears to be listening. In the other half of what's thought of as Hollywood, the motion picture industry, such high-priced stars as Denzel Washington and John Travolta will be playing 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, next month brings Elizabeth Hurley in "Samson and Delilah," the latest release in cable channel TNT's highly rated Old Testament series, and Dolly Parton in CBS' "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. It ranges from classic theology to New Age and angels.

PBS has been in the forefront with a record number of nonfiction series about religion and faith this year. Its five series -- which account for 32 hours of broadcasting among them -- 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.

In only its second full season, "Touched by an Angel" was moved to the highly competitive time slot of 8 p.m. Sunday, where it not only beats its competition but has rocketed to eighth overall out of 113 shows (as of last week) with an audience of 23 million viewers. It is a certified crossover mainstream hit that on some weeks draws an even bigger audience than its celebrated lead-in, "60 Minutes."

Two direct 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.

"We are getting more mail respectively for those three series than any other on our schedule," says Moonves. "They are obviously connecting with viewers in a big way." That's no small claim in light of CBS' other highly rated shows, including "Murphy Brown," "Cosby," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Chicago Hope."

And while it is less obvious, yet another kind of prime-time conversation about God is taking place -- this one embedded in nonreligiously 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 big question

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 programming 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 on-screen.

The election that matters most in this case is the one in November 1994, which brought a wave of conservative congressmen to Washington.

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.

Even Fox responded to the 1994 election by hiring David E. Kelley, the talented creator of "Chicago Hope" and "Picket Fences," to develop a religiously themed series. But after more than a year of attempts to find the right tone for the quirky drama, titled "The Pastor's Wife," the project died a quiet death last year when its star, Chandler, signed on for CBS' "Early Edition."

CBS was ahead of the curve with "Touched by an Angel," which was ready to go with producer Martha Williamson at the helm by the end of 1994, and the network essentially has now cornered the commercial market under Moonves.

"I think we have a better feel for this type of program and it's a better fit for us, because we are the most traditional network, the network of the average guy, middle country," says Moonves.

"I have great respect for NBC and its feel for hip shows, but I don't think you will see a lot of shows about religion and values on NBC or Fox. Historically, this is CBS country, and, in redefining ourselves, we have returned to it," he adds.

Historically, network television has mainly tended to stay away from overt religious messages in prime time, though what's happening today is not totally new.

Paths to the present

While Moonves is referring to CBS' history with such dramas as "The Waltons," 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. Artistically, Williamson and CBS are working the same territory Capra and Landon did with some enlightened updating -- the addition of featured roles for women and people ** of color.

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.

Points of view

McRaney, the star of "Promised Land" who campaigned for Reagan and other conservative candidates, calls the religious ideology of Williamson's work groundbreaking.

"It was a daring move to deal on television with the concept that there is a God, and there are angels, and there is right and there is wrong, and there's moral and there's immoral," he says.

Williamson, the executive producer, goes a step farther, 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 OK to steal sometimes. It's wrong. And so, as a result, I believe people consider that to be a breath of fresh air."

What's really new about the series is Williamson's straightforward approach to religious ideology. Every television show has some kind of ideology -- whether it is the celebration of consumption on "Wheel of Fortune" or the feminism of "Roseanne" -- but most who work in the industry try to mask or deny it. To her credit, Williamson does not.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about some of the new religious programming.

"What bothers me about most television shows is that when they deal with religion, they make redemption seem so easy that they really trivialize the struggle," says producer Fontana, who during the mid-1980s 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."

PBS' Duggan also has some serious reservations about television and religion. Until recently, he says, television has mainly ignored religion and now tends to cover it "in a weirdly anthropological way. It doesn't get inside the phenomenon and doesn't even admit intelligent people can be religious believers and that there can be an intelligent conversation of religion."

Disagreement about which kind of God talk is best? You bet. 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 Thiel, "it is all religious in that it is concerned with transcendence or something more than this life."

God on screen

From big screen to little screen, from nonfiction to drama, God is everywhere you look. Here is a sampling of his heightened profile.

The big picture

L Greg Kinnear stars in the recently released film "Dear God."

John Travolta plays an angel in the coming film "Michael."

This holiday season, Denzel Washington will portray an angel in "The Preacher's Wife," with Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance.

Dreamworks -- the studio run by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen -- is making an animated film version of the story of Moses called "The Prince of Egypt," with Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition as a consultant.

PBS

Bill Moyers' "Genesis," a 10-part series about the Book of Genesis, continues on Sundays through Dec. 15.

"With God On Our Side," a six-part series examining the history of conservative Christians and their move into mainstream culture and politics.

"Searching for God in America," an eight-part series with Hugh Hewitt interviewing various religious leaders.

"Adventures From the Book of Virtues," parables from former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

"The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith: A Bill Moyers Special."

TV movies

Cable channel TNT continues its Old Testament series produced by Gerald Rafshoon with Elizabeth Hurley, Dennis Hopper, Eric Thal and Diana Rigg in "Samson and Delilah," Dec. 8 and Dec. 11.

The first made-for-television angel movie of the season arrives Dec. 17 with Dolly Parton in CBS' "Unlikely Angel."

CBS

"Promised Land" (Tuesday nights at 8) is a spinoff of "Touched by an Angel" from Martha Williamson, who produces both series in Salt Lake City. It stars Gerald McRaney as the father of a working-class family who loses his job only to be enlisted by "Touched's" two angels -- Tess and Monica (as portrayed by Della Reese and Roma Downey) -- to travel the country helping others who face hard times.

"Early Edition" (Saturday nights at 9) stars Kyle Chandler (formerly of "Homefront") as Gary Hobson, a 32-year-old stockbroker who finds tomorrow's newspaper outside his door. Instead of using his newfound position as caretaker of tomorrow's news to make a fortune trading on the ultimate insider information, Hobson tries to help others change their fate.

While Hobson is not identified as an angel, the heavenly link is firmly established in the pilot with this exchange between

Hobson and Marissa Clark (Shanesia Davis), a blind woman who becomes his friend-mentor-helper.

When a puzzled Hobson asks her where the newspaper comes from each morning, Clark says, "Maybe it comes from God."

"Oh, yeah, right, God's the cosmic paperboy," he responds.

"If God can be a burning bush, he can be any darn thing he wants, Gary."

"You don't really believe that."

"The world is full of miracles, Gary. You don't need eyes to see them."

"Well, I'm not too big on miracles right now."

"Well, that's too bad, as one's happening to you. You don't need to be a hero to do the best with what you have, and you have been given this."

NBC

On "Homicide" this season, the major story line involves Detective Pembleton (Andre Braugher) trying to come back after his stroke. According to co-executive-producer Tom Fontana, "Pembleton coming to some kind of terms in his volatile relationship to God through the experience of having had the stroke" is going to be at the center of that story line in coming weeks.

ABC

One of the best examples of television's treatment of religion these days can be found in an episode of "Grace Under Fire" that aired earlier this month with Grace (Brett Butler) dating a minister. Instead of being played for laughs, say, as a sexual naif vs. the more earthy Grace, he was treated him as a serious romantic interest -- and someone you might want to get to know. Ultimately, their relationship didn't work out, but a talk with Grace persuaded him to leave his comfortable suburban congregation and pursue the kind of inner-city ministry he had always wanted.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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