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Religious Themes Get Wider Play, More Nuanced Portrayal in Fall Shows

Christian religion has hit prime time this season in a big way. Simple dramas like "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, Sunday), "Promised Land" (CBS, Thursday), and "Seventh Heaven" (WB, Monday) take the direct, if preachy, approach to religion in daily life. The controversial and groundbreaking drama "Nothing Sacred" (ABC, Thursday), on the other hand, shows the workings of faith in less supernatural terms and takes on a more complex form with several stories going on at once.

Breezy sitcoms "Soul Man" (ABC, Tuesday) with Dan Aykroyd and "Good News" (UPN, Monday) are lighthearted but deal with real issues, while "Teen Angel" (ABC, Friday) opts for cheap jokes and pointless situations.

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One reason TV is knee-deep in religion, says David McFadzean, co-creator of "Soul Man," is that Hollywood is trying to read its audience. "We had pitched the idea three or four years ago, and it was rejected. The time just seemed right for us to do it now."

David Manson, creator and producer of "Nothing Sacred," says the success of "Touched by an Angel" "opened the door for people to think about using this kind of [religious] material as the basis for a television series." He adds that there has been a lot of talk about "premillennial fever" and about the culture entering a post-cynical age. "And I don't know. But what I think is true is this: I think there is a limit to the fulfillment materialism offers people.

"So many of the writers I have admired wrote eloquently about alienation - that was the culture I grew up in. Paul [Leland, who wrote the first episode] writes about engagement - and writes with wit about it."

Believable characters

Fortunately, Mr. Manson says, it's no longer "unhip" to be religious. Father Ray on "Nothing Sacred" is as cool a dude as any on TV: Smart, tough, and fiery, he is also kind, caring, and insightful. His liberal-rebel character is balanced by the gracious presence of Father Leo - older, more traditional, and strong in faith.

For a long time, clergy were often depicted as hypocrites or fools. But "Nothing Sacred," "Soul Man, "Good News," and "Seventh Heaven" all portray the difficulties of the ministry compassionately. "Soul Man" and "Good News" do so with good-natured comic antics, but the ministers on both shows are taxed to extremes, sending the message that the selfless life of a pastor is nothing to sneer at.

Even "Seventh Heaven," as schmaltzy as it usually is, shows how emotionally draining the job can be. "Nothing Sacred" actually goes into new territory, showing what clergy and counselors are really up against: All that human misery to contend with means that they have little time to themselves - it's one train wreck after another. And who counsels the counselors? It takes a phenomenal dedication to God and humanity to pour so much oil on so much troubled water every day.

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All these shows about religious people may have been a long time coming - and series like the church comedy "Amen" and Michael Landon's "Highway to Heaven" paved the way in the 1980s. Still, it hasn't been easy taking on religious material - the whole subject is fraught with peril, as Manson has found out.

Conservative Roman Catholic and Protestant groups have threatened to boycott Disney for allowing "Nothing Sacred" on its ABC network. (The show, in fact, is struggling in the ratings.) One letter of complaint was written before anyone had seen the show - just hearing that Father Ray counsels a woman to follow her conscience when she confesses she is considering an abortion was enough. (In fact, he encourages the girl to keep the baby.)

"We've never been out to offend," says Manson. "What we are interested in doing is presenting this group of people in a complex and human way. There are strong differences of opinion in the church. And we're not just an issue-driven show; we are interested in showing the lives of people who have chosen a very particular path and who I think are enormously deserving of respect."

Down-to-earth faith

Each of these shows, though tailored to different tastes, does try hard to avoid putting ministers on pedestals - and to keep the action very human. Even the angels in "Touched by an Angel" are tempted by human emotions and appetites from time to time - as in one angel's addiction to coffee and ice cream.

The minister father of five in "Seventh Heaven" acted in a self-righteous, patriarchal manner when his wife confessed to having smoked pot 20 years earlier. The father figure in "Promised Land" reacted precipitously with anger toward a younger, troubled brother. But in each case, the good in these characters wins out. And the comedies, of course, are always about the disjunction between good intentions and human nature.

But individual religious beliefs are sacrosanct - nobody wants to see them depicted in a way they don't approve. So balance is key. McFadzean talks about creating characters for "Soul Man" that will give most audience members someone to identify with - balancing a religious character with a nonreligious character, for example. And the writers are trying to make the show's church as diverse as possible - not just racially or ethnically, but in terms of temperament and beliefs, too.

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