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"Sacred" and the Profane

It's shows like Nothing Sacred) that make Catholics like me long for the halcyon days of the Inquisition. Well, not the show so much as the worldview the show espouses--a kind of two-dimensional, tragically hip, radically chic, sanctimonious liberalism long on smarm and short on God.

Of course, the critics love it.

Nothing Sacred (ABC), Thursdays, 8:00p.m.) revolves around Father Ray (Kevin Anderson), a Catholic priest with an attitude who's charged with ministering to an urban parish. He's young, he's hip, he grooves to the blues. He even wears jeans with his priest's collar.

But Ray is flawed. He wrestles with his vocation. He lusts after an ex-girlfriend in his heart. He doubts his faith in God. And therein lies the drama.

Father Ray is joined by a crusty older priest (the only appealing character, for my money), an idealistic neophyte priest (not-so subtly mocked for his strong faith), and a tedious feminist nun (who complains because God is referred to as "Father"). Apparently while attending her all women's college she mixed up coven and convent.

Every character is more cliched than the last. Together, Ray and the paper-cutout clergypeople of St. Thomas parish tackle all the great theological questions with the depth and mastery one could expect from the same network that gave us The Monroes and Moon Over Miami. Some sins are unforgivable.

  • Observe how Father Ray boils down the Summa Theologiae): "Thomas Aquinas says he can prove God exists because the world is a well-ordered place, and that therefore some divine intelligence must have created it. Well, Tom Aquinas must have lived in a better neighborhood than we do."

  • Or his rationale for hiring an atheist to manage the parish's finances: "I don't want a business manager who thinks that God will provide." So who did he hire, Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker?

  • Then there's his admonition to his parishoners at mass: "I'm not hearing anymore sexual sins... I was not ordained to be your sexual traffic cop." (In an earlier draft, Ray says: "Now I know this will be hard on some of you who have come to rely heavily on the 6th and 9th commandments for confessional matter, but I have faith in you. There are eight other commandments to break, so let's get out there and get some serious sinning going on.")

  • His advice in the confessional to a young pregnant girl is hateful to any serious Catholic or sentient lifeform for that matter. Suddenly our ever-questioning priest focuses like a laser on the Gospel according to Planned Parenthood: "You're an adult. You have to follow your own conscience."

All of this from a priest? Preposterous! Not even in the most permissive parishes of San Francisco's Castro District or New York's East Village would you hear such codswallop. Indeed, one wonders whether Ray is in the right line of work.

Yet ABC boasts that the show is written and co-produced by -- of all things! -- a Jesuit). Father Gregory Coiro is not a Jesuit, thankfully. He is a Capuchian Franciscan) friar who also happens to be director of media relations for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles). For what it's worth, neither the Archdiocese nor the American Council of Bishops take an official position on the show. But Father Coiro was asked by ABC's Standards and Practices department to review some early drafts of the script, and had plenty to say.

"It was so bad, I thought nobody would pick it up," Father Coiro told me. "It was too cliched. The characters weren't characters so much as caricatures."

The show's basic premise, he said "is that a good Catholic is a bad Catholic." If the idea behind Nothing Sacred is to make priests appear human, it fails the reality check. "I'm human," Father Coiro said. "All the priests I know are human. But I don't know any priests who act the way they do on this show."

Nothing Sacred also drew the wrath of the conservative Catholic League, which denounced the show earlier this summer for its "sick look" at the priesthood and demanded it be pulled from ABC's fall line-up. The League threatened the usual boycott, and even presented execs with 500,000 signatures from indignant believers.

ABC responded as it would with any group of perceived cranks--by issuing a deferential statement assuring hopping mad Catholics that the network's intentions are pure. "It is our hope that through subsequent episodes, [cheesed-off Papists will] come to find that the series reflects positively on faith...." The network also touted the show's priestly credentials. And executive producer David Manson told the Associated Press that the L.A. Archdiocese had read and reviewed the scripts -- conveniently leaving out the negative critique.

But from the very earliest drafts, it's clear that Sacred's producers were not interested in reflecting positively on faith, so much as causing a brouhaha. Along with Ray's aforementioned exhortation to explore all Ten Commandments with gusto, his language is much... earthier. Some scenes would make even Steven Bochco blush. A cover note attached to one version sent to Father Coiro is suggestive: "This is close to the final version, except for the language. Obviously, the Christ almighty (pg.1); fuck you (pg. 4); Oh, f... (pg.15); shit, goddamn (pg.36); for Christ's sake (pg.37) and asshole (pg.50) will not be acceptable...."

Obviously, we won't be hearing a priest say "fuck" on network TV anytime soon, so what was "Paul Leland," the pseudonymous Jesuit, trying to prove? Language aside, Nothing Sacred has an even bigger problem with doctrine. Father Coiro and some other Catholic critics were bothered by Father Ray's superficial treatment of abortion. The parish secretary, Rachel, tells Father Ray in confession that she is considering an abortion. Ray tells her to follow her conscience.

"Ultimately, you do follow your own conscience," Father Coiro said. But that's not why she went to a priest. "She went to hear 2000 years of accumulated wisdom of the Catholic Church."

(Rachel also may or may not be a member of some conservative church faction. Apparently, this is the show's idea of "balance." She records the confession and sends the tape to the Bishop in hopes of getting Ray fired.. But she feels bad about it later.)

The abortion issue isn't going away, on the show or in public life. Most Americans are split on it. Hollywood executives tend to be of one mind on the subject. The Church is, too. Except the Church teaches that abortion is a sin. In Hollywood, abortion is a God-given right. Guess which view gets the favored play? In future episodes, Nothing Sacred promises to run roughshod over issues like women and homosexuals in the priesthood. Assuming it's around long enough, that is.

Because for all the hemming and hawing, the boycott threats and petitions, the punditing and pontificating, the fourth-rate scripting and the fifth-rate characters, at the end of the day, it's about ratings.

After looking at last week's numbers, the show's producers might ask why the audience has forsaken them. Sacred rated a paltry 7.2 with a 12 share, trailing behind repeats of Friends on NBC and "Kids Say the Darndest Things" on CBS, and placing 55th for the week.

And, according to Variety, the premiere fell below last season's 3.5 rating for adults 18-49 in the same time slot with the debut of the late, unlamented High Incident. Nothing Sacred also lost viewers from its first half-hour to its second, indicating viewers would rather watch Friend's Ross and Rachel kiss and make up for the tenth time than endure another minute of Father Ray's tiresome "Dear-Abby-in-a-vestment" routine.

Some conservatives and many people of faith have complained for years about how religion gets the short-shrift on television. The faithful are often overlooked, insulted, or merely patronized.

And these days, the pickings are pretty slim. Angel shows hardly count--they're spiritual in a feel-good, "New Agey" sort of way. That leaves Good News on UPN, fat fraud Dan Aykroyd) on Soul Man, and, for now at least, Nothing Sacred. With choices like these, maybe religious folk should count their blessings for being ignored.

The real story of a parish priest in a troubled neighborhood would make for wonderful television. It's a tough racket, no doubt about it. But producers and network execs have different ideas about what makes for good drama. So instead, viewers are treated to a New Inquisition for the Television Age, tortured by bad dramas and flogged by insipid comedies. Heaven help us!


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