December 13, 2007


A Flock of Shows, Touched by Faith (GINIA BELLAFANTE, 12/13/07, NY Times)

This year, however, the annual adventures in December hedonism come at the end of a fall television season that has taken a vivid interest in Christian faith, portraying it with a variety and complexity, reverence and irreverence, for which it is hard to find previous parallels. It is one thing for a practitioner of Christian Science to wind up as a patient on NBC’s “ER,” screaming against penicillin, but it is another for a plastic surgeon with a bleak soul to rediscover his faith, go to church and thank God for delivering him to an overdosing woman in time to save her life. This happened on the FX series “Nip/Tuck” a few weeks ago — as unlikely a place to go looking for sympathetic images of religious fealty as a swingers’ club or any volume of Cattulus. [...]

[“Friday Night Lights”] has given us as close an approximation of religious conversion as any on television, without pandering or patronizing, imagining born-again Christianity in all its challenges and consolations.

The sensual ex-cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) was existentially out of sorts because of her ruined love affairs and her father’s philandering. Then she joins Christ Teen Messengers, is baptized, takes part in cafeteria Bible studies and begins ministering to prisoners — all of which baffles her former favorite fling, Tim Riggins, of the sex and biceps and languid gazes, who asks her if she has joined some kind of cult.

The show never pits the demands of religious fidelity against the power of young lust as a fair or even righteous contest. You see the torment of Lyla’s resistance to Tim in the exasperated looks that mask the anguish she seems to feel whenever he comes around. One kind of ecstasy isn’t easily bartered for another. And yet Lyla has also matured through her faith, taking it seriously in a place where high school football players and the people who love them clasp their hands, close their eyes and pray for third-down conversions.

There is no denominational neutrality here; the show aligns itself with one brand of Christianity over another. The mainstream churches of Dillon, Tex., the show’s setting, have ministers prompting their congregations to pray for Panther victory. But in the places Lyla practices her evangelism, God is called upon for less selfish signs of charity.

Dillon is a long way from the silk slips and smoking jackets of “Dirty Sexy Money,” the Upper East Side soap opera (Wednesdays on ABC) that has accommodated high Episcopal, not merely as a social class but also as the primary occupation, both spiritual and literal, of one of its central characters, the Rev. Brian Darling. Created by Craig Wright, a onetime divinity student, “Dirty Sexy Money” uses Brian to expose the hypocrisies of piety but also to delineate the differences between flawed personality and failed character.

A cynic and a jerk, Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) is still capable of loving deeply despite his transgressions, recently laid out before him by his clerical superior. “In the same period of time when you were righteously ministering to your flock,” the bishop says, “you initiated a sexual relationship with a parishioner, fathered a child out of wedlock and most recently bribed a judge.” (To which Brian responds, “It was an arbitrator, actually.”)

Brian experiences a crisis of faith around his efforts to win custody of his illegitimate son, a child he is surprised to find he cannot live without. In a show whose absurdities, if stacked up, would tower over the Chrysler Building, his self-reflection produces a surprising poignancy.

One of the better religious characters on recent tv was Inspector Lewis's sidekick, Detective Sergeant Hathaway. He'd trained for the priesthood before being thrown out of seminary and his faith is understated but compelling and Lewis, unlike many of the other governors in British mysteries, is moved rather than annoyed by it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2007 12:07 PM

ER has recently added a hospital chaplain who prays with patients. Recently she conducted a service where she encouraged doctors and other medical staff to visualize a patient who had touched them and then ended with a ceremony where each medical person could "wash" hands in basin of water. Chaplain recited something about "blessing" the hands.

Posted by: D Judd at December 13, 2007 12:32 PM

any volume of Cattulus.

Catullus, surely? Actually a pretty good name to drop, given his poems, but please.

Posted by: John Thacker at December 13, 2007 2:22 PM

Damn! John T. beat me to it!

Our appreciation of this site is magnified. One must move most quickly to play the pedantic curmudgeon in such fine company.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 13, 2007 4:08 PM