Hollywood has never been America's capital of what they call "organized religion." In a town that thrives on instant fame and nearly as instant has-been status, wealth and success can appear to arrive at random, just as surely as bankruptcy, addiction and failure. How can God be found in these whirling details? When people find themselves at the pinnacle of adulation, even celebrity worship, who feels the need for God?
It may help to explain why religion on prime-time television continues to be shunted aside, ignored or exiled as irrelevant. There are exceptions. CBS's "Touched by an Angel" found a very devoted following to its inspirational storylines about the renewing power of God's love. That mantle is now assumed by the rookie CBS hit "Joan of Arcadia," centered on the teenage girl who talks to God about seemingly everything, from which high-school club she's going to join next to what unpopular stranger she's going to help.
Unfortunately, Hollywood just can't seem to shake its stereotypes. It's more common for Tinseltown to portray religion -- and especially religious authority figures -- as a frightening force of persecution and superstition. One recent source of this kind of material is another CBS show, "Judging Amy." Amy Brenneman stars as the judge of the title, and Tyne Daly plays her social worker mother, Maxine. The disappointing fact about this show is it was developed by Barbara Hall, who also created "Joan of Arcadia."
The Jan. 6 episode of "Amy" first turned believers' heads with two religious plotlines. In the first, Maxine is frustrated that an autistic boy will not be taken to doctor's appointments by his mother because she is convinced her son can be healed at church by miraculous prayers. By episode's end, Maxine breaks into the church to find the minister whipping the autistic boy to a bloody pulp.
What could have inspired the writers to go in this direction? Perhaps they read how an autistic 8-year-old boy suffocated at a Milwaukee strip-mall church last summer as people tried to hold him down and heal him through the exorcism of demons. This is not exactly a common American religious practice. But it takes only one freakish, dramatic departure from the norm and it has Hollywood exploitation written all over it.