Entertainment television relishes salacious current events, so much so that countless hours of fictional television are brazenly advertised as "ripped from the headlines."
That doesn't mean TV entertainment sees a responsibility to be fair. Quite the opposite. Oftentimes, drama and comedy writers shape events like clay to fit their own Hollywood prejudices.
These prejudices can accumulate into a toxic pattern. The year 2002 was a terrible year for the Catholic Church in the United States, and a year in which some church officials deserved everyone's harshest rebukes. While the overwhelming majority of Catholics -- and particularly their parish priests -- were not just innocent of abusive crimes, but strived to be good, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights noticed that they were all still cannon fodder for dark dramatic scripts, nasty comedy plots and tasteless jokes.
This is more than broad religious bigotry. This is specific anti-Catholicism. The league reports that since September 11, 2001, no television dramas have painted Muslims with a broad brush as a religion full of terrorists and haters. But Catholics weren't that lucky -- they saw not only their priests mocked, but their beliefs mocked on TV shows last year.
The examples are too numerous. The CBS drama "Family Law" featured an episode with a priest who found he'd fathered a child before taking his vows. As the lawyers on the show debated whether the priest should now raise the child, Tony Danza's character suggested, "Maybe the kid would be better off without all that superstitious crap screwing her up."
The thankfully short-lived ABC series "The Job" premiered with a detective dressed as a priest and a stripper dressed as a nun. The "hot nun" was shown disrobing in front of a set of detectives, and then putting her foot in the crotch of both male and female detectives during an interrogation. The "priest" abused the confessional by squeezing information out of a thief who stole from the collection basket. A monsignor was then portrayed as caring more about the sanctity of his own reputation than of the confessional.
Imagine a prime-time ABC episode dedicated to a stripping rabbi or a dishonest imam. All one can do is imagine, because it would never -- could never -- happen. That
would be wrong.
TV producer-writer David E. Kelley liked the Catholic scandal grist so much that he thrived on it with two episodes of ABC's "The Practice" and another couple of episodes of Fox's "Boston Public." While clerical sexual abuse is never right, neither is sex between teachers and students, or between teachers and students' parents, but those have been regular plotlines on "Boston Public," with a lot less moral condemnation from Kelley.
HBO's "Sex in the City" is thankfully on its last legs, or to be more precise, its characters are in their last few beds. Last summer, the series featured this anti-Catholic poison in one plot: the boyfriend of red-headed single mom Miranda insists on baptizing the child to reassure his Irish Catholic mother, who's stereotypically depicted as not only afflicted by rigid religious prejudices, but also as marinated in alcohol. Miranda, as one of the show's so-hip female leads, demanded there be no mention of Christianity in the sacrament. This makes no sense, but this is Hollywood, where the ridiculous is allowed. The central character of the show then joked that Miranda was surprised the priest was so flexible, but "the truth is, in these troubled times, the Catholic Church is like a desperate 36-year-old single woman, willing to settle for anything it can get." It's sad that HBO is so desperate to punch Catholics in the teeth for a lame giggle.
Faithful Catholics took blows below the belt from standup comedians, too. On CBS, David Letterman jokingly compared Catholics to the Mafia: "The Gambino crime family will probably fall apart. That will make the largest crime organization in the city ... the Catholic Church!" On NBC, Jay Leno joked about a Notre Dame football victory: "I guess going to a Catholic school as a young boy, you really learn how to run fast."
In a separate category of meanness was the unmissed Bill Maher, who was still blasting away in 2002 on ABC's "Politically Incorrect." Days before the show was canceled, Maher was blunt: "I have hated the Church way before anyone else. I have been pounding religion for nine years on this show." Three days later, he suggested the Church should just "drop the pretense and just go gay ... It's high time you gay Catholics stood up and announced to the world, "We're here, we're queer, get Eucharist.'"
Students learn in history class that America in the 19th century was rife with anti-Catholic bigotry. It's time they're told it's still alive and kicking in the 21st century. Just turn on the TV.