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.
The show's second storyline was even more disturbing. Amy's sister-in-law gave birth to a boy and wanted him christened in a Methodist church. The minister tells the family that he will ask the new parents to renounce "forces of wickedness" and to pledge they are "repenting of their sins." Maxine lets out a loud, rude laugh. When the minister says the parents must nurture the baby in Christ and teach him to "profess his faith openly," Maxine bursts out again, demanding the parents take a pledge to make the baby a "kind and tolerant person" instead. How typical of anything-goes Tinseltown to preach to the country that God-fearing, repentant Christianity is the antonym of kind and tolerant!
As the supposedly sensible member of the family, Judge Amy takes her mother aside and chides, "Why couldn't you just say what she wanted you to say? It's all just meaningless crapola anyway."
The April 27 episode is somehow supposed to be more encouraging of faith. Judge Amy's most prominent co-worker in the courtroom is a black man named Bruce, who is also a practicing Catholic. In this episode, Bruce is looking forward to a visit from a priest friend. But when the priest arrives, Father Ted has become -- ready? -- Father "Teresa," wearing a dress, a wig and a string of pearls. The cross-dressing priest says he's saving up his meager ministerial salary for a sex-change operation.
Frank confesses that the clerical-abuse problems in the Catholic church have shaken his faith, and that this female-impersonating priest isn't helping, either. But this is no dark comedy, folks. The show's writers give Mr. Transgender the role of inspirational leader. Life is a mess, he advises Bruce: "If you can hold on to your faith, you've got some hope that it'll all make sense in the end. If you let go of your faith, all you've got is the mess."
With this Sermon from the Restaurant complete, Bruce confides that he's having a troubled relationship with a woman. The priest jokes that since he's becoming a woman, maybe they can get romantic: "You're single. I'm single. We're both Catholic, and they say it's best if you're both friends first." They laugh, and Bruce promises he'll eventually be "OK" with the sex change. What a relief.
Only in Hollywood is the guy who asks for a commitment to Christ against Satan shoveling "meaningless crapola," while a cross-dresser on his/her personal journey to mortally sinful confusion is painted as the wisest religious adviser in the room, the one who makes spiritual sense. Penance is recommended.