Culture > Television

Gratuitous virtue

Television | Promised Land's faith makes prime-time, but faith in what?

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

When people say, "There's nothing good on television," they usually mean "There's too much gratuitous sex-violence-obscenity." And they're right.

But, as Shakespeare proved, there's no metal so base that a talented dramatist can't turn it into gold. Therein lies the real reason standard-issue TV should rub us the wrong way: Its sex, violence, and obscenity function not as elements of a serious conflict that will end meaningfully resolved but as meaningless titillation.

Viewers of Promised Land, a spin-off of Christian producer Martha Williamson's hit Touched by an Angel, need to ask whether the virtues it celebrates serve a similarly meaningless function: Do its faith, hope, and love suggest a deeper reality of which they are the fruit? Or do they exist merely to provide an alternative to sex, violence, and obscenity, guaranteeing nothing more than that shallow-minded regenerates stay as glued to the screen as shallow-minded degenerates?

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Promised Land has no angels. But its central characters, the Greenes, because they're just a little lower than the angels from whom they've spun off, provide the show with a morally vital foil for the morally inert forces behind the conflicts. The characters refer to "God," not "Jesus," to "the Lord above," not "the Lord," but in every other respect they walk, look, and sound like the sort of evangelical Christians that television usually demonizes.

Gerald McRaney--whose appearance alongside Marilyn Quayle at the 1992 Republican Convention marked his coming out as a conservative--plays Russell Greene, a middle-aged husband and father of two. Having lost his job in the pilot episode, he now travels the highways of America in an RV that contains not only his wife Claire (Wendy Phillips) and children Dinah (Sarah Schaub) and Joshua (Austin O'Brien) but also his mother Hattie (Celeste Holm) and his nephew Nathaniel (Eddie Karr).

The Greenes see their rootlessness as a "great commission" of sorts, stopping only long enough for Russell and sometimes Claire to keep their cross-country trek in the black by finding temporary work, and at each stop they encounter a crisis that they quell with a peace that passeth understanding. (The constant motion is also part of a contemporary trend that declares church-rootedness unimportant.)

But if the variety of the crises keeps the concept fresh (three recent episodes dealt with a mine cave-in, a suicidal teen, and an age-discrimination case), the combined intensity and frequency of the crises may provoke from the viewer a disbelief that he might have trouble suspending, especially since the Greenes resolve nearly every crisis with a speed possible only in mainstream television's telescoped time.

The acting, however, is uniformly good. Although Ms. Phillips's Claire frequently seems on the brink of tears, she, too, conveys an inner strength and, during the cave-in episode, scolds the mine's owner for blaming the accident on a "vacationing" God by exclaiming, "God is not on vacation! He's right here among us!" Who would've thought such a declaration possible on prime-time TV?

Recently, the show has provided a counterbalance to its happy endings by turning Joshua's blindness (the result of a drive-by shooting accident) into a running complication; the show also emphasized the disappearance of Nathaniel's father (Russell's brother), the search for whom accounts in part for the family's itinerancy. Because nothing evokes verisimilitude like an unresolved conflict, Promised Land now seems less like Fantasy Island than at any time in its six-month run.


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