The difference between good TV and bad TV," said Michael Medved recently while guest-hosting the Rush Limbaugh show, "is the difference between good heroin and bad heroin." Two new ABC programs show what this year's addicts are going through.
Soul Man and Nothing Sacred are devoted less to religion in American life than to their producer's skewed perceptions of both. While not without a degree of lowest-common-denominator appeal, neither series treats its subjects (Soul Man's relatively conservative Episcopalians, Nothing Sacred's relatively liberal Catholics) with the ease or grace that comes with genuine familiarity or affection.
Part of the blame lies in the producers' attempts to get blood from a stone. As the pudgy, middle-aged, and widowed Reverend Mike Weber- the "Soul Man" of his show's title-Dan Aykroyd comes across as neither especially soulful nor particularly manly. That even his single-handed rearing of four kids seems more like a hobby than it does a calling makes Soul Man seem at times like Home Improvement with a religious varnish. (Both shows were created by the team of Matt Williams, David McFadzean, and Carmen Finestra, and occasionally share characters.)
But Soul Man's main problem is not that the series treats the Christian faith or religious vocations with disrespect; it doesn't. Father Mike draws upon an impressively vast amount of biblical knowledge (for a TV character, that is) while making the good-natured wisecracks that punctuate each episode's plot.
The problem is that even by sitcom standards the plots are so thin that after several scenes of punctuation-by-wisecrack they deflate, leaving the cynical viewer to wonder if maybe the entire series is nothing more than ABC's way of covering its Disney-owned flank against attacks from Christians who accuse it of being hostile toward traditional religion and family values.
The reasons behind the bad aftertaste left by Nothing Sacred are different but no less obvious. Its homepage (at www.abc.com) calls it an "engaging, irreverent one-hour drama about an unconventional young priest struggling to balance his faith in God with the temptations and troubles of modern-day life," and if it were that, it might not have so quickly become one of the new season's most criticized and least-watched shows.
The fact is, its "unconventional young priest," Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) doesn't struggle to balance his faith with his temptations. Anytime his faith teaches something he doesn't like, out it goes. In the premiere episode, he not only wishes that he "didn't hate God so much," but he also begins a homily by holding up a New Testament and declaring that contraception, homosexuality, promiscuity, and abortion ("all the stuff that we've reduced religion to") "ain't in" the Gospel. "Oh, maybe a mention," he demurs, "but they're not what the book is about!"
Few people, least of all the show's harshest Catholic critics, will deny that priests like this exist, priests who deny both the letter and the spirit of the law they've been ordained to uphold. The ratings, however, suggest that many people consider the experience of watching a liberal priest wear himself out week after week, in the attempt to find new ways to shock his flock, a waste of a perfectly good hour. Some of them get enough of that on Sunday morning.