Something interesting is happening in the world of television. There’s still plenty of mortal sin and silliness going on, but God is starting to pop up in the most unexpected places.
I’ve been spending the last week or so at the biannual TV Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California, soaking up the new arrivals from the broadcast and cable networks, and the streaming services. You might think there’d be little of interest to Catholics here. Some years that’s true — but not this year.
Here’s a look at some of what I’ve heard about so far (my short verdict in bold type below each entry).
“Damien” (A&E Network, premieres March 7): Based on the first movie in the “Omen” franchise, the series — executive produced by Glen Mazzara (“The Shield”) — it posits that the son of Satan is now a grown man (Bradley James) who is unaware of his destiny and working a war photographer. Needless to say, Big Bad Dad and his minions come ‘a calling.
Said Mazzara at the press conference:
The approach here is you want to see Damien’s humanity, and what we’ve done is, he’s an Antichrist. So if you say Christ is all God and all human, the Antichrist would be all human and all devil. That’s an interesting character to root for. And as Damien faces his humanity, he’s going to go down a path where, as he’s doing stuff, we both want him to be stopped and we want him to fulfill his destiny.
“The Story of God” (Science Channel, April 3): Host Morgan Freeman, who’s played the Almighty in a few movies, tours the world to explore the “Big Five” faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Said executive producer (and believer) Lori McCreary:
We’re looking at questions I think that all of us as humans have, which is where did we come from, where are we going, what happens when we die, are we here for a reason. And ultimately we found the answers from many different religious people and religions to be very similar, which was heartening.
“Of Kings and Prophets” (ABC, March 8): Based on the Biblical books of Samuel — and featuring an entirely reshot and rewritten (by showrunner and believer Chris Brancato) pilot — it follows the story of Saul and David. The writers of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Zealot” author Reza Aslan were attached at the beginning, but make no mistake, this is Brancato’s baby now, and that’s a good thing.
As in the Bible, God speaks through the prophet Samuel, so there aren’t any visible signs of the supernatural.
The show in general is an examination of how we utilize faith in our lives, what higher powers we feel responsible to. David is one of the most interesting characters in world history, because he sins, and then he repents. He is almost a symbol of the ambiguity and complexity of human nature. Our show explores that.
And, do the Amalekites get whacked? Indeed, they do.
Optimistic, based on the pilot.
“The Path” (Hulu, March 30): Executive-produced by Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) and Jessica Goldberg, this relationship-based drama stars Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) as half of a married couple that belongs to a religious cult, the Meyerist Movement, in upstate New York (birthplace of Mormonism, BTW). But don’t assume this is a Christian cult.
We looked at how religion calls to so many people right now. We culled from some of our favorite things, both Eastern and Western religions, and made our own faith. It’s taken from lots of different existing faiths and our own fantasy of what you’re looking for when you’re in deep pain.
Cautiously optimistic, largely based on Katims’ record.
“The Real O’Neals” (ABC): ABC programming head Paul Lee said this sad little comedy, loosely based on the Catholic childhood of gay sex columnist Dan Savage, was “adorable” and “on brand” for the network. I disagree with the first, and mostly agree with the second. Suffice to say there’s no reason to watch it, and with any luck, America will decide the same thing.
Run away as fast as you can.
“Lucifer” (Fox, Jan. 25): Loosely based on the DC Comics Vertigo Imprint comic book of the same name, this drama stars Brit Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar, who’s on a break from hell and running a club in L.A.. Here’s what I said over at Patheos:
The only power he has is to get people to tell him their deepest desires and then to encourage them to fulfill them (like the serpent tempting Eve but being unable to make her eat). Lucifer tools around L.A., wreaking havoc large and small in the lives of people he meets, for his own amusement.
Then he meets Chloe Dancer (Lauren German), a divorced single mother of a little girl, who’s a former actress turned LAPD detective (and as usual, is far too young for the role, but that’s TV). When a wayward girl whose career Lucifer “helped” is gunned down by a drug dealer — after Lucifer encouraged her to clean up her act — he decides to assist Chloe in the investigation.
Simultaneously, he’s feeling strangely guilty for the girl’s death (which prompts an existential crisis) — and fascinated by Chloe’s apparent immunity to his powers, and her wish to do good in the world.
At the same time, Chloe’s little girl (Scarlett Estevez) takes an immediate liking to Lucifer, which, as he despises children, discomfits him more than anything else.
Meanwhile, a pissed-off angel (D.B. Woodside) comes with orders from “our Father” for Lucifer to get his butt back to Hell … and there’s no love lost between the two.
It’s an engaging pilot and could be fun, and the idea of Lucifer developing a conscience because of his exposure to humanity — in particular, Chloe and her daughter — is intriguing.
At minimum, while it can hardly be considered theologically accurate, it doesn’t insult God or belief — and, as Lucifer points out, people are answerable for their own sins — and it might be worth watching an episode or two more to see what happens.
The transcript from the panel earlier today hasn’t been released yet, but the word from the producers was generally encouraging, and there seemed to be no hostility to people of faith or faith itself.
“Preacher” (AMC, 2016): Seth Rogen is one of the producers for this adaptation of the comic of the same name about a small-town preacher (who’s faking it) endowed with supernatural powers. After seeing the pilot at a screening, it looked like the producers were aiming for a Coen Brothers/Tarantino vibe, but the result is an uber-violent, incoherent mess — and boring.
Run away as fast as you can.
“Houdini & Doyle” (Fox, 2016): Michael Weston and Stephen Mangan star in the drama, created by David Shore (“House”) and directed by Stephen Hopkins (“24”). Based on true events, it follows illusionist and paranormal debunker Harry Houdini (Weston) and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (Mangan), as they team up with a female Scotland Yard constable (Rebecca Liddiard) to solve supernatural-tinged mysteries.
In life as in the show, Houdini is an atheist, while Doyle is a lapsed Catholic heavily involved in spirtualism; the constable is also portrayed as Catholic. Faith is prominent in the pilot, which takes place at a Magadelene Laundry (portrayed as a nun-run, entirely hellish prison for wayward women and unwed mothers, despite some historical evidence to the contrary), and also in episode two, which centers on a charismatic preacher and faith healer.
Houdini is snarky and hostile toward faith, but Doyle is more of a muddled seeker. It’s not overtly anti-Catholic (even many Catholics believe the Magdalene Laundries were all terrible) or anti-faith, but one suspects that Houdini’s viewpoint will usually get the upper hand.
Worth a look, with caution.
“The Passion” (Fox, March 20): Airing on Palm Sunday, this live musical event (tape-delayed in the Pacific time zone) is being staged at iconic locations in New Orleans.
From the Website:
Set in modern day, THE PASSION will follow the dramatic and inspirational story of Jesus of Nazareth, as he presides over the Last Supper, and then is betrayed by Judas, put on trial by Pontius Pilate, convicted, crucified and resurrected. The story will unfold live at some of New Orleans’ most iconic locations, while featuring a procession of hundreds of people carrying a 20-foot, illuminated cross from Champion Square outside the Superdome to the live stage at Woldenburg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Tyler Perry is host and narrator; country singer Trisha Yearwood was just announced today in the role of the Virgin Mary. Singer Prince Royce is playing the disciple Peter.
Billed as a “musical event,” the production uses contemporary dress and contemporary songs. For example, Yearwood sings Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love,” and Imagine Dragons’ “Demon” is played over the scene of Judas’ betrayal.
Producers say they’re close to announcing “a great actor and great singer” as Jesus.
As it’s live, won’t know until the day — could be great, could be awful. Your call!
“The X-Files” (Fox, Jan. 24): The X-Files are reopened, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are back — and Scully’s still Catholic. She’s doing surgery at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital in Washington, D.C., ,when monsters, mayhem and Mulder re-enter her life. She’s still wearing her little cross while helping surgeons who are “doing God’s work” by correcting childhood defects.
Episode two features a storyline that involves Our Lady of Sorrows and features one of the nuns who works there (not in a full habit and wearing a little gold cross like Scully’s). Like the Magdalene Laundries episode of “Houdini & Doyle,” it throws a negative light on Catholic treatment of unwed mothers, with a bizarre “X” twist.
The nun is given a weird line, but hey, at least she’s not part of the twist.
So, we have a lot to choose from this year, and for once, it’s not all bad news.
1/19/2016: UPDATED with the premiere date of “The Story of God.”
Image: Courtesy Fox