THE GOD SQUAD

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Television has come to repent, for it has sinned, my brothers and sisters, yes it has. It has sinned with thongs on Baywatch, it has sinned with adultery on Melrose Place, and it has sinned, time and time again, on MTV. But now prime time is appearing before you to beg forgiveness, to prove that it too can be a virtuous member of our community.

This season the networks are paving a multilane highway to heaven with an unprecedented eight shows with religious and spiritual themes. Each of these supplicants is praying for the Top-10 ratings success of last season's surprise hit, Touched by an Angel (CBS, Sundays, 8 p.m. E.T.). Also back this fall are 7th Heaven (the WB, Mondays, 8 p.m. E.T.), the melodrama about a minister's family; Dan Aykroyd's priestly sitcom Soul Man (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.); and the Angel spin-off Promised Land (CBS, Thursdays, 8 p.m. E.T.). Joining them are four newcomers, each offering a slightly more irreverent approach to religion. A pastor tries to fill his church on UPN's jokey sitcom Good News (Mondays, 9 p.m. E.T.). A winged adolescent watches over his mortal friend on ABC's kid-com Teen Angel (Fridays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.). And Fox's The Visitor (Fridays, 8 p.m. E.T.) mixes religion and sci-fi through the wanderings of a messianic alien abductee, played by Jesus look-alike John Corbett (Northern Exposure).

Then there's ABC's Nothing Sacred (Thursdays, 8 p.m. E.T.). The most hyped--and most controversial--of this fall's new shows, it centers on Father Ray, a hip Catholic priest, played by Kevin Anderson. In the pilot episode alone, he suggests that a young woman considering abortion follow her conscience, struggles with his belief in God and barely resists scoring with a married ex-girlfriend. Some Catholics have already threatened a boycott against ABC.

All in all, not since Bishop Fulton J. Sheen began delivering his weekly sermons in front of a chalkboard on the DuMont Network has television been so pious. You could call it prime-time revivalism, except that TV never had much religion to revive. Until recently, religion was considered too sensitive a topic to dramatize--or joke about. Producer Norman Lear (All in the Family) made an unsuccessful venture into that territory in 1991 with Sunday Dinner, a weak sitcom in which characters regularly argued about God. Two years later, Lear addressed the lack of religious programming in a speech at the National Press Club. "I said, 'Where are you guys? Why aren't you reporting on the biggest story in the culture of America?'" he remembers.

Lear was right. As the millennium approaches and baby boomers begin to confront their mortality, people have begun to seek out the comfort of religion in all aspects of their lives--even on TV. "Since the beginning of television, God has been a taboo word," says Father Ellwood ("Bud") Kieser, whose program Insight was one of the pioneers of religious TV in the '60s. "The industry was convinced that entertainment and religion were incompatible. Now there is dramatic evidence that this is not true."

Indeed, in a March TV Guide poll 61% of the respondents wanted more references to God in prime time. The networks, recognizing a growth opportunity, had already begun easing clergy into the province of lawyers, doctors and cops. According to a Parents Television Council study, there has been a near fourfold increase in religious depictions on network prime time since 1993.

The show that got the reformation rolling was Touched by an Angel. In 1993 CBS went hunting for something fluffy to cash in on the New Age angel craze. What it got instead from executive producer Martha Williamson was some heavy religious programming. Each week three angels (Della Reese, Roma Downey and John Dye) come to earth to counsel souls in crisis. Basically, they tell them to shut up and trust God, and then the angel of death takes someone away. It is great melodrama--Job replayed weekly--but pretty tough stuff. Nervous CBS execs ordered six episodes--and prepared a replacement. Williamson wasn't surprised by the show's success. "There are a lot more people in this country who believe in God than the guys in Hollywood and New York want to believe," she says.

Two seasons after Angel's debut, several series tried to capitalize on its formula. The well-acted, heart-tugging Promised Land, created by Williamson, has Gerald McRaney (Major Dad) taking his newly destitute family around the country in a trailer, helping others find faith. Aaron Spelling, who first traded angels in low-cut blouses for the spiritual kind with his 1994 flop Heaven Help Us, came up with the cruelly slow-paced 7th Heaven. It stars Stephen Collins as a minister in a troubled extended family whose members seem to do mean things to one another just so they can ask for forgiveness.

The newer shows more obviously convert secular ideas into religious ones. Matt Williams (Roseanne) co-created last spring's decent midseason replacement Soul Man, which has Aykroyd as a widowed gang member turned minister raising four kids. UPN's Good News has some nice gospel tunes but is both theologically and comically weak. Teen Angel is just another preteen T.G.I.F. show, only dumber. The Visitor is a brash but effective attempt to meld Angel and The X-Files; one of its executive producers is John Masius, creator of Angel.

By far the best of the new shows is Nothing Sacred. It's intelligent, well acted, dramatic to a fault and, overall, pretty believable. A lot of its credibility is due to Father Bill Kane, a Jesuit priest and playwright who co-created the show and wrote the pilot, under the pseudonym Paul Leland. Andrew Greeley, the priest and best-selling novelist, thinks Kane's show is dead on. "In the pilot, where the woman is asking about an abortion, I would say something like that," he says. "That's the only effective way to deal with a woman who has a problem like that."

Of course, not everyone agrees. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has circulated a petition asking Disney to withdraw the show and has taken an ad in Advertising Age threatening its sponsors. Says William Donohue, the league's president: "It feeds the same appetite that says that the good Catholics are the ones smart enough not to go along with what's going on in Rome." But other Catholics defend the show. In his glowing review in the Catholic magazine America, Jesuit TV columnist James Martin writes, "If you think that any of these story lines are beyond the pale, just recall one of your parish council's agendas."

Meanwhile, TV's religious crusade continues. Universal Television is developing a sitcom for gospel singer Kirk Franklin. CBS will devote four hours this spring to a Celestine Prophecy miniseries. America's Martin postulates that all this activity "is reflective of a general trend toward spirituality." Ed. Weinberger, who made his mark with shows like Taxi before creating the 1986 Sherman Hemsley vehicle, Amen, and this year's Good News, is a bit more cynical. "People are sniffing a dollar, I guess."

In the end--more than relaxing taboos, the approaching millennium or aging baby boomers--that's probably it. As with the nasty rash of shows that broke out after the first season of Friends (remember Can't Hurry Love? Pig Sty?), producers are standing in line to photocopy Touched by an Angel. But the conversion might not hold. The networks' best religious shows, Promised Land and Nothing Sacred, risk getting crushed by their heathen Thursday-night competition, Friends. Religion may be jamming the tube this season, but the young and the reckless still rule. Sinners, after all, have killer demographics.