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James Martin, S.J.July 15, 2000

One of the givens about religious life is that after spending so much time in studies, and with so many friends working in schools, the year seems to end in the summertime, rather than at the end of December. As a result, one naturally tends to reminisce as soon as the mercury begins its annual climb. (Besides, what self-respecting religious has time for such reveries at Christmas time?) Luckily, this season of looking back neatly coincides with the official end of the television season (which seems to get shorter every year; I think there were only three new "E.R." shows this season). Herewith, then, some awards for the past year in television.

Most Surprising New Trend. Movies about Jesus. By conservative count, this year saw three major Jesus movies on network TV: NBC’s "Mary, Mother of Jesus," starring Pernilla August in the title role; "Jesus," a CBS mini-series starring Jeremy Sisto; and ABC’s "The Miracle Maker," a clay-animation film featuring the voices of Ralph Fiennes and Julie Christie. At times it was difficult to keep up with all the Christological activity in the television industry. But I can happily report it made for highly entertaining conversations with network representatives. At one point, after chatting with an ABC publicist about their upcoming Claymation special, I mentioned that I had already watched the CBS movie "Jesus."

"Oh please!" she sniffed, "Jacqueline Bisset as Mary?" In response, I suggested that this casting decision was probably not something to mock, given that their Mary was, in point of fact, a five-inch clay doll.

Most surprising was the wall-to-wall coverage ("Jesus" commercials! "Jesus" the CD tie-in! Jesus on TV Guide!) and the stunning ratings that "Jesus" received during its mid-May airing, not to mention the adulatory reviews it received (from some). We can, I’m sure, look forward to many more prime-time religious movies as a result. Clearly the newest hot literary property is not a John Grisham thriller or even a Jane Austen novel. It’s The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Next year: "Lydia: Dealer of Purple" starring Sela Ward; and "Zacchaeus: Come On Down!" starring Regis Philbin. Stay tuned.

Worst Newly Confirmed Boy on Cable TV. Anthony Soprano Jr. of "The Sopranos." Poor Mr. and Mrs. Soprano. As if they didn’t have enough problems with Tony Soprano’s waste-management businesses (not to mention his anxiety attacks, scheming sister, Machiavellian mother and double-crossing friends), this season they had to contend with Anthony Jr.’s confirmation. It seems that Soprano fils began to have doubts about the existence of God after a conversation with his cousin regarding one Friedrich Nietzsche. God is dead, Anthony Jr. tells his father offhandedly in the car one day. "Who told you that?" thunders Mr. Soprano. "Nich," says his newly agnostic son.

Then follows a statement to chill the hearts of religious education instructors everywhere: "I don’t care if God is dead; you’re still getting confirmed!"

Finally, during his Confirmation Day party, the devout-in-a-Mafiosa-way Mrs. Soprano discovers Anthony Jr. in the family garage smoking marijuana. In response, she rebukes him with what was surely The Best Quote of the Year: "Can’t you be a @#%* Catholic for 15 minutes!"

Most Improved Series. "The West Wing." True, the first few episodes of this White House series were pretty slow, and it took some time to get acquainted with the characters, but admit it: You’re hooked, aren’t you? Despite his pious moralizing, you can’t get enough of Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet. (Wouldn’t it be nice if a real president took stands based on morality? Any morality?) And you love watching C. J. Gregg, the elegant and brainy and entirely human press secretary, don’t you? And even though it’s the hoariest of plot devices (see "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner"), you find engrossing the romance between the president’s daughter and the president’s African-American assistant, don’t you?

The obvious draw of "The West Wing," is the snappy dialogue, where every presidential aide, no matter how inconsequential, seems to have been raised by Hepburn and Tracy, or at least Nichols and May. And, not that I have ever set foot in the Oval Office, but it certainly feels authentic. Or rather it feels that it should be authentic. Martin Sheen for president!

Honorable Mention: "Judging Amy" is a show that began by capitalizing on the success of "Providence," that is, a professional woman with great hair moves back home. But over time, the series has done a fine job of fleshing out believable characters and giving them realistic lives. All this plus a love interest for the endlessly amusing and wonderfully talented (60-ish) Tyne Daly. Nicely done. Tyne Daly for vice president!

Best Catholic Moment. (Tie). Midway during the year, "The West Wing" featured a confused President Bartlet agonizing over the morality of the death penalty, as a man on death row awaited execution. Toward the end of the episode, a Catholic priest, played by Karl Malden, dropped by the Oval Office for an unexpectedly moving conversation. The show ended with the president deciding that he has made a mistake: He had failed to grant a stay, and the execution has proceeded. "Would you like me to hear your confession?" asks the priest simply. The final shot shows Martin Sheen readying himself for the sacrament by falling to his knees.

And on "Judging Amy," the protagonist grilled her assistant, a youngish Catholic African-American man, on why he attends church. How can you believe all of that? asks the judge. Why don’t you come and see? he offers. Unconvinced, Judge Amy needles him good-naturedly throughout the show. But at the unexpected death of one of her colleagues, Amy feels impelled to speak with her assistant on a deeper level. She asks how he can be sure that there is a God. He responds that one can’t be certain, but that he’s pretty sure every time he looks into the face of his baby daughter. The show closes with him and Amy entering a Catholic church at twilight.

An aside: Those two episodes demonstrate the latent dramatic power of spiritual themes. How ironic that producers desperate for new ways to increase ratings don’t gravitate toward topics like this more oftenparticularly in a country where upwards of 90 percent of viewers regularly declare themselves believers.

Most Unfortunate New Trend. Avarice. This was the season when viewers dispensed with all the obfuscating niceties and declared to network execs the following: What we really want to watch is not a searching drama, a cleverly written sitcom or even celebrity interviews. No, what we really want to see is people getting lots of money.

Other than this obdurate fascination with money, money, money, can anyone tell me the reason why "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has proven to be the year’s ratings juggernaut? (At last count it was airing eight nights a week.) It certainly isn’t the questions, which are rather simple. (If you’ve seen the British version you’ll be embarrassed at the American stumpers.) And it certainly isn’t the host, Regis Philbin. Cheerful as he is, Mr. Philbin is hardly a star around whose TV appearances people plan their evenings. And why, besides our penchant for voyeurism, did we watch "Survivor," in which a group of annoying people are stranded on a deserted island, if not to see who wins another pot of money? Avarice, apparently, is the new driving force in entertainment; it merely waits for someone to give it a new form.

Interestingly, the conceit used by "Survivor," that is, throwing together a group of nervous strangers in an unfamiliar, high-pressure environment, where their every move is carefully watched as they wait for the next person to bug out, seemed oddly familiar. Then I remembered: my novitiate!

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