Wednesday, January 10, 2018

From the Archives: Wrestling with the 'Naked Truth' About Religion on TV (1996)

This article appeared in various newspapers, including The Metro Herald, in January 1996:

Wrestling with the "Naked Truth" About Religion on TV
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

By most accounts, modern entertainment media seldom -- if ever -- treat religious belief and practice with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Gone are the days when religious commitment was portrayed in a positive light. Unlike the 1940s, when movies such as Going My Way and The Song of Bernadette won both crowds and awards, the 1990s are strangely bereft of authentic portrayals of religious life.

There have, indeed, been some attempts to use religious life as the basis for TV series. Remember The Flying Nun? The Father Dowling Mysteries featured a priest and a nun as crimesolvers -- a gimmick to dress up a ho-hum detective story in clerical garb. Amen, starring a post-Jeffersons Sherman Hemsley, was set in an urban, vaguely Baptist church. None of these, however, dealt with religious belief in a sustained, serious manner. Religion was simply a frame in which to project otherwise unexceptionable storylines.

Although Americans are about the most religious people in the world, those who produce and write television programs tend to be among the "non-believers." These media elite live the lives Thomas Carlyle had in mind when he suggested that "if Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it."

Tea Leoni The Naked Truth TV Guide 1995Thus it was with some surprise that the January 10 episode of The Naked Truth, an ABC-TV sitcom, focused respectfully on religious belief.

For those unfamiliar with this series, its main character, Nora, is a professional photographer who, through bad luck and poor personal choices, has been forced to take a job with a supermarket tabloid, The Comet, which makes The National Enquirer look like The Wall Street Journal. Once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Nora has descended to the depths of taking snapshots of buxom model Anna Nicole Smith at her gynecologist's office, and of Tom Hanks with his hand stuck down the fly of his trousers.

On January 10, The Naked Truth found Nora improbably dating a young man who spent the past five years on Zarkon-B, a planet 7,000 light-years from Earth. (He was, it seems, abducted by aliens.) At the same time, trying to track down Drew Barrymore for a Comet story, Nora disguises herself as a nun and runs into an old college friend -- once known as "Luscious" -- who is now Sister Katherine.

Nora, who in each episode frantically defends herself against the slings and arrows of daily life, is impressed by Sister Katherine's serenity and inner peace. ("Why did you become a nun?" Nora asks. Replies Sister Katherine: "Somehow being a drunken slut was strangely unfulfilling.")

When all the world seems to be against her, Nora takes her troubles to a drinking buddy, who makes Nora confront her own lack of belief. She plaintively asks why Sister Katherine can be so serene, while her own life is consumed by one trouble after another. Nora's friend suggests that Sister Katherine has found the love of God to guide her. Nora responds by saying she can't buy into that God business. "I haven't prayed since I was in grade school," she says.

Her friend gets right to the point. You can believe that your boyfriend was abducted by aliens and came to Earth from another planet, he says, but you can't believe there's a superior being who loves us? "What made you too cool for God?" he asks.

Nora returns to the convent to tell Sister Katherine that she, too, would like to become a nun. Sister Katherine, appropriately skeptical, suggests that Nora feels a great thirst and wants "to drink the ocean." Perhaps it would be better, the sister says, to start with "one glass of water." Departing for vespers, Sister Katherine invites Nora to wait an hour for her return. "What will I do for an hour?" Nora asks. "You'll think of something," says Sister Katherine.

Indeed she does. The scene closes with Nora kneeling in a pew, facing the altar, saying out loud: "Hello, God, this is Nora. Long time no see."

Tea Leoni The Naked Truth This summary does little justice to this tightly-packed, amusing half-hour. The writers are to be commended for their ability to deal with serious philosophical issues in a light-hearted, yet respectful, manner. Sister Katherine shows that, even in a convent, she and the other nuns are part of this world, not some other ethereal one. Nora displays her heartfelt need to seek something beyond herself, something that can guide her decisionmaking. Not yet sure of what she needs, she approaches Sister Katherine for assistance.

All this, despite the humor, is done without mockery. What shocks is not the placement of religious topics in a situation comedy -- this has been done before (Buddy Sorrell's bar mitzvah on The Dick Van Dyke Show, or the presence of Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H). What is startling is the respectful treatment, something one simply does not expect in the 1990s. The message is clear: Faith in God is something worth seeking; religious faith can help us define our identities and guide our actions.

If this episode of The Naked Truth is idiosyncratic, it means that the Hollywood elite are just as hostile toward -- or indifferent to -- the religious commitment of the vast majority of Americans as they have been over the past 40 years. If, however, it is not unique, we have reason to remain hopeful.

* * * * * * * * * *
Richard Sincere is entertainment editor of The Metro Herald, a weekly newspaper based in Alexandria, Virginia.

No comments: