Anyone who has ever spent much time in front of a TV set quickly learns this harsh lesson: The world of television is particularly hostile to the spiritual life.
But that does not mean that there are not programs which are suitable — indeed, even recommended — for families, or programs that putatively deal with matters of the spirit (who, after all, would argue that CBS's popular “Touched by an Angel” does not touch on at least some issues that are of interest to Christians?). To be sure, these programs are hard to find, but they are there, nonetheless.
With this column, the Register begins a feature that looks briefly at shows, documentaries, series or movies that are, or claim to be, suitable for families. But first, some words of warning: Not everything here was available for review (including major network miniseries based on the lives of Noah and Joan of Arc).
Because network entertainment programming — particularly movies and miniseries — often have a preponderance of violence or sexual situations, viewers should be advised that even programs with religious material may not be suitable for the youngest members of a family. Networks provide so-called ratings which advise viewers on matters of content; in most instances, those ratings are not determined until the week or day before air, so viewers should also consult listings in their local newspapers if they plan to watch something.
Here's a look at some of the major programs over the coming month:
CBS will air ”Joan of Arc“ (May 16 and May 18, 9-11 p.m.; all times listed are Eastern Daylight Time), a four-hour miniseries based on the life of the 15th century “peasant girl … whose boundless faith, courage and determination enable her to help unite and save France from its English enemy — before she is burned at the stake,” according to CBS notes. This one boasts an all-star cast (Jacqueline Bisset, Powers Boothe, Olympia Dukakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Loggia, Peter O'Toole, Maximilian Schell and Peter Strauss), and the producers also promise historical veri-similitude — but then, they always do. One fact is certain: Producers will take certain liberties to heighten drama and action, and that alone will cause purists — not to mention historians — some anguish. It remains unclear how Joan, a canonized saint, will be portrayed: as a postmodern feminist engaged in a titanic struggle with Catholic Church leaders? or as a more complex figure whose actions are guided by profoundly spiritual motives?
This is television, so expect the former. There are, in fact, hints that CBS is leading the entire story toward a climactic showdown between Joan and Brother John Le'Maitre (Schell), who is described by press releases as “the dreaded deputy of France's Holy Inquisition.” During the trial she is also “prodded” by Bishop Cauchon (O'Toole). After ultimately refusing to deny her voices and beliefs, the 19-year-old Joan is burned for heresy, ending her short life but not her extraordinary place in history.
This happens to be one of network television's two major miniseries in May; the other is “Noah's Ark” (see below). But some additional words of warning: The brief promotional clip CBS has provided the press on “Joan of Arc” features battlefield violence. Expect plenty of that in the four hours.
“The Legacy of Love“ will be broadcast later this week (Sunday, April 18, 11 a.m.). It's about Erin Tierney Kramp, a Dallas wife and mother, who wrote of her near-death experiences (and would later succumb to cancer). The book she co-wrote, according to press note, was “about preparing for death practically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
“Noah's Ark“ has been accorded more pre-broadcast publicity than just about any miniseries this season, so expectations are high. The four hour mini (May 2 and 3, 9-11 p.m. each night) lies at the heart of NBC's fairly new strategy to bring the “classics” — either secular or based, however loosely, on religious texts — to the small screen. In recent past productions of this sort (“Crime & Punishment,” “Gulliver's Travels”), NBC's been criticized for taking significant liberties with the original material, and one can certainly expect departures from the biblical story in this production as well. What will they be? Our guess: Expect major liberties at every turn of the story; but the basic outline will remain intact (how could it not be?) The good news: This will be produced by Robert Halmi, one of television's outstanding producers. Cast includes Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen.
The Public Broadcasting Service has a bounty of new programming coming up within the next few weeks, though admittedly little of a spiritual nature. Foremost, it began airing ”Great Composers“ (Wednesdays, 9 p.m.) on April 14, starting with Mozart and Beethoven, followed by Wagner and Mahler (April 21), and Tchaikovsky and Puccini (April 28). Narrated by actor Kenneth Branagh, this promises a cut-above-the-superficial examination of some of the majors.
On the nature front, ”The Living Edens“ will air a spectacular presentation on April 28 at 10, entitled “Bornea: Island in the Clouds.” For the uninitiated, “Living Edens” is one of the finest nature programs on television, combining good storytelling with breathtaking photography. “Bornea” is an interesting contrast with cable network Animal Planet's “Bornea Burning: Orangutan Rescue,” which airs Saturday, April 24, at 9. This one's in stark contrast to the PBS program, and examines horrific destruction of one of the world's most intricate ecosystems.
On April 16, PBS will also premiere a brand new news series, entitled ”National Desk.” Narrators include conservative commentator and evangelical Christian Fred Barnes. This show promises a look at how the minds of young Americans are formed. It began last week, but two additional episodes (Fridays, at 10) will look at women in the military and women in sports.
Lifetime: This cable network occasionally features documentaries on modern American life, and there are a couple of note in the coming days. First, ”Confronting the Crisis: Children in America“ (April 20, 10-11 p.m.) is a look at how families are coping with child care. Next up is “Different Moms,” about mentally retarded mothers who are raising children who are not similarly disabled. (Monday, May 10, 11 p.m.) This was produced and written by Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy.
The History Channel
Anyone who liked ABC's “The Century,” which began airing recently, will want to see ”The Century: America's Time.” This 15-and-a-half-hour will appeal more to the historical purists at heart and to those who felt that “The Century” was all-too-brief (it was: in only 10 hours, ABC tried to cover only a few major events in the 20th century). The History Channel series is the cable companion to the ABC News broadcast, and both also share the same anchor (Peter Jennings) and, in some cases, producers. But “America's Time” is a distinct departure. This telecast is a chronological study of the century; ABC's was not. It also covers a far wider range of historical events than the ABC program, with much more archival footage, though from a Catholic's perspective, “America's Time” will be lacking.
It is even unclear whether the program will make mention of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) — one of the most significant landmarks of the century. The series offers a distinctly secular retrospective of the century; for some, certainly too secular. The program began airing April 12 and will air nightly (except April 17 and 18) until April 28. The program begins each night at 9.
Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.