Pan or Praise? PBS on the Pope

It's September, which means — for millions of us, anyway — time to pull out the rakes, or turn on the set. Literally turn on the set: So-called usage of television increases exponentially during the fall, for reasons of weather and, of course, new programming.

New schedules will launch on six major networks by midmonth. After baseball playoffs and World Series coverage concludes in late October, most new shows will have seen the light of day. But is there reason for cheer, from a viewer's perspective? That depends on what viewer we are talking about. For families, the news is mostly grim. Rare is the season that offers something for family viewing. Even rarer is something of a spiritually uplifting nature — unheard of, in fact, this season.

More than at any time in recent television history, the fall schedules in 1999 are essentially dangerous places to venture. There is quite possibly more violence in new shows (Fox's “Harsh Realm”) and coarse language (on each of the 14 new dramas) and sexual situations (including ABC's “Then Came You” ) than in any new season in memory.

So what's happened? Commercial television has effectively “ghetto-ized” viewers, creating very specific programs for very specific groups of viewers. Families (most programmers assume) no longer watch television together, in part because most homes in the United States have at least two sets. This means individual family members split off to watch something of specific interest to them. And so programs are tailored for specific age interests. This has effectively doomed the so-called family viewing hour, once a safe harbor at 8 p.m. for family-oriented shows each night. No new show at 8 p.m. this fall is suitable for family viewing.

What to do? If you have children, monitor their viewing carefully. Just because something is on at 8 does not mean it is suitable. You should assume that it is not.

Meanwhile, here are some key highlights this September:


John Paul II: The Millennial Pope PBS, 9 p.m. Eastern

This is PBS' major presentation in September, and the season opener for public television's influential and respected news series, “Frontline.” It is also, quite possibly, TV's most exhaustive look at the Pope and his accomplishments. As such, this will be popular viewing for Catholics. If you plan to turn the TV set on only once this fall, this may be the time.

“Frontline's” ambitions are grander than a mere recitation of a career. It tries — with limited success, I think — to link the Pope's past to his present. This psychological portrait will infuriate some viewers, and enlighten others. Yet on balance “The Millennial Pope” is mostly fair, but with an edge of negativity. “In 20 years he has commanded the world stage, reinvigorating the Church in much of the world [but] he has emerged as a man at war with the 20th century itself,” according to press notes.

But consider: The producer, Helen Whitney, also tilts the tone ever so slightly in favor of late 20th century sensibilities, leaving an indelible image of a Pope trapped in his own and the Church's past. What's troubling with this impression is the program's resolute unwillingness — with some exceptions — to consult the written record. Pope John Paul II, of course, has written and spoken widely on the subjects covered here — on communism, liberation theology, abortion, the place of women within the Church hierarchy and consumerism.

Yet with the exception of an extensive quote from his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) — “It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil,” he famously writes — the actual voice and mind of the Pope are mostly absent from this 150-minute program.

That leaves others to interpret his thoughts and actions. Some do so sympathetically, some not. Most troubling is the extensive discussion of liberation theology and the Pope's relationship with Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, who was — the program asserts — forsaken by the Pope and eventually assassinated at the altar of his church. Here the Pope is portrayed as a doughty reactionary who supported the overthrow of communism in his native Poland, but failed to rally to the support of Church factions in Central America. The question that is never answered: Why, specifically, did the Pope (who did not consent to be interviewed) take this stand on liberation theology in the first place? It is a gaping hole in the program.

Yet overriding this portrait is an image of a man ruled by his past, and the Polish psyche: For example, “I think,” says Adam Zamoyski, author of The Polish Way, “[that] the Polish psychological landscape is peopled first and foremost with martyrs. I think the Pope feels the collective experience and the collective suffering of the Polish nation in his bones. And I think this disposed him to glory in suffering.”

“The Millennial Pope” covers some familiar territory: the Pope's relation with the Jews and his famed pastoral letter denouncing antiSemitism; an extensive examination of his relationship with his mother, who died in his youth, and with the Virgin Mary; and — best of all — a particularly thoughtful discussion on the Pope's views on life and death.

And the legacy? In a short and powerful closing section, the program addresses this as well, albeit ambiguously. “His legacy is the angry conversation that he provoked over faith vs. modernity,” says Tony Judt, professor of European studies at New York University.

Robert Suro, a writer with The Washington Post, concludes with this observation: “On the one hand, the Pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure — a man who only sees the dark side of modernity, a man obsessed with the evils of the 20th century. … On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours.”


P.T. Barnum A&E, 8 p.m. Eastern

While I haven't fully screened this “four-hour extravaganza” (as breathlessly billed by A&E), a cursory glance reveals an engaging and nicely produced miniseries on an engaging and colorful figure. Beau Bridges plays Phineas himself, while the screenplay was written by one of TV's premiere screenwriters, Lionel Chetwynd. On any network, this is the major miniseries of September, and well worth a look.

Politically Un-diverse?

As fall rolls forward, what are the big issues in television? The major networks were literally caught by surprise by the latest controversy to engulf them: diversity.

When new shows were unveiled to critics and advertisers last spring, more than a few noted a major discrepancy. With a couple of exceptions, none of the new shows (more than 25 in all) had African American or Latino actors cast in leading roles.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples launched an assault on the networks, which hurriedly arranged meetings and — yes — cast changes. During the so-called press tours held for critics in Pasadena, Calif., in July, each network president vowed to diversify the casts.

The absence of family-oriented programming has reached crisis proportions in advertising circles. A group of advertisers recently approached the WB Network, offering to partly fund shows with “family themes.” The irony here: the WB led the charge away from the family, and specializes in shows for teenagers (one exception, which the advertisers noted: “7th Heaven” ).

Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.