Why Don't the Networks 'Get' Faith?

They wouldn't know a Christian from a Klingon.

Television series spare no effort or expense to create accurate characters. The networks' careful research brings us believable military lawyers and credible space crews, pioneer folks, police officers and emergency-room physicians.

So why the inability to come up with an authentic Catholic character? Or a believable evangelical Protestant, for that matter? Usually, we see no Christian characters on television. The few who do pop up every once in a while are invariably villains, buffoons or both.

Next time you're in church, look at the families and friends around you and ask yourself how many times you've seen anything approximating lives like these on television. Why is television so blind to life as we know it?

The anti-Christian “humor” on some shows is evidence of bias. So are the anti-Christian premises, storylines and dialogue in other shows. But sometimes the absence of Christian characters in a show, or a faulty depiction of them, suggests that the problem lies not so much in ill will as in basic unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

Let's call this television's Christianity-Challenged Syndrome. One current example of this unfortunate malady is “Kristin,” a Paramount-made sitcom that NBC picked up for this summer. This 13-episode series debuted on Tuesday, June 5.

“Kristin” probably won't be around long. Its laughs are few, its critics many. So its only importance lies in the claims its creators have made for it. They say they're presenting a Christian young woman as talented, appealing and fun—not, as they admit, television's usual Christian misfit or hypocrite.

It's also interesting that “Kristin” is one of very few shows for which NBC has sent a publicity kit—press releases, actor biographies, printable photos and a video of the first three episodes—to the Register. Evidently, the network is hoping the show will have greater appeal to Catholics than its other new shows.

Are they right? Should Catholics watch this show? Should Catholic publications help the network push it? I took a look at the tape, which included the first three episodes. Here's what I found.

Kristin Yancey, the lead character, played by perky Kristin Chenoweth, is a Baptist from Oklahoma who's in New York City as a showbiz hopeful. After being cut at a dance audition for being too short, she takes a day job.

She becomes an assistant to Tommy Ballantine (Jon Tenney), a cheerfully immoral real estate developer. His right-hand man, Aldo Bonnadonna (Larry Romano), found Kristin through a minister whom he'd asked to recruit someone who could help reform Tommy.

Kristin shocks Tommy right away by standing up to him. Good-naturedly but firmly, she refuses to tell lies for him on the phone. He soon starts to like her mix of spunk, simplicity, savvy and a sense of humor, not to mention her good looks. But she warns him that she's off-limits until marriage.

So far, so good? The trouble is, from this point on, sexual misbehavior becomes a running topic of conversation in every episode, always punctuated by innuendo-laden wisecracks.

Also, Kristin's office dress sometimes is immodest. Nor does she always act and speak modestly around Tommy or Aldo. The show has crude words, abuses of God's name and subtly anti-Catholic portrayals. The characters with Catholic names commit serious sins—Aldo has been shacked up (we see him leaving that situation), and another employee, Santa Clemente (Ana Ortiz), constantly brags about her sins.

Finally, Kristin doesn't cite her faith as the reason she tries to avoid sin. Her virtue seems less related to love of God than to an affinity for old-fashioned heartland culture.

So is “Kristin” a Christian-friendly show? Its creators say it is. And I get the sense that they honestly think so. In other words, we've got a definite case of Christianity-Challenged Syndrome here.

In fairness, we shouldn't single out “Kristin”—or NBC, for that matter. They are products of their industry, no better or worse than any of their competitors. What we do need to do is be aware that, to the people we invite into our homes night after night, religious faith is an unnecessary and superficial appendage; it's a quirk some viewers inexplicably attach to themselves. It's something that needs to be not so much understood and respected as tolerated and placated.

The good news is: The appearance of “Kristin” may be a sign that the networks are grappling with how to reach people of faith. It's a lame attempt, to be sure, but could it indicate that they're reckoning with the fact that folks like us are many, and we aren't going away any time soon?

Let's hope so. Meantime, how can Catholics help television's creative minds understand that the kind of material in “Kristin” not only doesn't please us, but, in fact, offends us? How can Catholics encourage television to treat us with the sensitivity it reserves for other constituencies it consults to ensure positive portrayals?

Catholics can write letters to the editors of newspapers, magazines and entertainment-industry publications—not just to criticize what's wrong, but also to suggest what could be done right.

Catholics can organize into coalitions, as members of minority groups have done, to make their voices heard en masse.

And more Catholic young people can follow the encouragement of recent popes and enter the television and film industries as actors, actresses, writers, workers and executives.

Then, who knows? Someday, the likes of “Kristin” might dress modestly, meet a rosary-praying guy and become a happy stay-at-home mom. And prove a ratings winner, to boot.

Dan Engler, a former scriptwriter, writes the Register's “Weekly TV Picks” column from Santa Barbara, California.