Television dramas that take religion or spiritual matters seriously are often like licks on the cheek from a Saint Bernard — excessively friendly, warm, and wet. Reassurance and comfort are the steadfast goals, since it is assumed that people want their beliefs confirmed, not questioned, even if that questioning might result in a freshened, strengthened confirmation. That’s essentially why a clearheaded, beautifully conceived new show about a Catholic priest, Nothing Sacred, is going to have a tough time attracting people who enjoy higher-power smiley buttons like Touched by an Angel and Promised Land. Well, that and the fact that Sacred is in a too-early time period, up against Promised Land and Friends. Indeed, given the ways in which Nothing Sacred is going to be sorely tested for viewership, you’d almost think one of the most mysterious ways in which God works is as a network programmer.
Sacred follows the travails of Father Francis Xavier ”Ray” Rayneaux (Kevin Anderson), who presides over the inner-city, racially mixed, cash-scarce parish of St. Thomas. Father Ray is the sort of young man of the cloth who wears running shoes beneath his vestment and whose pervasive sense of irony prompts a dismayed colleague to remark, ”You’re the pastor, and you can’t even talk about God with a straight face.”
Because he lets the homeless sleep on the church’s front stoop and listens to loud R&B, we know Father Ray is some kind of liberal — you get the distinct sense that had he been a priest in the ’60s, Ray would’ve been pouring bottles of pig’s blood into government draft-record files alongside religious radicals like Philip Berrigan. As Ray, Anderson is certainly not the male version of Angel’s Roma Downey. This guy could easily have been obnoxious, but Anderson, a theater and film actor (A Thousand Acres), does a remarkable job of making this scruffily self-righteous yet self-doubting rabble-rouser likable. (Among other things, he’s that ideal adolescent-girl crush: a cute priest.)
As you might imagine, some Catholics have, without viewing the show, already started pelting ABC and the producers with letters of protest. Well, I’ve seen the pilot and read three future scripts for the series, and would point out that there’s a conservative character custom-made to challenge Ray’s knee-jerkiness, wise old Father Leo (played by I’ll Fly Away’s Brad Sullivan).
Besides, one great virtue of Sacred is that it quickly transcends political labels to grapple with everything from abortion (should the church secretary get one?) to celibacy (should Ray go to bed with an ex-girlfriend in need of intimate comfort?). I know — eek; these are the kinds of plotlines designed to herald big, screaming important social messages. But blessedly, they don’t. True to its title, Sacred holds neither political nor religious correctness as sacrosanct. It makes Roman Catholic policy clear, then shows how policy can play out in messy lives.
Those of you wondering what qualifies mere TV writers to create a wafer-dispensing loose cannon like Father Ray should know that the pilot was written (as will be some subsequent episodes) by a Jesuit priest — he uses the pseudonym Paul Leland. And one of Sacred’s executive producers is Richard Kramer, a guiding intelligence behind thirtysomething. This new show has a similarly dark, moody, burnished look to it, but in this case, it really suits the series’ chief location and subject matter, which are, respectively, a gravely lovely old wooden-beamed church, and the grave, troubled secrets that people bring into it.
Ultimately, Nothing Sacred seems to exist to help prove, in the words of the great theologian Karl Barth, that God ”exists neither next to Man nor merely above him, but rather with him, by him and, most important of all, for him.” Except, of course, Nothing Sacred would be sure to have old Karl add female pronouns to that sentence. A-