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NETWORKS HAVE LEARNED TO EXPLOIT SPIRITUALITY

I didn't worry when NBC's Monday prime time was capped off with a psychic sleuth catching bad guys by dream images from the great beyond. Nor, despite mild consternation, was I terminally disturbed by Wednesday's ridiculous "Revelations," which is occupying the old "West Wing" time slot for four more weeks.

It was Sgt. Cruz's flirtation with Santeria on Friday night's "Third Watch" that got me. I'm now officially worried about NBC and, to a lesser extent, all of network TV. We seem to be in prime-time's cult phase. Are they being overrun by wacko spirituality? Or the exploitable version of the real thing?

It's like this with "Third Watch." Cruz, played by Tia Texada, is the tough and relentless hot-bodied detective who flaunts rules and regulations in her weekly search for perps. Maybe it's the shape of her lips but when she's not delivering lines, she seems to spend every show midway between a sneer and a scowl.

Watchers of "The Third Watch" have recently been treated to the news that Cruz is gravely ill but refusing chemotherapy. This, needless to say, puts her in private search for large life meanings while she's also searching high and low for perps.

So, on a recent episode, she confessed her problem to a minister in Santeria and ended up about to dance with hip-flying, hair-tossing abandon in a covert ghetto Santeria ritual. No chickens were about to be slaughtered on the premises but one couldn't be sure.

The First Amendment -- which some of us worship unashamedly -- means exactly what it says. None of us has any business trying to force anyone else to believe anything -- or, for that matter, to force anyone out of believing anything. No matter how mainstream or cultish one's beliefs (or non-beliefs), they're one's privilege, even if they involve slaughtered chickens or the esoteric teachings of a roadside bat rancher in Amarillo.

Prime-time television, though, is another matter. At the moment, we seem to have entered TV's First Church of Spiritual Exploitation, especially at NBC where the commercial lessons of "The DaVinci Code" and Mel Gibson's "Passion" are now manifest in "Revelations," a piece of baroque TV junk full of bedside miracles and comatose babblings in church Latin, not to mention Satanist convicts.

Bill Pullman plays the spiritual debunker, a mind of armed-and-ready freelance Devil's Advocate given to scientific explanations of all spiritual and religious phenomena. Natasha McElhone plays the Keeper of the Faith, a world-touring nun whose job seems to be finding manifestations of the divine and the miraculous. The veil becomes her gorgeous face, quite nicely.

It's all stunningly awful to watch but even the hardest-bitten skeptics have to admit it's awful in a decidedly new TV way. And it's visually charismatic about its souped-up spirituality.

Once upon a time, that deeply spiritual man Cecil B. DeMille figured out that as long as you purported to be telling moralistic Bible stories, you could smuggle staggering amounts of skin, sin and sensuality onscreen. On the other hand, the New Network Spiritualists have figured out that we're in an era with a decidedly different need. In a time of serial killing as prime-time entertainment and the Michael Jackson trial as the E! Channel's evening appetizer, we've taken matter-of-fact TV evil as far as you can.

When you've got the autopsies of "CSI" and the kinkinesses of "Law and Order: SVU" accepted as ordinary television, you need, ummm, to try another direction.

Hence "Revelations" which the estimable John Leonard, in New York magazine labeled "Catholic porn" in a sideswipe. Hence, Ortiz' flirtation with Santeria on "Third Watch."

If you're one of those old-fashioned folks who tend to prefer your religion without the racing stripes and the mosh pit, you've even been lucky enough to have a very real religious drama to attend to -- the election of Benedict XVI.

And that's the point. TV's prime-time version notwithstanding, religion is a very real thing in lots of lives. It gets them through the day -- and the night.

So, some would argue, does TV in a lot of lives. God help us all, they may well have been made for each other -- even the Friday evening seminars in Santeria.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com