ABC's "Nothing Sacred" (8 tonight, Channel 7) is the mosttalked-about and one of the least-watched series of the season.
The series, about a liberal inner-city priest, Father Ray (Kevin Anderson), really didn't have a prayer even before the Catholic League asked sponsors to stop advertising on it.
It airs opposite NBC's "Friends," a show that spends so much time devoted to sex that you'd think religious people would protest it instead.
Predictably, "Sacred" is suffering ratings woes. Last week it failed to get even a double-digit share for a marvelous episode featuring John Cullum (Holling Vincoeur of "Northern Exposure").
Cullum played a widower so upset at his late wife's decision to ask Father Ray to preside over her funeral that he announced he was boycotting it. Cullum's character abhorred everything about Father Ray, from his liberal teachings to his casual wardrobe.
"The church had to change," said Father Ray.
"Father, there is no church anymore," replied Cullum's strictly religious character.
The episode seemed to be co-creator Paul Leland's (who is a Jesuit priest) brilliant answer to conservative critics of the series about the value of creating a religious dialogue.
By episode's end, Cullum's character and Father Ray had met halfway. Father Ray incorporated some traditional elements in the funeral Mass, which Cullum didn't boycott after all. The most moving hour of the season, it even al-
lowed Broadway singers Cullum and Anderson an opportunity to sing "Panis Angelicus," a Latin hymn, near the end.
By the next morning, I received a few calls from people asking me whom they should write at ABC to save the show (Stu Bloomberg, Chairman, ABC Entertainment, 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, Calif. 90067). "Nothing Sacred" also has been a prime topic of letter writers. My mail has been a mixture of pro and con.
While the protests of the Catholic League have received the most attention, the show has since gotten some lukewarm support from Father Thomas Costello of the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Los Angeles diocesan newspaper. Father Costello said the show "should succeed or fail on its merits."
Undaunted, the Catholic League sent out another release Tuesday about another advertiser having dropped out. The show has even received attention from CBS' "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel," which suggested the controversy would help improve the visibility of the show and Anderson.
That's wishful thinking. "Sacred" fits the mold of recent ABC shows like "My So-Called Life" and "Relativity" that have narrow constituencies and are just too good for TV.
Anderson's priest is a charismatic, dynamic, thoughtful, caring, self-doubting man dealing with the harsh realities of a poor inner-city parish.
Priests like Father Ray do exist. During a summer interview with Anderson, he mentioned to me that his character was partly inspired by a priest at St. Agatha's Church on the west side of South Central Los Angeles, Father Ken Deasy.
A few days later, a close friend of mine, New Orleans critic Mark Lorando, and I headed to Father Ken's progressive church. We sat with Father Ken a day after he had buried a 10-year-old and a few days after he had intervened in the home of a drunken mother who threw her kids out and asked him to take them.
Father Ken met us at the door wearing jeans, an open collar, sandals and a smile. A good-looking, blond 43-year-old, he could have passed for a California surfer.
When Anderson called, Father Ken said he didn't know who he was. "I believe he came to me to develop more of the passion . . . the intimate side of the life," said Father Ken.
Living in Lala Land, Father Ken knows the TV business better than most priests. He understood that Anderson had to create a character that attracted viewers.
"I see it almost like a new priest going to a new parish. People have to love you first before you start shaking it up in regards to being ultraliberal, radical, traditional, whatever," he said.
"I agreed to (help) because many times when they portray priests it's all sappy. The priests come off as wimpy, lifeless and boring and not having a clue, if not, in fact, mean, unhappy, miserable. All they do is say Mass, drink scotch and golf.
"I just don't like that image. I'm in this life because I'm not escaping anything. I'm in this life because I find intimacy in regards to helping others."
He became a priest 10 years ago. "It's a multifaceted life. It's not a job, it's a life. Everything from rectory living, administration, crisis intervention. . . . We've got homeboys here, we've got racial stuff, poor stuff, welfare stuff, illegal immigration.
"I see myself like a doctor who wants to go out and save souls and save lives, and he's got to go out and develop a practice. . . . I have to be a priest and a business manager and a housekeeper, a cook and a maintenance supervisor."
Deasy liked the pilot, though he found Father Ray's anger a little severe. "What I suggested to Kevin was to show us more of how much he loves what he does," said Father Ken.
He not only hadn't heard of Anderson before this series, he hadn't heard of the Catholic League, either. What does he think of its disapproval?
"It depends on what they want to see. If they want bells and incense and smoke, that's not my experience of church.
"There are places where religion is the sacred cow," said Father Ken. "There is religion and no spirituality, and there can be spirituality and no religion. Here, what's nice is, we use the religion to enhance the spirituality of a particular people.
"To me, there is no sin at all in encouraging dialogue. . . . This show obviously is not encouraging dissent. And even dissent itself is not a sin."
Father Ken realizes "Sacred" isn't the gospel. It's only TV.
"I don't sit there to watch it like scripture. . . . It's a show, OK? And they made it to make money. That's what it is.
"I didn't see it ragging on the pope. I did see it putting parish and institution side by side, person and priest side by side, prayer and word side by side, passion and compassion side by side. What's wrong with that?"