Usually-fluffy TV digs a bit deeper

'Jesus' and 'Decalogue' investigate Christianity and its call for moral choices

Selling products is the point of most television, so most programming is fluffy on purpose - meant to distract rather than enlighten.

But creative imaginations are at work in TV, too. And despite the rampant amorality of most situation comedies, the violence of many dramas, and the lurid voyeurism of so many news programs, the "search for meaning" occasionally makes inroads on TV:

*A recent episode of "NYPD Blue" found the perpetually sarcastic Detective Andy Sipowicz comforting a colleague, whose wife was gravely ill, with the assurance that he knows there's something more, something larger than this present existence.

*In an episode of "Third Watch," a paramedic loses a patient and goes to church looking for answers, demanding that the pastor explain where we go when we die. His simple response comes forcefully: "We go to God."

Faced with the difficult problems of life, these characters look for solutions beyond the obvious. That's natural enough. But it's not so obvious in the world of television, and it wasn't nearly as likely to happen in the 1980s or early '90s - not on shows like these.

One interesting development in the last few seasons has been a growing tolerance of religious subject matter on prime time. Thinking about the next millennium has surely been an important influence, bringing with it a good deal of documentary reexamination of figures from the Bible and the major world religions.

Several have concerned Jesus or the latest evidence relating to the Gospels. A major TV film, "Mary, Mother of Jesus" on NBC last fall, looked at Mary's role in Jesus' life. A truly innovative animated and claymation feature called "The Miracle Maker" reached ABC a few weeks ago. And now the new CBS mini, Jesus (airs May 14 and 17, 9-11 p.m.), covers his adult career from a humanistic point of view. In a recent interview, director Roger Young acknowledged his debt to the new biblical scholarship and books like "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," by Marcus Borg.

"Jesus" offers a gentle, religiously orthodox take on the ancient history. It emphasizes the culpability of the Romans in the death of Jesus. It pictures him as an uncertain but loving young man willing always to do the will of God. He learns what his mission is along the way. The show is graced by several outstanding performances - Jacqueline Bisset as Mary, Armin Mueller-Stahl as Joseph, Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate, and a lovely, wholly believable Stefania Rocca as Mary of Bethany.

But the humanizing of Jesus on film also banalizes his life. The writing isn't good enough to handle his singularity. And there are other problems, too. The special effects are so much whipped cheese. We're so used to special effects as magic - from "Star Wars" to "Merlin" - that they are wholly inappropriate, distracting, and ever so goofy here. The devil appears as a pretty woman in a red dress, zipping about the wilderness like a model in a Calvin Klein Obsession ad.

But a more difficult problem is Jeremy Sisto as Jesus, who carries off youth, enthusiasm, and determination very well, but lacks any real depth. When he preaches the Sermon on the Mount, he might as well be delivering a self-help lecture, rather than moving the human heart toward goodness. When Jesus chooses his disciples, it's like the captain of a baseball team choosing the lineup in elementary school - embarrassingly silly.

And when Jesus heals, Mr. Sisto has nothing to draw upon that might help us feel the exquisite love meant to accompany the healings. It is a workmanlike, rather than an inspired, performance that illustrates the Gospel stories without illuminating them.

Other than that, "Jesus" is not too bad. It does about as well as any American television has been able to do with religious subject matter.

In Poland, on the other hand, Krzysztof Kieslowski produced a magnificent 10-film cycle, The Decalogue, in 1987, based on the Ten Commandments (begins May 12, 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel). The 10 stories take place in a single apartment complex, presumably all at about the same time. A protagonist in one film will show up as a minor character or a passing stranger in another. The unification of time and place serves to underscore the sense of simultaneity - all these lives are going on at once.

Don't expect a soft, easy explication of the commandments.

The late Kieslowski wanted to show us that these laws are fundamental to human life - if obeyed, they confer freedom. They were not rules arbitrarily imposed on human beings to limit their joys. For example, in "Thou Shalt Not Steal," a middle-aged woman usurps the affections of her own unwed daughter's little child. The theft is far more damaging to the young woman and the child than any loss of property could ever be.

In an interview 11 years ago at the Denver International Film Festival, Kieslowski said, "It is very interesting, for 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. We know what we should do, and yet we fail to live as we should."

He acknowledged that we live in a time when ethical and spiritual values often take a back seat to more materialistic concerns. "People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people turn now to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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