TV Goes Bump in the Night

There are a lot of ghosties and beasties out there in TV land, a number of conspicuously anthropomorphized angels and devils, and the occasional creepy extraterrestrial.

From dark, often pessimistic thrillers like "The X-Files" to the airy sentiments of "Touched By An Angel," TV is cosmically charged these days.

Critics suggest it's all religion lite. But other media experts take a more generous view: These shows, they say, play to the popular desire for meaning in a world that threatens to undermine meaning.

"Science has been wildly successful in selling itself," says Dr. Mark Silberstein, a professor of philosophy at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. "But people are scared that the naturalistic view of the world will explain away [meaning]." So angels and devils in the popular culture are really a way to re-enchant the world, he says.

Of course, TV's cosmic view is nothing new. It has been telling stories of the preternatural and supernatural for a long time. "The Twilight Zone," "The Outer Limits," "The Night Gallery," "I Dream of Jeannie," "Bewitched," "The Incredible Hulk," and "Tales From the Dark Side," among many others, dramatically or comically strode the landscape of the incredible to tell moral tales or to mock (and therefore dilute) viewers' nightmarish fears.

Of course, some of these shows just tried to scare the daylights out of us. Or embody fantasies of what it would be like to have superpowers and just "fix" anything that happened to annoy us - often with adverse consequences.

In fact, consequences are key to speculative fiction in all its forms (science fiction, horror, or fantasy). And nowhere on TV are the consequences of human actions more relevant to the plot than in Fox's new chiller, "Brimstone" (Fox, Fridays, 8-9 p.m.)

Like the other Fox thrillers, "The X-Files" (in its sixth season) and "Millennium" (in its third), "Brimstone" focuses on the dark side: Facing evil is difficult, dirty work.

A strong "gross-out factor" (what with monsters, mayhem, and murder galore) pervades all of them, which makes these shows anything but family fare. In this same category is WB's hit comic-horror show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," about an empowered teen who destroys the undead, and WB's white magic fantasy "Charmed," which can be clever, but never seems to have much of a point (moral or otherwise) beyond being a vehicle for three snazzy actresses and some recycled horror-fluff.

Rounding up hell's escapees

But "Brimstone" is a promising show - and should appeal to X-philes and Millennium-ites.

Peter Horton stars as Ezekiel Stone, a highly decorated police officer murdered in the line of duty who goes to hell because he dispatched his wife's rapist in a fit of vengeful wrath (see interview at left). During his 15 years in the underworld, 113 of the most evil types escape back to earth, wrecking havoc at will. Satan employs Stone to return them to their eternal punishment.

Even Satan, it seems, has to obey the laws of the universe, according to the show's weird theological premise, and cannot permit the damned to roam the earth. Stone's reward, should he complete the assignment, is another shot at life. "We wanted an everyman," says writer-producer Ethan Reiff. "We wanted a [protagonist] who viewers would look at and say, 'There but for the grace of God, go I....' One [act] led to his being damned. So the show says, 'Don't kid yourself, you create your own fate.' "

Well, the producers aren't pretending they know much about theology - the guys are making it up as they go along, says Mr. Reiff. Still, they're savvy enough to show the escapees refusing to learn from their mistakes - none of them repents. Apparently, "hell" means never having to say you're sorry.

"The show might appeal to Jesse Helms," Reiff says. "I'm not a conservative, but everything is not relative. The universe of Brimstone works. Its laws are hard and fast and difficult to accept. Just like the laws of nature. There is no negotiation, no appeal. Our sympathies are with Stone - a lot of people would want to do what he did [kill the rapist]. But is it right?"

So Brimstone is that odd combination of morality play and horror show, whose precedents reach all the way back to the medieval. It's a kind of video-age Dante's Inferno. The viewer is afforded the opportunity to think about his or her own actions.

One telling little scene in the second episode had Stone visiting a college campus. Across the hall, the devil (John Glover), disguised as a guidance counselor, advises a coed to go ahead and work as a stripper - if that's the only way to stay in college. He then tells Stone he's just trying to set her on the wrong path.

Where else would we even hear about a "wrong path" on today's relativistic TV? Certainly not on "Friends" or "Ally McBeal." But maybe only on a family show like "7th Heaven," or overtly religious shows like "Touched By An Angel" and "Promised Land." In these shows, evil doing gets its comeuppance - later if not sooner. In "Touched By an Angel" and "Promised Land," characters are sometimes trapped by their own conscience and helped by an angelic presence to face their failings (even when it means prison). This reflects series creator Martha Williamson's conservative Christian beliefs. Though her angels are anthropomorphized - nice people with celestial powers - God is also clearly merciful, loving, and involved. She has said many times the message is "God loves you."

Despite the popularity of Ms. Williamson's shows many viewers find them too sentimental. Some look to harder-edged programs to confront tougher issues.

Perhaps the classiest, smartest of all the "Millennium" episodes, which aired last season, was clearly inspired by C.S. Lewis's book "The Screwtape Letters." Four old demons sit around discussing how easy it is these days to lead people to despair. Posing as human beings in some cases, the devils played on personal weaknesses. In every case, their victims had better answers immediately available than the ones they chose. But apathy, insecurity, spitefulness, and greed are easily led toward the "wide gate."

Fox's "Millennium" (Fridays 9-10 p.m.), "The X-Files" (Sundays, 9-10 p.m.) and "Brimstone" all delve into the lower depths to ask about, let's face it, sin, though that word is never used. Jeffrey Mahon, professor of ministry, media, and culture at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, points out that the horror genre is one of the last places to talk about sin. "It's about our interest in explaining evil," he says. "And the desire to explain evil is rooted in the desire to control it."

TV has split the supernatural in two, Dr. Mahon says. The light side includes not only the conventional religiosity of "Touched by and Angel" and "Promised Land," but also the new shows "Cupid" (about the ancient Greek god of love, matchmaking '90s style) and the new "Fantasy Island" (where you should be careful what you wish for lest you receive it).

A return to mystery and meaning

On TV's dark-side shows, evil is everywhere and the hero must battle against it, he says. But even when it comes from without, evil is frequently confusing in these shows. Motives are veiled, and even the ends the evil-doers seek are sometimes obscure. Many critics suggest that the stirred-up fears that seem to accompany the approaching millennium may help account for the popularity of the thriller-horror genre. The syndicated sci-fi adventure "The Outer Limits" plays on the obsession with and fear of technology - the opening credits inform us that "we" (the TV) will control "you" (the viewer). In most cases, the techno-thriller allows the human element to triumph. These shows imply that while science appears to be explaining the mysteries of the universe, it is not answering the problem of meaning - only the good in humankind can.

"Millennium" executive producer Chip Johannessen says that the show's creator, "Chris Carter wanted to explore the idea that psychology has denatured the idea of evil for many people. The flip side of that becomes a search for God.

"[The star] Frank Black is not perfect, but he is a holy man in the sense that he thinks life is a gift from God." Producer Johannessen is as familiar with Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" as he is "The Screwtape Letters." And the hero of "Millennium," he says, has Frankl's profound take on life: "Frank isn't asking, 'What's in it for me?' or 'What do I want from life?' He asks instead, 'What is life asking of me?' It makes him very different from most TV characters."

Indeed it does. And despite the pessimistic aura of shows like "The Outer Limits," "The X-Files," "Millennium," and "Brimstone," and the high "ick" factor each has, they are all concerned with a return to meaning and mystery. And the fantasies these shows create are not meant to be taken for reality: They are metaphorical and often allegorical attempts to describe a hero's-journey-in-progress - we always know where virtue resides. And "The Truth is [always] Out There."

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