Playing a man condemned for eternity is challenge enough, says "Brimstone" star and producer Peter Horton. But returning to the confines of a weekly television series required a serious incentive for the actor, who starred in the 1980s hit "thirtysomething." When he read the script for the series pilot, he says he found it.
"We're dealing with repentance, salvation, justice, damnation," says Mr. Horton. "The themes are timeless and endless."
Horton's character in "Brimstone" (Fox, 8 p.m. Fridays) is Ezekiel Stone, a detective condemned to hell for killing his wife's rapist during his earthly life. A major "jailbreak" from the underworld sends 113 of the worst demons back to earth, and the devil (the "CEO of hell," Horton says with a laugh) makes a deal with Stone: Round up these baddies and win the possibility of redemption. Indeed, as each nefarious soul goes back to the underworld, a tattoo disappears from Stone's body.
According to Horton, the show is not about a literal depiction of hell, but more a symbolic exploration of good and evil. Even more important, it investigates the role of God in human life.
"In the show, God is involved in the arrangement between the devil and Stone," explains Horton - not because the writers are suggesting that this is actually how a higher power might work, but because "if God is present in human life, then He would certainly be involved in redeeming a single person like Stone."
Horton emphasizes that the show is about mythology, not real life. It is an opportunity to deal with issues of spirituality under the worst of circumstances. As a case in point he notes tonight's episode that deals with a double-crossing Nazi responsible for the deaths of innocent people during World War II.
Horton says that in many ways his own sense of spirituality informs the show's sensibility.
"I don't think hell is a place, so much as a state of mind," he says. He is more interested in provoking a discussion of what is redemption in the here and now, "peace of mind in my present experience rather than a later reward."
The time is right for a show that focuses on such fundamental concerns of the human condition, Horton says. "We've sort of reached the end of the illusion that all questions can be answered through science." The historical promise of scientific certainty has begun to wear thin, he says.
Now, as the millennium approaches, he points out that questions are stirring in society that can't be easily or simply answered with scientific exactitude.
"People are wondering what makes a man good? What makes his fate or destiny work out? What is his purpose?" he says.
Being away from series television for a decade has given Horton a perspective on the role TV can play in discussions of the deeper issues of life. "There's so much noise out there now, it's really hard to be heard on any single issue of any depth," he says.
The multifaceted performer, who works as a director as well as an actor and a producer, says the best he can aim for is to contribute something useful to the huge mass of popular entertainment which he dubs simply "the beast."
His hope is that "feeding the beast something worthwhile will raise the general level of the culture in some direction."
* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org