Network, cable shows take on death, faith and the hereafter

In the 50-plus years since television became a force in American life, it has generally stayed away from overt depictions of God, faith and the concept of an afterlife, mainly for fear of alienating prime-time viewers and advertisers.

Sure, shows such as “The Waltons,” “Highway to Heaven” and the recently departed “Touched by an Angel” either assumed the existence of higher powers or, at the very least, showed regular folks treating prayer, God and church as givens. But hundreds of other programs have dealt with these topics obliquely, ignored them entirely or drew on them only when they needed stock villains (such as cackling serial killers who claim to be obeying the will of God).

But a few years ago, movies and TV shows began to address the Big Issues head-on.

First came a spate of horror movies with overt religious and philosophical undertones, including “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Stir of Echoes” (2000) and “The Others” (2001). The first two revolved around living mortals who assisted the dead in finishing unfinished business; the third suggested that ghosts inhabit an alternate reality every bit as detailed, mundane and fraught with emotion as our own.

Then death came to TV too, in a fresh and brazen way. In 2001, HBO debuted “Six Feet Under,” a drama about a family of undertakers that built every episode around death and fear of death and showed its screwed-up characters conversing with dead people.

That same year, the Sci-Fi Channel scored a cult success with “Crossing Over With John Edwards,” in which the titular medium appeared before a studio audience and professed to communicate with audience members’ dearly departed loved ones.

This year, Showtime entered the fray with “Dead Like Me,” a quirky comedy-drama about a sullen teenage girl (Ellen Muth) who’s killed by a chunk of falling space station, then drafted into service as a grim reaper entrusted with removing people’s souls prior to death.

Fox’s fall lineup

The supernatural tide will swell throughout fall and spring, as networks and cable channels introduce even more series that deal with death, faith and the hereafter.

Fox has three shows that mix quirky setups and cosmic subject matter:

• “Tru Calling” debuts next month and features “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” co-star Eliza Dushku as a young coroner who receives messages from corpses, then awakens on the day before that person is fated to die and attempts to prevent the death from happening.

• “Still Life” starts in January and is a domestic drama narrated by a family’s recently deceased teenage son.

• “Wonderfalls,” which also begins in January, is about a young woman employed in a Niagara Falls gift shop who receives cryptic messages from trinkets and other inanimate objects that might offer divine insight into everyday life.

Other network offerings

Meanwhile, CBS, the former home of “Touched by an Angel,” is debuting this fall “Joan of Arcadia,” about a young woman who has regular conversations with God, who assumes the form of regular, often unassuming citizens. (Mary Steenburgen and Joe Mantegna star as the girl’s parents.)

HBO’s new drama “Carnivale,” about a low-rent carnival traversing the Dust Bowl during the Depression, seems on first glance to have little in common with the above series, but it deals with many of the same themes.

Its main characters include a mysterious young nomad who might be a faith healer (Nick Stahl) and a preacher who exudes nobility but might be an agent of darkness (Clancy Brown).

The series builds discussions of good, evil, faith and divine will into almost every scene, and it’s packed with overtly biblical portents — including an episode in which the heroine (Clea DuVall) loses her virginity on the same day that an epic dust storm blows through the state.

‘Death is in!’

Some of these current and upcoming shows are deadly serious; others are light, sardonic, even a tad kooky. But brush aside differences in style and tone, and you can recognize the same primal themes. To quote the death-obsessed Bob Fosse musical “All That Jazz‘: “Death is in, man! Death is in!” So are God, faith, destiny and other unanswerables.

Bryan Fuller, the producer-writer of “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls,” says that if great numbers of TV executives have, in some odd sense, found religion, it’s because “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball lured them into the tent. Fuller also credits “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the WB-UPN series from writer-producer Joss Wheedon that was sold as part horror comedy part high-school soap but concerned itself with good, evil, fate, redemption and other meaty topics.

But there might be more going on here than inspiration and imitation. Like the movie business, the TV industry doesn’t generate programs overnight; almost all of the above-mentioned series were in the works, or in their creators’ heads, for years or even decades. That so many of these cosmically inclined programs greenlit around the same time suggests that TV producers, network executives, advertisers and even regular viewers are thinking about these things more pointedly and more often.

“I honestly didn’t think CBS would buy this show,” said Barbara Hall, producer of “Joan of Arcadia,” who previously worked on the CBS hit “Judging Amy.”

“But my approach to creating a show has always been, ‘Well, I find this stuff interesting, and maybe that means other people out there will find it interesting, too.’ I guess CBS was thinking the same way.”

Hall said that if death, religion and the hereafter really have become more present in mainstream culture since the late 1990s, it may be recent history’s fault.

First came the turn of the millennium, a calendar milestone that induced apocalyptic fears. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which amounted to a random mass execution carried globally on live TV.

Hall said she was moved to write “Joan of Arcadia” after watching documentaries about the religious implications of Sept. 11.

“I really do think this whole thing has been brewing in the collective unconscious as far back as when ‘The Sixth Sense’ came out, but September 11th really accelerated it,” she said. “There was no way to live through that day and not confront issues of life, death and mortality, of good and evil, and whether there is some purpose in life.”

Hall thinks the new shows also reflect a waning faith in science’s ability to solve all of our problems — and a culture-wide admission that life is built on mysteries that might never be solved. “Science was going to cure cancer, it was going to give us perfect children,” Hall said. “Information and science and reason and reductionist theory were going to show us how to live. Well, none of that has come to pass.”

Hall points out that many of these programs are less interested in asking what happens when we pass on than in how the living continue to function when death is all around them.

“They’re not about what happens when we die; they’re about what happens when we live and how we live. Right now a lot of people are confused about how to live.”

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