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Where's the respect for religion on TV?

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 12:07 p.m. MDT

A scene from History Channel's A scene from History Channel's "The Bible." (Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.)

As “The Bible,” the History Channel’s blockbuster miniseries, broke ratings records, it also likely astounds credulous Hollywood executives who, despite overwhelming evidence of the massive pent-up demand for quality religious entertainment, are always caught flat-footed when such entertainment is rewarded with ratings, ticket sales and lots of cash.

Say, remember when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was supposed to be this weird, dreary flop but then went on to gross more than $600 million? Look at the number of “Star Wars” copycats Hollywood has produced in the past three-and-a-half decades — about 9,876,538,002 (an unscientific estimate) — versus the number of major studio movies attempting to replicate “Passion’s” success — approximately 0, give or take.

Similarly, Roma Downey’s “The Bible” recalls the success of her early television series “Touched by an Angel,” which ran for 211 episodes and made truckloads of money for CBS with its un-ironic approach to faith. It’s been off the air now for almost a decade, but surely some bright network executive was wise enough to put a similar religiously-themed pilot into production in time to fill the hole left when “Touched by an Angel” was cancelled, no?

No. Since “Angel” went off the air, ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX haven’t bothered to launch a single series with a respectfully religious premise.

Just to clarify, this doesn’t mean that there’s no religion on television. It only means that that there’s no respect for religion on television.

Have you watched an episode of “The Office” lately? You’ll find only one of Dunder-Mifflin’s wacky employees goes to church on a regular basis. That would be Angela, the cold-hearted office scold who waxes eloquent about cat heaven and thinks exposure to Harry Potter leads to voodoo. She’s nasty, judgmental and a heavy-duty hypocrite who has been unfaithful both to her fiancée and to her closeted gay Republican husband. Hypocrisy is funny, you see. And, apparently, according to Hollywood, all religious people are hypocrites except for Ned Flanders.

You know Ned Flanders, don’t you? He’s Homer Simpson’s long-suffering next-door neighbor who practices what he preaches in the most cloying and unbearably pious way possible. He’s the guy who attaches an “-iddly” suffix to every other word and laments that kids don’t say enough prayers “because the schools can’t force you like they should.”

So Hollywood will allow an exception to the rule that all religious people are hypocrites by conceding some are merely kindhearted imbeciles. We should probably be grateful for that. Because when television occasionally tries to take religion seriously, we get shows like NBC’s ill-fated 2006 mid-season replacement “The Book of Daniel,” which have been what “Touched by an Angel” would have looked like in Bizarro World.

“The Book of Daniel” chronicled the adventures of an Episcopal priest addicted to Vicodin and his alcoholic wife, Judith, as well as a family that includes a daughter who gets arrested for marijuana possession in the first scene of the first episode. He then gives a sermon about how it’s OK to give in to temptation and later discusses all of this with Jesus himself, who appears suddenly in Daniel’s car to tell him that’s he’s tailgating.

“The Book of Daniel” lasted all of four episodes.

So, now, here comes “The Bible,” where Jesus is revered as the Savior of the world and not “The Book of Daniel’s” hippie self-help guru, where there’s not an Angela or Flanders in sight, and audiences can’t get enough of it. And, once again, Hollywood is making no effort to offer more of the same.

Remember that next time someone in the media tries to tell you that Hollywood’s excesses can be justified by the fact that they “just give people what they want.” They don’t — not because they can’t, but because they won’t.

If you doubt that, just watch “The Bible.” Although I’m pretty sure the book is better.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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