OK, go ahead. Name one TV series about ministers that has been successful.
"Going My Way"? Even with a blessing like Gene Kelly in the Bing Crosby role, it barely lasted a season back in the early 1960s."Sarge"? George Kennedy was no miracle worker, either.
"In the Beginning"? Come on - do you really think McLean Stevenson could pull it off when Kelly and Kennedy couldn't?
"Hell Town"? Get real.
The fact is, many TV priests have been called, but few have been chosen - at least, not be prime time audiences. That's why it's kind of surprising to see two prime time newcomers this season built around men who wear clerical collars. Given the current trends of network television, the last thing you'd expect to see is the revitalization of a genre that focuses on people who have taken vows of chastity.
And yet that's exactly what we've seen this year. Tom Bosley has helped turn "Father Dowling Mysteries" into a respectable-if-not-spectacular ratings performer for NBC. And now ABC is introducing Have Faith (8:30 p.m., Ch. 4), a sitcom set in a Chicago rectory, with stars Joel Higgins ("Silver Spoons"), Ron Carey ("Barney Miller"), Stephen Furst ("St. Elsewhere"), Frank Hamilton and Francesca P. Roberts ("Frank's Place").
And - surprise! - both shows have at least a prayer of a chance of becoming the first TV show about a minister to be reborn for a second season.
"Have Faith" has a lot going for it, most notably a strong cast and creative team (it is produced by Nat Mauldin, Robert M. Myman and John Ritter - yes, that John Ritter) and a sort of an ecclesiastical "Barney Miller" feel to it. At the heart of the show is the conflict between the modern Monsignor Joseph "Mac" MacKenzie (Higgins) and traditionalist Father Edgar Tuttle (Hamilton). ("You challenged my methods," says Father Edgar at one point in the pilot. "You called me a fuddy-duddy." "I meant it in a Biblical sense," Mac replies.)
Furst plays Father Gabriel "Gabe" Podmaninski, an insecure new priest and a former tackle for Notre Dame, while Carey is Father Vincent Paglia, the parish accountant. Roberts, meanwhile, is the new rectory secretary, Sally Coleman, an agnostic who claims she answered the job advertisement because she liked the idea of a working environment with "a lot of single guys around."
There are a few good moments in the pilot - of course, they tend to be moments when "Have Faith" looks like an ecumenical "Night Court" or "Barney Miller" with a cassock. What it lacks at this point is an individual identity - something that marks it as a unique and worthwhile show on its own.
Maybe the fact that the show's producers are promising that "we're not going to have any sexual tension on this show - that wouldn't be true to these characters" will be sufficient to make it stand alone among prime time comedies. Or maybe it will receive its identity from the producers' decision to avoid making fun of church teachings and practices and to focus on the personalities of its characters.
Or maybe "Have Faith" will make its mark by smoothing over the rough edges and becoming the first TV series about ministers to become a ratings hit. Certainly the potential is there, since the show will follow megahit "Roseanne" on the network's blockbuster Tuesday night schedule.
But is America ready to make that leap - from "Roseanne" to religion?
-ALSO ON TV TONIGHT: CBS gets into the reality-based groove with Rescue: 911 (7 p.m., Ch. 5), an hourlong series hosted by William Shatner that takes you out with real emergency workers on real emergencies. And if we're really lucky, maybe we'll see real people in real pain, with real blood all over the place. Really. (Do you ever get the feeling that "reality-based" programming is sort of a contemporary version of the lions and the Christians?)
On the other hand, PBS's Frontline (8 p.m., Ch. 7) documentary series could also be considered "reality-based," I suppose. But few would confuse "Frontline's" view of reality (which is aimed at the exposition of truth) with commercial television's view (which is aimed at ratings). Tonight, for example, "Frontline" looks into "The Shakespeare Mystery," examining both sides of the scholarly controversy surrounding the true authorship of the plays attributed to the Bard of Avon. Let's see a network reality show try to tackle that.
Elsewhere, Around the World in 80 Days (8 p.m., Ch. 2) concludes; the Giants meet the Padres in Major League Baseball (8:30 p.m., Ch. 30); James Farentino follows up his role in "One Police Plaza" with The Red Spider (8 p.m., Ch. 5); and Susan Anton stars as an Olympic Goldengirl (8 p.m., Ch. 14). Remember, "Just Say No."
Looking Toward Wednesday: This is America, Charlie Brown (7:30 p.m., Ch. 5) concludes with a look at "The Smithsonian and the Presidency"; American Playhouse (8 p.m., Ch. 7) presents "A Great Wall"; CBS presents the fourth edition of People Magazine on TV (9 p.m., Ch. 5), with stories about Patrick Swayze, Robin Givens, Carly Simon and Eddie Rabbitt; and Timeline (7:30 p.m., Ch. 7) returns with a report on the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 1400s.