Faith, Media & Culture

Bill Reilly, recently left his creative post at the multi-faith production group Odyssey Networks after a successful 12-year stint , is now busier than ever.

I caught up with the creative producer on the phone the other day and, I must say, his roster of current projects is both interesting and impressive.

For instance, he’s working with Holland’s Eye2Eye Media on a U.S. adaptation of The Passion.  Reilly notes that a Dutch version of the musical modern-day retelling of the final days of Jesus (utilizing popular contemporary mainstream music and artists to tell the story) scored surprisingly strong ratings in a country not particularly known for religiosity.  The Dutch program itself was inspired by a previous Passion production staged in Manchester, England. It’s hoped that the U.S. version will be shot on the streets of New York City.

Reilly, who says he likes to deal with issues of faith in a mainstream way, is also working with a couple of U.S. companies that are looking to create positive, meaningful television.

He’s teaming with Minnesota-based Tremendous! Entertainment, makers of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern  on The Travel Channel, to produce a documentary for PBS stations about how 12 Step recovery programs (which he calls possibly the greatest spiritual discovery of the 20th century) have helped countless people overcome life-threatening addiction to drugs, alcohol and other debilitating inclinations.  Zimmern, who has openly discussed his earlier bouts with drug and alcohol addiction, will take part in the program which, Reilly says, will focus on the positive stories of those who have overcome their problems – and won’t, as some so-called reality shows have been known to do, exploit those currently caught in the grip of addiction. The documentary’s message of hope is a personal one for Reilly since a member of his own family has successfully battled addiction using the 12 Steps.

With New Dominion Pictures, Reilly is teaming with Mythbusters creator/producer Peter Rees on Evidence of the Supernatural?! , a proposed series that will submit apparent miracles to the rigors of scientific evaluation. Given the subject matter, the Rees-Reilly partnership is an interesting one since Rees is a self-proclaimed atheist and Reilly is a believing Christian.

On the dramatic front, Reilly is also teaming with New Dominion on The Devil’s Advocate, a historical anthology series focusing on Vatican canon lawyers charged with arguing the case against candidates for canonization – often by attempting to prove that miracles attributed to them were false and, perhaps,  fraudulent.

While both Evidence of the Supernatural?! and The Devil’s Advocate feature investigations aimed at debunking miraculous claims, Reilly, the believer, believes they’ll actually serve to validate faith. He says he’s virtually certain that some of the cases investigated on Evidence will be shown to be unexplainable by science. For believers (like me), that leaves a God-given miracle as the most logical explanation.

Regarding Devil’s Advocate, he notes that the Vatican’s Office of the “Devil’s Advocate” took on over 3000 cases between its establishment in about 1588 and its official closure in 1983.  The “DA” lost somewhere north of 270 cases — some of which will be featured on the series.  In both series, the dramatic tension will come from viewers not knowing until the end whether the miracle in question was disproven by scientific investigation.  But the fact that some can’t be should bolster faith in believers and give non-believers cause to think.

It should be noted that, though the official Vatican position of a “devil’s advocate” no longer exists, the Church still submits miraculous claims to rigorous investigation.

Reilly says he’s particularly drawn to dramatic programming that has something to positive to say – whether that programming is specifically faith-themed or not.  He also sees the TV tide turning away from exploitive reality programming (though he admits there’s always likely to be some of that) toward more uplifting, positive fare. Viewers, he suggests, are getting tired of  shows built on exploitation and cynicism and the networks are realizing that.

While he allows that there remains a certain resistance to faith-themed shows at the networks, they can be sold if they are well-conceived and have the right hook.  The Passion, for example, is being pitched as an Easter week special that tells the Jesus story in very  street-savvy, hip way that could create the kind of cultural phenomenon networks naturally like to be a part of.

Reilly says, despite his full plate, he’s always on the lookout for positive and interesting projects to develop and take to programming markets like MIPCOM (which he will be attending in Cannes this October).

A visit to his Linked-In page reveals an eclectic resume that includes hundreds of hours of TV programming – notably executive producing several highly-rated  TV movies  (i.e. Hallmark Channel’s The Note). But, right now, all that’s looking like a warm-up act for what’s ahead.

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