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ABC Rights the Wrongs of the Justice System

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I caught the preview episode on Sunday night of ABC’s new “In Justice,” which will be airing on Friday nights, starting this week. If you like court shows, it’s worth a look-see. The series focuses on the lawyers of the National Justice Project, a take-off on the real-life Innocence Project. Both the factual and fictional versions of this group revisit old criminal cases in an attempt to free prisoners who were, in their eyes, wrongly convicted.

The real-life Innocence Project, co-founded by Barry Scheck 0f O.J. Simpson Trial fame, focuses specifically on using DNA techniques that were unavailable when its cases were originally tried. The fictional National Justice Project employees on more general, and TV-generic, gumshoe detective techniques–which is another way of saying it relies on a heavy dose of faith in deciding which convicts’ stories to believe and how doggedly to pursue their case, even when the evidence continues pointing to their guilt. Their decision-making process–whom to believe? which stories grab a lawyer’s attention? how much of that is based on pure facts and how much on emotion or personal interest?–is a good reminder that there is always a large dose of the fallible human element in the justice system.

Bonus for those interested in pop-culture and religion: “In Justice” has an extraneous subplot in which two lawyers, already divorced, are seeking an annulment from the Catholic Church, but are told they must first undergo eight months of counseling. The story they concocted to get their annulment involved the husband falsely admitting to years of infidelity. Not sure where that’s going, but it ought to be fun to watch.

“Lost” in Faith

posted by ellen leventry

Rabid fans of ABC’s “Lost” have many suspicions about the meaning of the show, fueled by their examination of myriad clues in exruciating detail. And while I was just as curious about things like where those numbers came from, I was more interested in knowing about the minds behind this hit show, which tells the story of the survivors of an airplane crash on what seems to be a deserted island.

From its very beginning, ABC’s hit has been awash in a sea of faith. Early theories speculated that the mysterious island setting was actually purgatory. The first season introduced us to John Locke, who had been confined to a wheelchair until he miraculously regained the use of his legs following the plane crash. Even the name of the nefarious Dharma Initiative–a project of the Hanso Foundation, which seems to be conducting some form of experiment on the island–and the foundation’s logo–a variant on the bagua, a series of eight trigrams often surrounding a yin-yang sign and commonly associated with Taoism–have spiritual connotations.

As fans know, before Season 2 ramped up the collision between Locke, the man of faith, and Jack, the man of science, the show’s fundamental spiritual disputes really hadn’t crystalized. (And I’m not even going to get into Locke’s faith in fate vs. Mr. Eko’s biblically-based faith.) That’s where executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse come in. Creator J.J. Abrams may have given “Lost” its body, but Lindelof and Cuse have given the show a soul.

According to Entertainment Weekly’s “Best of 2005″ Issue, the Jack vs. Locke storyline was inspired “by the worldviews of Lindelof (Jewish and empirical-minded) and Cuse (Catholic and willing to leap beyond logic).” EW continues:

“The collision of our perspectives plays out on the show,” says Cuse, who cites [C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia”] as one touchstone for the kind of fantastical otherworld “Lost” is trying to create. “Both of us are searching for the answers to the bigger questions of how you lead a meaningful life, and we’ve chosen to use the show to explorethose questions.”

Narnia? So that’s where the polar bear came from…. (Yes, yes. I know all about Walt’s comic book.)

“Book of Daniel”: The Protests Start Early

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You’ll have to wait for next week to see our full coverage of NBC’s “The Book of Daniel,” a drama premiering Jan. 6 about Daniel, an Epsicopal priest dealing with life at home and at his parish. But the inevitable barrage of attacks has begun–the American Family Association is urging the faithful to email NBC to protest the show, saying it “mocks” and “demeans” Christianity–so I figured I’d weigh in now.

After watching a couple of preview episodes, I can say definitively that many people will be offended by “Book of Daniel.” Which is not the same as saying the show is insensitive, mean, or inherently offensive. There’s no way around offending some people, whenever religion is portrayed in pop-culture. And “Book of Daniel” clearly isn’t going for the “Seventh Heaven” or “Touched by an Angel” audience. Its characters–just about all of them, including the clergy members–engage in activities that are decidedly un-Christian. But what seems to have the AFA most riled up is that Christ himself appears as a character; depicted as the cliched long-haired, bearded man in robes, Jesus appears only to Daniel, providing counsel and cracking jokes.

So is “Book of Daniel” insensitive? Does it mock religion? I’m not a Christian, so you can take my opinions with whatever grain of salt you’d like, but I am a person of faith whose job, and passion, focuses on faith and pop-culture. That said, onto “Daniel”: I liked it much more than I expected. If you go into it thinking, “Oh good, a show about Christians and a church,” than yes, you will be offended. But that’s not what the show is; the series may focus on a church community, but it’s a soap opera, with all the raunchiness that entails. And as such, it has characters whose problems and behavior are over the top: adultery, drug use, premarital sex, addiction… it’s all there in droves.

We all know that even priests are fallible humans, and some of them do bad things (to put it mildly). So simply depicting members of the clergy misbehaving should not be considered inherently offensive. You may say, “In reality, most people of faith are fine, spiritually pure people, but this show implies that all of them are up to no good.” Sure, but it’s a soap opera. Does Wisteria Lane (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) accurately depict your block? If so, I’d recommend you relocate, quickly, before the murder, adultery, and violence infect you. What sets “Book of Daniel” apart, in my mind, is that these characters strive to do better and to be better. Amidst the absurd soap-opera dramas, they discuss theology, faith, God, relationships, and self-improvement. The world they live in is one of responsibility and consequences, even if they don’t live up to their own ideals so much of the time. Who among us does?

As for Jesus, he is intended to be Daniel’s image of Christ. The conversations are in his head, and this is his personal relationship with Jesus. You can call it simplistic, even theologically questionable, but isn’t every Christian supposed to have a personal relationship with Christ? Daniel’s is unabashed, unapologetic, and so real as to be visible to him.

Lastly, to the show’s credit, it’s not focusing on some unspecified type of Christian community. It’s Episcopalian. You can’t fault Daniel for welcoming gay parishioners, or even for tacitly endorsing premarital sex in a committed relationship (though it’s not yet clear from the show where he really stands on this). Like so many faith communities, the Episcopal Church has seen intense debate over social issues, and Daniel stands squarely within his denomination, or at least one major part of it. And–again, to its credit–the show depicts internal debate and opposition on these issues.

I’m not trying to say it’s a great or sophisticated show, though I do think it’s a cut above most of what’s out there. But mocking of Christianity? Hardly. “Book of Daniel” takes religion very seriously and treats it respectfully, in the context of soap opera conventions, at least. Its depiction of faith may not reflect how we all see ourselves in the mirror, and setting a soap-opera at a church may be too big of a hurdle for some people. So don’t watch it. But let the rest of us enjoy.

“The Office” Nails It, Week After Week

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I’ve been waiting for an excuse to blog about “The Office,” some religion angle to rear its satiric head in the NBC sitcom that, like its British namesake, skewers the absurdities of the typical desk job. But aside from a passing mention of one character’s Christianity, the show has steered clear of explicit faith-focused storylines. But I can wait no longer, and I’ve decided it’s time to express my love publicly for this brilliant show that suffers from perennially poor ratings.

And who needs a specific angle? The show has soul–or, most often, lack of it, exploring the emptiness and ennui of office life so accurately that it can be downright painful to watch. And through its dead-on depiction of office life and office personalities, it sends the message loud and clear that we as a society too often lose sight of any sense of meaning in our daily lives and fall into routines and roles that sap the life out of us. (NOTE TO MY BOSSES: By “painful to watch” and “sap the life out of us,” I am referring, of course, to other people in other offices, since I cannot relate to the show in any personal sense.)

But if satirizing the meaninglessness of work was all that “The Office” offered, it wouldn’t be the work of genius it is, no matter how hilarious and on-target that portrayal is. Alongside the show’s soullessness it does have a soul, and it’s got a heart. And to its credit and our benefit, this season’s episodes have displayed more and more of these elements without sacrificing laughs.

It shows in the unspoken romantic longing–expressed in fleeting glances and tiny gestures–between Pam, the receptionist who is nominally engaged to an inattentive guy, and Jim, the young sales rep who, as the one who most often points out the absurdities he sees around him and who tries to bring some levity and camaraderie to the office, embodies the series’ heart and soul. And it shows in the occasional but poignant tenderness and kindness that creeps into the dysfunctional relationship between Michael–the hilarious Steve Carrell as the clueless boss who’s never had a thought he’s left unspoken–and his often-bewildered employees.

Next week, “The Office” is moving from its Tuesday night slot to NBC’s newly beefed-up Thursday lineup. Here’s hoping it finds success there. May its ratings rise sharply so it can secure its place in primetime for years to come.

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