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The news that Tom Cruise has signed a deal to finance future movies with the owner of the Washington Redskins football team, Daniel Snyder, and his investment partners restores hope that we’ll live to see “Mission Impossible 13.” But what does it mean for the cause of religion in Hollywood? The key may be the Cruise-Gibson connection.

Since Tom’s “firing” by Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, the press has paired Tom and Mel: two megastars whose faith–Scientology and Tridentine Catholicism, respectively–has ruined their careers. After Redstone told the Wall St. Journal last week that Cruise had committed “creative suicide” by behaving erratically over the past few months, word crept out that the real issue was Cruise’s Scientology-based criticism of Brooke Shields’s post-partum pill-popping on the “Today” show. Others said Cruise had done himself in when he riled the all-powerful Steven Spielberg. “It was well-known that Spielberg was not happy about the fact that Cruise used his junkets from ‘War of the Worlds’ to promote his religious beliefs,” a source told AFP News.

Bolstering the Cruise-Gibson tie was director Rob Reiner’s comment last week that Mel’s apology for an anti-Semitic tirade wasn’t enough; he had to apologize for anti-Semitism in his “The Passion.”

Cruise’s new deal with Snyder shows that there is Tom-Mel synergy going on, but it has more to do with moola than martyrdom. Like Mel, Cruise has signed with investors who look only at the bottom line, not at behavior or beliefs that might embarrass them at Hollywood happenings. Far from dousing Tom or Mel’s faith-based fire, these outsiders may give the stars more room to express their religion in their films.

In the gospels, Jesus foretells of nations rising against nations, of famines and earthquakes, pestilence and other troubles–a millennial moment ABC cites in its special two-hour edition of tonight’s “20/20,” titled “Last Days on Earth.” Lucky for Jesus, Stephen Hawking wasn’t hanging around the banks of the Jordan, lowballing the odds of an earthquake strong enough to do us all in. That’s precisely the problem with “Last Days on Earth,” structured as a countdown of the eight most likely ways civilization as we know it will end. None of them, it turns out, are too likely. A beta-ray bloom caused by a collapsing star, or a supervolcanic eruption could scorch us all to death or blanket the Earth in sulfuric clouds. But as Hawking points out, neither has happened in 400 million years, so why sweat it?

Besides, if we’re all toast, no one’s going to be around to miss us, will they?

ABC doesn’t address these existential questions to any satisfying degree. A Rapid City, South Dakota, preacher recalls Christ’s warning to the disciples (see above) and in a few man-in-the-street montages, common folk say what they’d do given a few weeks or hours to live. We’re left wanting to hear–and think–more about what we might do spiritually when all hope is lost.

The room where I screened the show did get a little quiet, however, when a NASA scientist expained that an asteroid is expected to pass within a 24,000 miles of Earth in 2029, and could return seven years later in line to wallop our favorite planet. If we fail to redirect this bit of cosmic mischief, we’d know the date of impact–and a rough idea of our death–to the hour. This scenario also yields the one bit of good news in ABC’s show: a trauma psychologist predicts that the human race’s response to a death-date certain will be to reach out to find love. Now that’s a prediction Jesus would be down with.

The “Law” side of “Law & Order” meets “CSI” and “Boston Legal” in Jerry Bruckheimer’s new TV series “Justice,” debuting tonight on FOX. While Bruckheimer’s countless action movies have became more intelligent over time, this show seems to be more of a reversion to the days of “Armageddon” and “Con Air” than a mimic of his recent TV successes.

Interesting and slick, fast and simple, the more accurate title would have been “Spin” or “Trial by Camera,” since that’s what it’s really about. The show doesn’t dive deep enough to land the satisfying graces and societal healings that come when true justice is achieved. Or served. So if you’re looking for inspiration for–and connection to–that spiritual part of each of us that longs for justice in the world, keep surfing. If you’re looking for some entertainment before dozing, though, “Justice” may not be all bad.

The show’s premise rests on the efforts of “Trott, Nicholson, Tuller & Graves” (TNT&G), a legal firm that serves the celebrities and wealthy elite of Southern California. In the pilot episode, the firm defends a rich guy accused of killing his wife. “Defense” takes on the kind of sophistication and meticulous detail that’s meant to (as the show’s website says) do for lawyers what “CSI” and “First Watch” have done for their fields. At least in the pilot, it was a surface scan at best.

The ensemble cast is not exactly “Crane, Poole and Schmidt” of “Boston Legal”–in either size or sizzle–but who knows, maybe more characters will be added soon. Victor Garber’s Ron Trott is a media-saavy white version of Johnnie Cochrane; Kerr Smith is young Tom Nicholson, the lead dog in court; Eamonn Walker’s Luther Graves is an African-American ex-prosecutor who is more wisdom than winsome; Rebecca Mader’s Alden Tuller is sort of on the border between “token woman” and “forensic expert.”

The dialogue here isn’t exactly “The Paper Chase,” or even “The Paper,” what with such trifles as:

  • “The D.A. is playing hardball.”
  • “This is trial by TV.”
  • “The D.A. doesn’t want to try him on the facts; they want to lynch him in the media.”
  • “If you miss anything, it costs our client everything.”

As with any TV show, its success will lie with our connection to the characters, interest in the plots, and intrigue from the premise. Unfortunately, after all of the legal representation issues, media comment, state-of-the-art forensic interpretation, jury consultants, mock juries, and legal experts, we’re left with a show that is more about the interaction between clients, law firms, and the media rather than a deep look into the real desires in each of our hearts for authentic justice.

The show does feature a nice little ending touch: a flashback to the actual crime scene. For anyone who’s ever really, really wanted to know what happened with O.J. and Nicole or any other high profile case, these last few moments are for you. Of course, you’ve gotta spend an hour for the final minute’s pay-off. Perhaps future episodes will be more worth it.

By now, the football as religion analogy is about as played out as steroid scandals in competitive cycling. But folks in Hoover, Alabama, take the phrase God on the Gridiron to a whole new level and MTV is there to document it in the new reality series “Two-A-Days,” named for the two grueling practices the boys go through each day.

Sure, the fans are absolute zealots in their support of the Buccaneers, who have won four state championships out of the last five years, and fervently evangelical about the team: As those who have family and friends in the area know, Hoover can simply do no wrong. But what’s so interesting is that “Two-A-Days” embraces the sports spirituality stereotype and takes it to an nth degree. In fact, in the premiere episode, the very first words out of Alex, a senior player and the episode’s narrator, are “At Hoover, football is like a religion, and the players on the team are celebrities.”

Sound familiar? Sure it does. We’ve seen it a million times in the movies and on tv. In fact, MTV has tackled the subject matter before, in 1999’s “Varsity Blues”–boys elevated to gods and the pressures they face from the parents, themselves and the fans. Interestly enough, that film also features a character on a humorous and heartfelt spiritual quest, trying to discern what religion is right for himself. He tries everything from Nation of Islam to Zen Buddhism to tying himself to a cross at the breakfast table.

But there’s nothing humorous in the very real religion found in “Two-A-Days.” The morning before a nationally televised game that will determine who the number one high school team in the nation is, the boys meet with team chaplain, Terry Slay.

“Everyone is born with a gameplan. The reason I stand here today, the reason I have the faith and the fortidtude, or whatever I do, is all because of one thing… it’s because I’ve got God’s gameplan in my life. And I want you as players to understand, to have something to hang on to and the Lord’s that person,” Slay says.

Niceties out of the way, Slay continues preaching about how the people from the opposing school expect Hoover to fail. “Don’t you dare embarrass this program by the way you play. Let them know they have come to the state of Alabama where football is king where football is football wehere we play like it’s supposed to be played… and make sure that if you play in this game that you can’t walk off, that you crawl off… give it all up.”

Pressure much?

“Two-A-Day” is engaging television. Sure, it’s full of teen drama (who’s so and so cheating with?) and shenanigans (padlocking a backpack to a chair), but these Hoover players endure two grueling practices a day in temperatures that often sore about 100 degrees, they withstand the verbal, some might say abusive, barbs of the coaches, and they put up with parents and community members’ critiques. So why do the boys do it? It seems to go beyond the instant celebrity status they achieve. The show is a compelling portrait of absolute devotion: Devotion to a game, devotion to the ideal of perfection.