Beliefnet
Idol Chatter

Apparently Scientology has just zoomed by Kabbalah in the race to be crowned most scandalously hip belief. Sure, there was the Tom Cruise show of last year, but that was only leading up to the coronation. Having a Scientology storyline included in television’s most scandalous show, “Nip/Tuck“–now that’s a crowning achievement.

Centering on the Miami plastic surgery office of Drs. Sean McNamara and Christian Troy, “Nip/Tuck” is the kind of show where a story arch about Sean and Christian just doing a simple nose job would be shocking, simply shocking, to the show’s viewers, who expect the salacious and scandalous, which are the norm for this FX network hit: Serial killers with no penises, mother-daughter threesomes, face cream made out of sperm, human organ trafficking, and lots and lots of nudity.

The Scientology subplot is sandwiched in and given much less airtime than the others. (Is Christian really gay and in love with Sean? And, if so why is he having sex with his married boss who’s being blackmailed?) But it is just as tasty.

This season, Kimber–Christian’s ex-fiance and and an ex-porn star–has discovered Scientology and is bringing Matt McNamara into the fold. Matt is Sean’s adopted son, but his biological father is actually Christian Troy.

While we’ve been getting hints and glimmers of the Scientology storyline, last night’s episode was a reward for those patiently waiting for something to develop. It was sprinkled with Scientology speak–Kimber mentions Thetans at one point, and the episode also references the “Detox,” a combination of large doses of vitamins and sauna done to rid bodies of toxins and other chemicals, such as the anti-depressants Matt was on last season.

Even though Matt’s grades are up since joining the Church of Scientology, Sean and Julia (his mother) and Christian, are deeply worried. And superficial Christian doesn’t fail to come through by saying: “It’s humiliating for him, for us.” Of course, he may simply be reacting to the fact that Matt has already told Christian that he must cut him out of his life, since Christian is a “Suppressive Person”–according to Scientology, a person who impedes the progress of a practitioner.

Sean and Christian try to bribe Matt into returning to the family fold with a shiny black Porsche. And while he has dreams of the very sexy Kimber, whom he has a crush on, being impressed with the car, she instead chastizes him, saying that his choice of materialism means he’s not ready for real spiritual growth.

Kimber and Matt head back to his parents with another member of the Church to remove Matt’s belongings and move him to a center. Christian and Sean stage an intervention/abduction, but it goes awry.

Of course, this whole subplot couldn’t have been done without the help of Cruise. Prior to Cruise’s bizarre antics, writers of all ilks stayed away from the topic, due to the Church of Scientology’s legendary litigiousness. But Tom’s “The Today Show” interview and the subsequent back-and-forth with Brooke Shields over post-partum depression opened the religion up to criticism and “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy and his team ran with it.

What they’ve come up with is riveting stuff–and realistic, at least for a show that could usually be described as plastic.

Anyone who has tried Anusara yoga has most likely experienced the “what-the-heck-is-going-on moment”–a state of confusion and panic, which occurs when the instructor and students sing an unpronounceable Sanskrit chant in the beginning (and end) of class. (Anusara yogis refer to said chant as “the invocation.”) But thanks to a combined effort by some top dogs in the Anusara community, a recently released CD, appropriately titled “Invocation,” features the chant in its eight tracks, hoping to transform even the least adept at grasping the foreign tongue into masters of exotic poetic elocution. Well, at least you’ll learn the chant.

“Invocation” is a serious lovechild. A certified Anusara teacher, Amy Ippoliti, decided to make the CD after singing many times into her students’ tape recorders when they had a hard time remembering the chant. Her Sanskrit teacher, Manorama, is featured on the CD. Ippoliti is married to Ty Burhoe, a disciple of tabla master Ustad Zakir Hussain. Burhoe has recorded and played live shows with “celebrity” Sanskrit chanter Krishna Das, who in 1998 composed the melody for “the invocation” along with Anusara’s founder, John Friend.

Friend found that when chanting these words he felt he “was offering loving devotion to the supreme goodness” that was his essence. He believes the combination of words hold great mystical power. None of the players are Indian.

The words in the chant are the only lyrics on the CD:

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave
Saccidananda Murtaye
Nishprapancaya Shantaya
Niralambaya Tejase

This translates to:

I bow to the goodness within myself,
known as the Lord Shiva, who is the true teacher.
This essence inside takes the form of truth, consciousness and bliss.
Always present and full of peace, this essence inside is completely free, and sparkles with a divine luster.

Although the words are limited, the songs each have a meditative sound of their own. Classical instruments like cello and piano are featured on some tracks, whereas the more traditional Indian tabla, tambura, and sarangi are featured on others. Manorama’s rich, deep voice on “Shri” and “Angel’s Prayer” is a perfect match for Das’ bombastic, echo-y sound on “Invocation,” “Longing,” and “Mala.” The only track that felt odd was “Presence.” Ippoliti’s sweet, light voice is ruined by a breathy chorus of Sanskrit whispers. (Hello, sensual yoga hotline!)

The last track, “Kula” (which translates to “community of the heart”), holds special meaning for those who made it past their first Anusara class and eventually into Friend’s classroom. It features Friend himself, along with a class of his students, intoning “the invocation” as a group.

If the appeal seems insular, that’s because it is. But those who don’t get excited by listening to Anusara glitterati may wish to listen to the CD for pure relaxation. Hey, you may just learn a new chant. Then, of course, go try an Anusara class and be the first one to not be confused.

“Do you think God loves football?”

Well, if you live in fictional Dillon, Texas, where almost everyone worships God and football–not always in that order–then the answer is, obviously, yes. NBC celebrates the unique sports culture of small-town America, where sports and faith are often seen hand-in-hand every Friday night, in the new football drama “Friday Night Lights,” debuting tonight.

The series is loosely tied to the successful book and movie of the same name, but the characters and setting are completely new. There’s a new coach at the helm of the state champion Panther football team, and expectations are high for him as well as for Jason Street, the senior superstar quarterback. In tonight’s episode, the Dillon Panthers begin their quest to repeat as state champions but run into some unexpected obstacles.

While the series is not as edgy as either the book or the movie, there is still much to appreciate about this show. This version of “Lights” still attempts to tackle, in its own way, a variety of issues, including race, poverty, and dysfunctional families. The football sequences are still hard-hitting, and Kyle Chandler is perfectly cast as the soft-spoken but fiercely competitive coach.

But if you want to know the biggest reason why I am cheering for the Panthers to have a successful TV season, you’ll need to stay tuned for the last 10 minutes of tonight’s episode. With a plot twist that I probably should have seen coming but didn’t, “Lights” truly demonstrates promise by setting up two very different storylines that will clearly play out over the course of the football season. The final minutes also feature one of the most moving and authentic prayers I’ve heard on TV in a very long time. It’s a perfect illustration of the way real life and spiritual life intersect in strange and difficult ways.

Even if you don’t like football, the characters in this drama will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in the heartland of this county. While I don’t know if the show can sustain its winning storytelling style as the season goes on, I sure will be rooting for it all the way.

After three weeks, here’s my spin on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:” It’s about redemption. And it’s awesome.

Aaron Sorkin has long been successful in creating compelling and entertaining investigations into the humanity of characters who inhabit noble roles. “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” and “The West Wing” all took us to the core of those whose titles we recognize but whose honest quests are new to us. He’s long been a student–and revealer–of the human qualities essential to an authentic spiritual awareness. “Studio 60” offers more of the same.

The heroes are human, and humble. Matthew Perry’s Matt Albie is a former writer at “Studio 60,” a fictional “SNL”-like comedy show, who got fired. Bradley Whitford’s Danny Tripp is a recovering cocaine addict who can’t get bonded to produce the movie he’s been offered, so he and Matt take the reigns of “Studio 60,” from which they were fired four years earlier. Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere is the rookie network president whose very hiring caused the company stock to drop and whose naïve but idealistic ideas may lead to a short tenure. Steven Weber’s Jack Randolph is the network chairman charged with the success of not just the show, but the whole network.

Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes, one of the actors on the show-within-the-show, speaks for evangelical Christians but is clearly not the cheesy-cleany bore that tends to be the stereotype. She’s also going through a breakup with Matt Albie and will now be working for him. Harriet is the first contemporarily saavy Christian character on a network show in a long time, made believable and human through the lame questions people ask about her faith and the fact she’s going through a break-up with all the pain that brings to anyone.

By the time we get to Episode 3, which aired last night, redemption has established itself as a main theme of the show. Jordan’s job is in jeopardy because a prior drunk-driving arrest and divorce make headlines. Matt bets $10,000 to give an actress confidence after she flat-lined in a focus group. Danny goes to blows with Matt as a means of convincing him that their firing from the show four years earlier won’t happen again. Hard-head Jack is the first to congratulate Jordan for her success. The characters often say “don’t worry about it,” but they step over each other to worry for each other.

And, in her first “sermon,” Harriet effectively pleads with Matt (her ex) to cut a funny skit that she questions for moral reasons. “It’s a funny joke, but not a good joke,” she says of the bit, which mocks a small-town high school. “The average income there is $18,000 a year, roughly what I’ll be paid to perform this show tonight. Why are we making fun of them? ‘Crazy Christians,’ ‘Science Schmience,’ ‘Bush and the Republicans’ [skits the show aired that mock conservative and Christian values] are all fair game; it’s hypocrisy and power. These guys are just trying to raise their kids.”

In last week’s episode, we saw Harriet and some of the other actors engage in a pre-show prayer, in which they invoked Jesus and asked for success. This week, we see Matt, Danny, and some others offering hugs and a huddle, which looks a lot like a pre-game prayer but leaves room for it to be, well, just a group hug. For artists, there’s nothing quite as redeeming as applause, or a good focus group, or compliments, or just one compliment from someone we trust or love. Sometimes, approbation from just anyone with breath and a pulse will do. This time, though, the show ends with all of the above: applause and laughter, hugs and high fives, and a 109% retention rate.

As in “The West Wing,” Sorkin often sends his clearest message through an episode’s closing song. In this case it’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” which gets right to the core of conditional love that is our media culture. For Matt, Danny, Jordan, and their team, they’re all loved and safe… until next week’s show.