Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

In my review yesterday of GMC TV’s I Forgive You, a praised the show as a welcome antidote to “a TV reality landscape that is too often filled with in-your-face anger” and noted that “forgiveness actually makes for some pretty absorbing television.”

It turns out that the show is executive produced by Arnold Shapiro, the same guy who scared a generation straight with his Scared Straight! documentaries of the seventies and eighties whose TV reality Rescue 911 of the eighties and nineties is a TV classic and one of my personal favorites.
I recently spoke with Shapiro about his latest offering which debuts this Sunday (9/18) @ 9:00 PM, 10:00 PM and 11:00 PM. As well as next Wednesday (Thanksgiving Eve) @ 9:00 PM and 10:00 PM. All times mentioned are ET.

JWK: You’ve found some very interesting angles on the basic subject of forgiveness – from a woman forgiving those who bullied her high stories, to a man struggling with survivor’s guilt over a past tragedy, to forgiveness of betrayal within a family to learning to forgive himself for a past tragedy, to a woman to finds it within herself to forgive the person who killed her son.

ARNOLD SHAPIRO: Because this is the first in what we hope will be the first of many, many episodes come next year…my goal to have as diversified a selection of stories as possible. You’ll notice that no two stories are alike.

JWK: Not to diminish the first story in anyway – because bullying is a very serious issue – but, it seemed to me, that each story sort of raised the stakes in intensity with the last story, about the woman who forgave her son’s killer, the most intense of all. Was that intentional?

AS: You’re correct but there was also another reason. The last story is a forgiveness story that has already occurred whereas the first three were forgiveness stories that were happening before our eyes…It already happened. And also because it’s kind of the most intense, incredible and unbelievable (thing) that a woman would be able to do that. It had to be last.

The reason we started with Lynda (the bullying victim) first is because it’s such a timely, contemporary story. Not a week goes by that the news doesn’t tell us about some other tragedy relating to contemporary bullying but I’ve never seen a story about the effects of bullying a quarter century later on somebody. So, that made the story unique – and the fact that she was coming back (to high school) for her reunion and she wanted to forgive everybody who bullied her.

JWK: How did the idea for this show come about?

AS: The idea was actually brought to me by the network. It was their basic concept. It was actually brought to another producer, who is my producing partner in this, named Rob Lee. And Rob brought me into it. What I did to the concept was insist that a psychologist or a therapist be present for these various forgiveness events because they can be highly emotional. They certainly are unpredictable and it’s very important that the persons offering the forgiveness feel supported and protected.

I mean just take the Lynda one, for example. She could have suddenly frozen and not wanted to go into the room at all or gone in and just sat their tongue tied or she could have…let anger get the best of her and attack them. I mean all kinds of things could have happened that didn’t but it was, in part, because of (mediator Angie Richey’s) support. Angie, as you saw, is a marriage and family counselor and also an ordained minister.

That kind of brings us to the arena that you might be most interested in. In two the four stories – Lynda Frederick, the bullying story and Mary Johnson at the end – those women were only able to (summon) the forgiveness that they did…because of their faith. And, in this case, their Christian faith.

…And, in the case of Juan Romero (who, in 1968, shook Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy’s hand just before he was assassinated and had spent decades holding himself responsible), clearly he says at the end “Well, if God can forgive me, I guess I can forgive myself.” Clearly, a man of faith but this was just something that had been agonizing to him for all of his adult life.

JWK: So sad too because he clearly did nothing wrong.

AS: Right, but it’s survivor’s guilt.

JWK: I think the idea of doing a show about forgiveness – and encouraging forgiveness – is great. But are you concerned that, as you alluded to, that some stories that haven’t already resolved themselves when the cameras start rolling could take an unpleasant turn or seem exploitive?

AS: No. First of all, I could tell you a hundred things in producing a television series that I worry about more than that. My feeling is that we’re gonna be offered a lot of stories that we might not be able to do for any number of reasons and one of the main reasons may be that the person offering forgiveness to somebody that that somebody doesn’t want to see that person or isn’t able to…In researching this first episode we had a couple of situations where someone wanted to forgive someone who committed a criminal act against them but we couldn’t film inside the prison. It was just a logistical thing that the state doesn’t allow filming or something like that. So, there’s a lot of reasons that stories don’t come together but I’m not worried that there may be situations we film where it doesn’t go too well. That’s life. That’s reality…Whether it goes well or doesn’t go well, I think we can learn something from every one of these stories.

And, the main thing that I’ve learned from (producing) this series was this line of Angie’s that “Forgiveness is a gift to yourself.” I always thought of forgiveness as something you do to make the other person feel better. And, of course, that element is there too but people who really know forgiveness tell me that you are doing it for yourself no matter what the response is from the other person. That’s something I learned and what a great message to impart to viewers across the country.

 JWK: That is a great message. How do you find your stories?

AS: Well, first of all, in terms of what you saw, because we haven’t been on the air  nobody knows about this program, that’s just diligent research from professional researchers who do this thing for a living and know how to find stories. Our staff was very good at that.

In terms of the future, I hope that people will see that slate at the end with the (web address) they can go to — – and offer us stories…At least for the first season, our plan is to have two stories where forgiveness has already occurred and we’re seeing the aftereffects and two stories where it happens before our eyes.

JWK: Which of the four stories in the pilot moved you the most?

AS: It’s kind of like asking a father who his favorite child is. I could answer that by telling you why each one moved me the most but I guess I really liked the Lynda Fredericks story because of its timeliness and it’s really important that if teenagers saw that and really saw some of the long-term effects it really might stop them from doing some of the silly, irresponsible things they’re doing thinking that it’s really not hurting anybody.

But, I’d have to say that the Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel story moved me most for two reasons. Number One, because it’s such an extraordinary thing that Mary was able to do. I think that most people would not be able to offer that kind of forgiveness and certainly would not continue the relationship to the point of living next door to the person. I mean it may be one of a kind. Absolutely amazing and astounding.

The other reason it moved me the most is because often times – and I think our last year of politics in America kind of contributed to this – we tend to hear about…people of deep faith in a negative context. And, again, I blame the politics of it all. People who take The Bible or take their religious views and take it to an extreme that doesn’t sit well with a majority of people because they make it political or they want to force their ideas on everybody else.  So, you kind of get an idea – just from everything that’s happened over the last year – that somebody of deep faith is a kook, is an extremist, is somebody with an agenda that is gonna try to make us into somebody we’re not. Then, along comes Mary who’s not trying to convert anybody to anything but who makes it clear that without her belief in God, without her Christian values as (they) relate to Jesus, that she would be incapable of doing this. And, even with that, it took her twelve years.

So, that was a message that I was only too proud and happy put out there because everybody who is a deep person of faith should not be demonized by others who may use it for political agendas and try to force some of their beliefs upon everybody.

JWK: How was Angie Richey chosen as the mediator?

AS: Again, we put out the search. Obviously, the person had to be credible and have the credentials. But the network felt that person in some way should have a spiritual or faith-based connection (along with) the credential of professional counseling. So, we even considered some ministers and pastors as well but we found that that’s a little dicey because if they’re Catholic…you know, how’s the Protestant community gonna relate? and all of that. So, when we met Angie, she had the credential as a therapist. She is obviously very attractive on camera and that’s important. That’s just what television has done to us…And, on top of that, she’s an ordained minister. So, I mean she was the complete package. She (also) lives locally here in Southern California which makes it very easy for us. She was willing and had not done television before and so was a fresh face…We found her just by contacting a lot of counseling centers that we knew were tied in some way to faith.

And can I just say one more thing about Angie because I think it relates to your site. Because she’s an ordained minister, she’s a person herself of deep faith. If the story is one where faith and even, perhaps, Christian values come into it, she’s capable of really delving into that with the person because it is her. But she’s also capable of dealing with an atheist who may want to forgive somebody with absolutely zero tie-in to anything…faith based.

JWK: Will some stories in the future tell stories focused on people of other faiths, such as Judaism or Islam?

AS: Of course. We’re not closed off to anybody…The reasons that me might not use a story don’t have to do with that. They have do to with whether both parties are willing to appear and whether it’s a story (that) by putting it on television is gonna benefit people and not hurt people.

JWK: I did a little research on you. Is it true you sold your first show when you were only 21?

AS: 22.

JWK: That’s not too impressive then. Just kidding. Can you tell me about the show?

AS: It was a high school quiz show called Scholarquiz where teams of high school students from competing high schools would get together and answer rapid0fre questions all relating to Americana. So, in other words, it would be American sports, American literature, American history…It stayed on the air for four years on the CBS-owned station in Los Angeles. By the time I was 25, I had three shows on the air. I’ve been doing it ever since…Because documentaries and nonfiction are my world, I really think of myself as an educator, a non-credentialed educator, who instead of having a classroom tries to use film and television to communicate ideas to help enrich people’s lives and improve people’s lives.

JWK: That’s certainly true of you Scared Straight! films and Rescue 911 which was one of my all-time favorite reality TV shows. That’s when the term referred to shows like Rescue and Unsolved Mysteries and not the Kardashians or whatever.

AS: That was the previous incarnation (of the genre). Rescue, Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted and…a couple of others were in that group.

JWK: I sure Rescue 911 must have saved a lot of lives.

AS: It did. At the time we went off the air we had confirmed and verified that more than 350 viewer lives had been saved by something that someone saw on the program, or were able to apply or somebody saved their life.

JWK: That must be very rewarding to you.

AS: Very rewarding.

JWK: Any thought of ever reviving the show?

AS: We’ve tried over the years. William Shatner is interested in it but, so far, it hasn’t really happened.

JWK: Getting back to I Forgive You, which is an on-air pilot for a series, what do you hope the show accomplishes?

AS: First of all, I hope it’s an uplifting and enlightening experience for every viewer.  But I hope it inspires people examine their lives and to see if there’s somebody they would like to forgive or maybe somebody they would like to ask forgiveness from. I hope it promotes the concept of forgiveness because, whether you come at it from a spiritual and faith perspective or whether you just come at it from a pure mental-health perspective, it is a very, very positive thing to do. So, I’m happy and honored to have the opportunity to promote that.

Note: Tomorrow in this space, meet Oshea Israel who experienced forgiveness firsthand when Mary Johnson forgave for killing her son.

Again, I Forgive You airs this Sunday (9/18) @ 9:00 PM, 10:00 PM and 11:00 PM. As well as next Wednesday (Thanksgiving Eve) @ 9:00 PM and 10:00 PM. All times mentioned are ET.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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