Theresa and Bernell looked like they would rather be any place but where they were. Their friend Candee had gotten some people together to help her confront the pair about their drinking and to persuade them to get help.

Now, it's not unusual for friends to get together to confront someone about their drinking problem. But in this case, "some people" refers to a studio audience, not to mention several million television viewers: the venue for this attempt at intervention and possible reconciliation was the syndicated show "Forgive or Forget," with hostess Robin Givens.

Television isn't the usual venue for fostering forgiveness and reconciliation, and for good reason. For one thing, on television everything has to be resolved in either 22 or 44 minutes. (We must not forget television's raison d'etre: commercials.) While prime-time dramas can get away with "to be continued . . ." day-time talk shows can't.

And even if 44 minutes were enough to help guests, as Givens, puts it "find answers and a sense of peace," you still have to leave time for television's other prime directive: entertainment. And, in shows like "Forgive or Forget," entertainment equals conflict. In the installment entitled "Underage Drinkers," Candee sat alone on stage, while her friends were seated backstage, linked to Candee and the audience via video. If Candee and her friends could come to an agreement, Bernell and Theresa would step through a door onto the stage - a symbol of reconciliation.

It didn't take long for the scene to erupt into the kind of antics that we've come to associate with Jerry Springer. Theresa immediately accused Candee of hypocrisy, insisting that Candee was the one with the drinking problem. It took less than five minutes for the first bit of profanity to be covered over with a bleep.

Candee and company weren't the only ones getting into the action. The audience whooped and hollered its approval every time one of the "guests" landed the verbal equivalent of a scoring blow. At this point, the seating arrangements made practical sense.

The most telling exchange came when Theresa told the audience the she hadn't had a drink in six weeks. Candee shot back that Theresa wasn't drinking because she was pregnant. The look on Theresa's face said something like "I haven't told my parents and you went and announced it on national television, bleep!"

Which leaves the question: If Theresa isn't drinking and Candee knows it, what are we doing here? Nothing that left any of the participants with an enhanced sense of peace, that's for sure. It wasn't a surprise when Theresa and Bernell declined Candee's terms for preserving the relationship--this segment fell into the "forget it" category.

To be fair, the rest of the "underage drinkers" program didn't descend into bedlam as quickly or as deeply as Candee and company. And, at least "Underage Drinkers" held out the potential for serious discussion. The rest of the week I watched featured a show in which a woman tried to discern which of two men--neither of whom figure in her life today--are the father of her daughter; a woman with the improbable but somehow appropriate name of Quoterris (Latin for "which land") who demanded an apology from her sister for stranding her at a club; and, the ever-popular demand for an apology from an ex-boyfriend who not only cheated on the woman, but got the other women pregnant.

It doesn't require a terminal case of skepticism to doubt that anything of emotional and spiritual substance is going on. The emphasis on conflict, and the issuance on ultimatums are why the show is called "Forgive or Forget" instead of "Forgive and Forget."

But even if the show's producers sacrificed the entertainment value of confrontation for a more conciliatory approach, the entire idea of television as a vehicle for reconciliation would be preposterous. Forgiveness and reconciliation operate on their own schedules, not television's compressed formats. There are reasons why people remain estranged for years, even carry their estrangement to their graves. Even if the injured party is ready to forgive, the offending party may not be ready to (a) admit fault, or (b) seek forgiveness, or (c) do something that proves his seriousness of purpose.

Simply calling 1-877-APOLOGY, the number "Forgive or Forget" provides to potential guests, doesn't change any of this. And while everything on television looks effortless and natural, forgiveness is hard work and anything but "natural." As Lauren Winner pointed out on Beliefnet ("Sympathy for the Devil") the major faiths may differ in their approaches to forgiveness, but all of them regard forgiveness as a discipline, a mitzvah, if you will.

As a Christian, I forgive because Jesus told us to. Not because I want to; not because I feel like it; but because Jesus both commanded us to and provided us with the supreme example of what it means to forgive. ("Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.")

Other traditions provide different rationales, but I'm confident none of them think that 44 minutes and letting millions of people eavesdrop on the process evinces seriousness of purpose.

I believe that it was Samuel Goldwyn who said "if you want to send a message, call Western Union." If you want to be reconciled, turn off the tube and call your priest, minister, rabbi or whoever you go to for spiritual guidance. Because "Forgive or Forget" is definitely the place you don't want to be.

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