Kristin Chenoweth is probably right when she says the critics aren't disposed to like "Kristin," her new sitcom on NBC. Chenoweth plays a sweet, devoutly Christian Oklahoman who has come to New York to see her name in lights. Next to someone like the chirpy Chenoweth, who is in fact a devoutly Christian Oklahoman, a person who spends hours indoors screening a season's worth of "X-Files" at a time comes across as sullen and creepy. And the sitcom's moral dilemmas--a brush with casual sex or an ill-advised bender--hardly register in the big-city. If Chenoweth looks more like America these days, critics look more like the jaded Gothamites Kristin spars with each week. They'll wonder what all the moral anguish is about.

But the problems for "Kristin" begin a lot closer to home. Created by former "Cosby Show" writer John Markus, Chenoweth's character is essentially an undiscovered version of Chenoweth herself, who won a Tony last year for her vampy depiction of Sally in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The fictional Kristin, a chirrupy aspiring musical actress, seems incapable of pulling off such a role. At her day job, at a real-estate firm run by realtor-rapscallion Jon Tenney, Kristin comes across as half-naif, half scold, with an uneasy relationship with her peers--a bevy of slick working girls who like to smoke, drink, and dish dirt.

This cutthroat environment is supposed to put Kristin's Christian values to the test, but watching her try to swim with these two dimensional New York sharks just lowers our opinion of her, and her faith. Kristin responds by going overboard to show everyone that she has normal urges, which leads her into mildly sinful behavior. For a moral, we get those tidy life lessons her momma taught her back when she was at Broken Arrow High. There is more "Cosby" than Christ in all this--"family" values, as opposed to Christian ones, which are the same only on television. Certainly, "Kristin" leaves one wondering what a truly Christian show would be. "Touched By an Angel" is perhaps the most successful show that uses Judeo-Christian imagery to deliver moral messages. But is there a serious Christian that would let the show speak for their faith?

The Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of advertisers who got tired of showcasing their products on sleazy teen shows and shoot-'em-ups, has had success with their initial effort at supporting scripts with higher goals: the "Gilmore Girls," which manages to be sophisticated, spicy, and wholesome. None of those adjectives, however, would describe what it means to take up the cross and follow Him.

"Six Feet Under," a new HBO dramedy set in a funeral parlor, offers a different glimpse of how television can raise moral questions. Living on death's doorstep, where regrets come due abruptly, the show's characters are reminded how our choices have enduring consequences. Could a Christian show--presumably omitting HBO's patented nudity and cussing--be like this, concentrating less on morality as a set of rules and instead impressing on us that it truly matters what we do in our lives?

Of course, these are not sitcoms, but the question remains: can Christians push the TV envelope? There are obstacles. Committed Christians in Hollywood--and they do exist--need to get the ear of television executives. Clearly "Kristin" suffers in part from network nervousness about trying anything new with possibly risky material. Evangelical Christians, too, are ready to protest anything that doesn't reflect well on them. But if VeggieTales, the nearly universally accepted kids' video series, can be genuinely funny, knowingly human and biblically faithful, can't a sitcom too? We can't expect Markus, who isn't Christian, to solve this dilemma. We might expect better treatment, though, for Chenoweth and the audience. The way he has drawn her, Kristin seems more like a supporting character--the wacky but wholesome Christian--than the star. And the whole show, with its guys in Armani worn over white T-shirts, and big-haired working girls, seems oddly dated. Even the slightly off-color minister joke he gives Kristin to win over her officemates is from the age of the Automat.

There is, to be sure, something of the Automat Age in Chenoweth. It's not her naivete, however, but her mid-20th-century love for Broadway and belting out a throaty standard. A week before "Kristin" debuted, Chenoweth released her first solo album, in which she shows off the outsize pipes she harbors in her 4'11" frame. The television screen, unfortunately, corners her boundless talent, which extends from opera to comedy and has a dark side too, and drowns even her flinty attachment to her religion in a case of the cutes. Maybe TV just isn't her medium--or maybe the medium has yet to catch up with who she is.

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