May 18--I'm not sure if I want this prime-time religion.
Save Me, the summer God-com on NBC that premieres with two episodes Thursday starting at 8 p.m., mixes spirituality and sin in a messy way.
There have been wonderful shows broadcast with religion in the mix, both recently and in TV history. The networks don't often recognize that wonder, though, so viewers have lamentations over the series' too-brief lives as sitcoms, dramedies, and dramas. Save Me tries, but it isn't a testament to quality.
The problem that is obvious after viewing the first episode and reading publicity material provided by NBC Universal is that it's unoriginal.
A Cincinnati woman named Beth Harper (Anne Heche) is drunk and chokes on a hero sandwich. Ham on Jewish rye would be funnier. She wakes from a near-death moment, and feels the guidance of God. She's an alcoholic, very near divorce, and has plenty of problems with her daughter, neighbors, and rivals.
God sends her feelings about other people's problems, and she uses her new insight to fix them. It's all played out in cliched scenes that viewers have seen plenty of times -- the husband's affair, the daughter's adolescent dating life, the neighbor's fallow marriage -- and the "godly" Beth makes just the right move to turn things around.
I get the impression that Beth heals instantly from that touch by a divine sponsor rather than needing essential people-to-people support like Alcoholics Anonymous would provide. Others don't know what to make of her new energy. The difference from her prior life is the situation, and that present/past difference, in dealing with her husband's affair, her daughter's adolescence, and her reputation with the neighbors is supposed to provide the comedy.
But even if the star were a comedian who could carry the premise rather than Heche, an actor who has a history of her own life not being in order, Save Me would still be too limited. Beth seems to be only the neighborhood prophet. A Tibetan reference gives a nod to a universal god, but Save Me is all local for Beth.
The show makes me want to watch some of the good religion-oriented series again. I remember Lost, which had viewers looking up world religion information weekly in attempts to understand the story lines. There's The Simpsons, of course, in which religion is a natural part of life in Springfield, and sometimes is the core of an episode. Touched by an Angel, the anthology series with some human-seeming angels on Earth helping people to change their lives, is a celestial performer, though it often followed a narrow formula. And I'll include Bewitched here, with those pagans who could perform magic at the wave of a hand or the twinkle of a nose and be funny about it.
Three comedies with Christian characters in church deserve fond mention, too: Amen, starring the late Sherman Hemsley as the deacon who runs the church his father started; The Vicar of Dibley, a British sitcom that aired on public TV stations, starring Dawn French as a female Anglican priest in a country parish; and The Flying Nun, with Sally Field as a 90-pound nun whose coronet served as glider wings to let her fly in the strong winds of Puerto Rico, where she would end up helping others while doing the work of her convent.
Save Me needs a lot of prayer to land on this list. It tries to be quirky, but doesn't appeal as well as some viewer-loved comedic shows with religion that were pretty quickly axed by networks, like Wonderfalls (it also started with the lead character choking on a sandwich) and Pushing Daisies, where the main character could reanimate the dead.
Only eight episodes are scheduled, according to a media representative at NBC Universal --t wo every Thursday through June 13. Save Me isn't on NBC's fall schedule. Blessings to you if it's on your summer viewing list.
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