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Priests on TV, again

New priest TV show ‘vows’ respect, feeds U.S. cultural clergy fascination

By Irene Lagan
NEW YORK (National Catholic Register) – The fall television lineup will include a show about Catholic priests. But it won’t be a tale about corrupt or dysfunctional priests, as some shows in the past have been.

Rather, “Vows” – now in production for the American Movie Channel – is about a priest who is faithful and is in love with the church.

The innovative drama, whose protagonist is a Jesuit, will be aired as part of AMC’s first efforts to produce original episodic dramas.

AMC brand “Television for movie lovers” is driving the network to produce shows with strong character-driven stories with strong emotional content. Karen Hall, the show’s creator, is an award-winning television writer and novelist. Having written for a number of popular shows, including “M.A.S.H.,” “Judging Amy” and “Northern Exposure,” she has recently been commissioned to write “Vows.”

The idea for the show, she said, was lurking in her imagination for some time.

“When my agent asked if I was going to pitch an idea to the networks for a new series, I told him my only idea was really insane,” she said. Her agent thought a series about Jesuits in a formation house might be, as the agent put it, “outlandish enough to work.”

Much to Hall’s surprise, AMC accepted the pitch immediately last December and asked Hall to meet with them in New York.

“All I could think was, ‘I have four kids and it’s Christmas and they can’t really be serious,’” Hall said. “But they bought the show. This is something I love doing, but at every step I ask myself who am I kidding. It seems unreal.”

Hall believes that part of the reason for the keen interest in the show is a fascination in mainstream American culture with the priesthood. Since the beginning of the church’s sexual abuse scandal in 2002, Hall said that public scrutiny and curiosity about the priesthood is a phenomenon, especially in Hollywood.

“Priests for the most part used to be left alone,” she said. “But now people really wonder what it is like to walk down the street wearing a collar, why men choose to be priests in this day and age, and what the priesthood is about. And in the recent annals of priest screen characters, a man who is faithful to his vows and in love with the church is something that almost never comes out of religious-cynical Hollywood.”

“The orthodox priest-protagonist is a novelty,” she added. “Everything else has been done: the cool liberal priest, the gay priest, the drug-addicted pastor, priests who are pedophiles or who have lost faith. Networks are interested now in what is real, which seems weird enough to them to be compelling.”

Screenwriter and film critic Barbara Nicolosi said that “Vows” is shaping up to be the first primetime television series about a priest that will actually grow out of prayer and love for the Church. Moreover, Nicolosi said that Hall has a rare talent as a writer and artist.

“Up to this point we have seen shows about Christians like ‘Revelation’ and ‘Book of Daniel,’ which had network writers, but who weren’t Christians,” Nicolosi said. “And then we had, ‘Nothing Sacred.’” The controversial show, created by a priest, was canceled in the first season.

The Jesuits, Hall noted, hold a special place in her own life. Having been raised Methodist, she recalled that Ignatian spirituality played a central role in her conversion to Catholicism as an adult.

“I didn’t seek out St. Ignatius,” she said. “He found me. I used to wonder why I had this irrational love for a dead bald guy from the Basque country, until I finally figured out that I have some kind of strange Jesuit vocation.”

Plus, she said, the Jesuit charism remains unique and relevant for people today.

“Ignatius was really the first to show people how to find God in all things. He set the Jesuits up to be in the world, to roll up their sleeves and get into the muck. This is still true of them and they are particularly accessible to the audience because most people know a Jesuit or have at least heard of them.”

Having spent years researching the Jesuits for a movie about St. Ignatius that she is writing in her spare time, Hall stopped in Rome last month to explore the surroundings for her protagonist.

The characters and events, she said, will be based on composites of real situations. The story will feature a faithful-to-the-magisterium Jesuit priest in Rome who teaches at the Gregorian University and gets reassigned to a house of formation in the Bronx.

“To go from Rome to the Bronx is very jarring,” she said, “and the fact that it is so visually jarring will play well in the series. But the entire transition will help make a compelling case about the reality of the love these men have for St. Ignatius and the priesthood.

“My protagonist is a scholar who speaks four dead languages, is surrounded by incredible beauty, and gets reassigned to the equivalent of a seminary house where he is basically stuck taking care of administrative details such as unplugging toilets and reimbursing for cab fare to the city.”

The drama, she said, will unfold in her protagonist’s situation, working under a rector with whom he is at odds, facing questions on the part of more permissive family members and coming slowly to understand the reasons for his transfer and the lessons for him.

Prior to her research in Rome, Hall spent time with students in a first studies program in the Bronx, and then traveled to Spain to do further research on the drama of St. Ignatius’ life.

In the end, Hall said she hopes the show will do something to promote Jesuit vocations as well as reach people who believe that God is unreachable.

Hollywood producer Barry O’Brien called “Vows” an “absolutely groundbreaking event for television.” O’Brien, who is the supervising producer for “CSI Miami,” said Hall’s project is timely and promises to be explosive.

“To pierce the veil of something as unknowable as the church is novel,” O’Brien said. “Karen puts a face to Jesuits that is transcendent, flawed, compelling, accessible and ultimately hopeful. She is an extraordinary artist and human being.”

O’Brien said that shows such as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” have raised the bar for network dramas. Audiences are more sophisticated and interested in drama that coheres with reality.

“Karen’s project imbues the characters with a striking humanity. She writes about the seminary as ‘family’ in all of its glorious design and occasional dysfunction,” O’Brien said. “Before Karen’s seminarians were men of God, they were sons, brothers and friends.”

O’Brien came to know Hall while producing “Judging Amy,” and said he recognized her as extraordinary in her capacity for friendship and professional talent.

“Karen is a rare commodity for television,” he said. “She’s a gem – a sort of Eudora Welty meets Cormac McCarthy. You could not find a better person to create this show.”

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