(RNS) Mixing religion and entertainment, as NBC has tried to do with its new prime time TV sitcom “Save Me,” starring Anne Heche, can be a tricky business.

Anne Heche plays Beth Harper, a woman who can talk to and receive messages from God, in NBC's "Save Me." Photo courtesy of Colleen Hayes/NBC Universal.

Anne Heche plays Beth Harper, a woman who can talk to and receive messages from God, in NBC’s “Save Me.” Photo courtesy of Colleen Hayes/NBC Universal.


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Sometimes the combination works spectacularly, marrying a religious base with a significant crossover audience. When the chemistry is right, shows built around faith and divine intervention land in the ratings Top Ten year after year, and earn numerous Emmys.

CBS had mainstream hits with “Highway to Heaven” in the 1980s and “Touched by an Angel” in the late 1990s. The WB/CW’s “7th Heaven” ran for a decade.

At other times, talking-to-God/Jesus/angel dramas — like ABC’s “Nothing Sacred” in the late 1990s, and CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia,” in the mid-2000s — were short-lived.

For some reason, audiences have no problem when God, faith and religion are regular elements of animated comedies such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “South Park.” Psychologically, a cartoon Jesus on the small screen is okay in ways that a live-action Jesus is not.

But with live action sitcoms, success is more difficult to predict. And when the family at the center of show is not Christian the premise can be an especially tough sell. The Canadian Broadcasting Company’s critically lauded “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” lasted from 2007-2012, but with steadily declining ratings.

A critical factor for “Save Me,” which concludes its limited run Thursday (June 13), was how viewers would receive Heche as a Cincinnati housewife and former weekend television weathercaster who converses with God.

Her character, a non-churchgoer, nearly dies while choking on a sandwich, but gets a second chance after surviving – as a “prophet of God.” She calls God “He-She” and describes the divine’s voice (unheard by viewers) as gender neutral. In the final episode, God is embodied by Betty White.

Heche’s Beth Harper – quirky and scattered – has struggled with alcohol and multiple personalities. So her family and friends are rightly skeptical of her new powers, which include reading other people’s thoughts and desires.

Never having set foot in a church, she thinks it might help to attend a service with a friend. At the small, suburban congregation, she finds she immediately knows the words to the gospel hymn “I Saw the Light” (the show’s theme song is “This Little Light of Mine”).

But later the pastor disappoints her by treating news of her powers the same way he treats a more obviously delusional congregant.

Beth’s divine dialogues often occur with Heche on the toilet, hands folded. And some of the show’s humor may be too raw for mainstream audiences. Example: Offering a friend unsolicited sex advice.

“One Million Moms,” an evangelical group, attacked the show, calling it “Christian bashing” and “demeaning,” and claiming “Save Me” has “blasphemous content.” They’ve asked supporters to request NBC cancel the show.

One critic observed that it is difficult to tell where the parable ends and the parody begins.

“This is not a religious show,” Heche insisted to Craig Ferguson on “The Late Late Show.” But the show’s fatal flaw may be that, in pursuit of a broad, network audience, it is not religious enough, neglecting its potential core supporters.

Perhaps producers had the younger, spiritual-but-not religious in mind. In the past, religious community members have criticized faith-centered, network shows, alleging watered-down doctrine for mass consumption, or too much treacle.

Heche, who also produces the show, says she is a strong believer in second chances. Her own complicated personal history with religion gives an added dimension to her involvement in the series. She was raised in a very strict, religiously conservative home.

“The focus of our religious activities at home were centered on reading and memorizing the Bible,” she explained. Heche’s mother, from whom she has been estranged, worked with the late Jerry Falwell, and has a “reparative therapy” practice aimed at turning gay people straight. Ironically, Heche said that the airing of “Save Me” played a part in their reestablishing contact.

“Save Me” drew three million viewers in its first two airings, according to Nielsen, and in its third week ratings bumped 17 percent. Such numbers spell “hit” on cable, but “on the bubble” for the network, even in the slower summer season.

If, as some critics predict, “Save Me” is not renewed, it may only suggest that the network prime time ratings bar is simply too high, and that cable or even the web may be the natural home for truly faith-based entertainment TV.

(Longtime religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is author of “The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family.”)

13 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    Christian’s can’t stand to get along with other Christian’s unless they are all drinking the same poisoned Kool-AId from the garbage can. Unfortunately they don’t drink enough.

    Depending whose statistics you believe there are between 33,000 and 41,000 Christian denominations, according to Christianity Today. There’s 2.4 billion nominal Christians worldwide. That’s less than 75,000 members per denomination. Those are Christians that can’t get along with each other regarding what Christianity means. Each one of the denominations is right and all the others are wrong at some level. Jesus Christ, how do you call that a unified religion. That’s why it’s numbers are shrinking, because it is unbelievable, a people are waking up to that fact.

  2. Anne Heche in Save Me is so witty & funny. she is Lucy & Carol Burnett rolled into one. The Show also has had some really uplifting moments. The message of caring for others and changes to positive actions on a personal note, and turning away from past mistakes may not be popular TV, but it is a joy to see for me. If the show has only 1 season, i hope Anne would make a Movie with this same theme.

  3. My husband and I recently found the show on HuluPlus. We love it! God often chose very flawed people to pass His word – adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, persecutors of Christians. They would probably not fit in to many churches today. That’s why this show is “real” while still being funny and very entertaining. We feel good after each episode and that’s rare these days! We certainly hope NBC picks it up for renewal, but if not, we hope it will move to cable or another channel who will let it grow.

  4. I really like this show. I think it shows a good balance of those who are trying to be good Christians with the realities we face every day that make it difficult at times. And that God has a sense of humor. I think that is sometimes lost with some Christians. I hope this show continues either here or on cable. I want to see where it goes.

  5. “Let us be plain, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party-member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness.” I think Ms Heche’s intent is altogether consistent with the early thought of our Pope Emeritus, and her program deserves total recall.

  6. If the one million “christian mom’s” are the reason for canceling Save Me then they need to do a little less thumping and a little more reading and paying attention.
    Any wonder why so many are turning away from organized religion ?

  7. I loved the show! It and The Goodwin Games are in my opinion the two best new shows to come on in a long time! I hope it comes back with great success. To all the people who bash it and don’t like it: Don’t watch it!

  8. I loved this show and am so disappointed it was cancelled. I appreciated the message in each show and found it cute, funny and entertaining. Anne Heche was wonderful! Sorry to hear it was cancelled….I really hope they can bring it back.

  9. I loved this show and I’m disappointed that it was cancelled. I felt it made believing in God more acceptable to a larger audience that is probably filled more with non-church-goers than religious viewers. It made having religious beliefs seem more mainstream and normal. These days, if a person attends church, depending on the community that person is in, that person can almost be chastised for being “too moral.” But this show depicted what religion is all about….having a connection to something bigger, and people having a responsibility to take care of each other. I appreciated that and I wish there were more episodes to come. The dialogue was catchy and the characters delightfully quirky.

  10. My entire family where disappointed that Save Me was cancelled. We are a Christian family who really looked forwards each week to see it. The only criticism is of taking the Lord’s name in vain a lot during the episodes. Despite this, the messages are exactly what is needed today!! It left us with hope and a great sense of Thankfulness for the Lord and how to apply it to modern day times. This show as a mother of 2 young kids 9 and 5 yrs old set a great example to my children minus the first couple of episodes which I watched myself. My point is this is exactly what is needed there is nothing safe for our kids to watch on TV in today’s times everything is a about murdering, vampires and demons there is clothing for us as a family unit to sit down together to laugh and come away with a good lesson in morality. We need to see more shows like the good old days safe for the entire family!

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