When a beautiful young lawyer walks into the offices of McKenzie Brackman tonight on the season premiere of NBC's oldest continuing series, "L.A. Law," resident womanizer Arnie Becker makes an impassioned plea to hire her.
But Becker (played by Corbin Bernsen) will have his work cut out for him if he is to realize his perpetual goal of sexual conquest, because early in the episode, lawyer Jane Halliday (played by Alexandra Powers) declares that she is a fundamentalist Christian and intends to remain a virgin until her wedding night.
And she isn't kidding.
"The point of view of someone for whom religious faith is of paramount significance is in contrast to everyone else," executive producer William M. Finkelstein said in explaining his decision to add the Halliday character. "There is no one like that who espouses a moral code that is somewhat rigid as per their religious convictions. I find it interesting to put someone like that in the context of a show that is mostly populated by people who are socially progressive or liberal or completely a-religious."
Finkelstein--whose show was co-created by Steven Bochco, with whom he also worked on "Cop Rock" and "Civil Wars"--insisted that the inclusion of a Christian character is in no way a direct response to the protests leveled at Bochco's shows from some evangelicals. He acknowledged, however, that characters who believe in God and permit religion to play a major role in their lives are "glaringly absent on television."
"There is this standing criticism from some religious people that religious characters are always portrayed as psychopaths or as foils of other people's jokes," Finkelstein said. "I don't necessarily believe that, but what is true is that you never see them as complicated protagonists. I would like to see (this character) embody as many contradictions and dimensions as possible. Like everyone else on the show, she won't always be heroic and she won't always behave in one particular way. But she will be a competent and legitimate protagonist."
The Rev. Donald Wildmon, whose American Family Assn. has led campaigns against television programs he finds offensive, said that if "L.A. Law" portrays the Halliday character as a person of "warmth, honesty, integrity--a person who cares about other people, who keeps her word, who doesn't break the law, who isn't out to just get ahead or make a lot of money but whose goal is to make a contribution," then his organization will express its appreciation publicly.
"Even if they do what they always do in Hollywood--present Christian tenets just to poke fun at them or shoot them down--if this is a person who can stand up to that in a rational, reasonable way and is depicted with intelligence, that would be a positive step, and I would applaud it," he said in a telephone interview from his office in Tupelo, Miss. But it wouldn't, he added, make him scale back the protest campaign against Bochco's new series on ABC, "NYPD Blue."
Wildmon and other religious watchdogs of television expressed skepticism, however, that "L.A. Law" will depict Halliday in a realistic and positive way.
"My hunch is that any portrayal of a Christian character on television will be in the extreme form, primarily because television seems to thrive on extremes," said Bob DeMoss, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based Christian media watchdog group that monitors sexual, violent and misogynistic entertainment. "I have my doubts whether a Christian character would ever be portrayed in a more moderate, balanced picture, which is closer to what mainstream Christianity is all about. My hope is maybe those writing such a story would spend some time talking directly to the heartland Christianity rather than to some of the more extreme forms."
Wildmon said his experience leads him to expect the worst. "From what I've seen in any attempt to deal with religion on television," he said, "people in Hollywood know very little about religion, and it's very hard to depict accurately something that you know nothing about."
Finkelstein said that he does not consult with anyone other the show's writing staff when constructing scripts. He and his staff have come up with biblical citations for the character by reading the Bible themselves, he said. He added that the attention focused on this character by media critics won't affect his use of her.
"There are always going to be people watching the show with a very specific agenda, and the only thing they will see is how their character is portrayed," Finkelstein said. "If you have an evil dentist, you will get letters from enraged dentists. That goes back to Day 1. You can't be hidebound by fearing to offend. You just have to stand back and say, 'Is this a fair and complicated portrayal?' As long as it's not exploitative, as long as we're not playing her cheap, I don't concern myself with reaction to it."
Finkelstein said that Halliday won't be involved solely in cases with religious implications, just as the African-American lawyer on the show does not work only on cases involving minority issues. He intends first to establish her credibility as a lawyer; then, down the road, anything will be fair game.
He said he hopes to place her in moral dilemmas in which she is forced to choose between her religious beliefs and the special rigors, requirements, oaths and etiquette of the legal profession. When the firm becomes involved in cases that concern such hot-button topics as abortion, homosexuality and prayers in school, she will definitely be on hand to offer her particular point of view. The producer said he might even use her to explore the opinions and motivations of religious groups that criticize and boycott certain television shows.
As for whether the alluring virgin will succumb to Arnie Becker's sexual advances, Finkelstein won't say.
"I want her to make mistakes, but what I know I'm committed to not doing is to portray her beliefs as something that she picks up and puts down to accommodate our stories. If you give strength to the character, you have to give strength to her convictions. I will honor her character. She says she is a virgin, and that does not suggest to me to make her a nymphomaniac. There will be a day when she isn't a virgin anymore. But whether that is because she gets married or not, I don't have a clear-cut answer to how I will address that."
Christianity isn't the only new thing on "L.A. Law" this season. Susan Ruttan, Sheila Kelley and Lisa Zane have all departed; joining the cast along with Powers are two castoffs from Finkelstein's now-defunct "Civil Wars": Alan Rosenberg and Debi Mazar, portraying the same eccentric New Yorkers of their previous incarnation--now transplanted across country to the land of sun and automobiles.