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In the Name of the Father : ‘Nothing Sacred’s’ producers put their faith in viewers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Would you like to see our church?” the producer asks with a certain reverence. “It’s really quite beautiful.”

Not your standard invitation when visiting a TV show, but this is David Manson, co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s “Nothing Sacred,” the new prime-time drama that deals with a 35-year-old hip, liberal and scruffily handsome priest in an urban parish.

Seen as often in jeans and crew-neck as he is in Roman collar, Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) ministers to his flock, runs a soup kitchen and, on occasion, experiences severe bouts of doubt--not only about God but about himself.

From their production offices in Canoga Park, Manson and fellow executive producer Richard Kramer lead the way downstairs to a church set with three walls and pews that seat several hundred. They show stained-glass windows depicting Stations of the Cross, a side chapel, a confessional, a sacristy where the priests dress. On a table is a bottle marked “Holy Water.”

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“We pretty much copied what we had in Toronto,” where the pilot was filmed, Manson notes. “The Toronto Archdiocese wouldn’t let us shoot in a Catholic church, so we [got] an Anglican church and converted it. Here we built our own. We didn’t want to take the chance we would get thrown out of a church.”

The producers have reason to be concerned. “Nothing Sacred” has been swirling in controversy since early last summer, when the Catholic League complained that “the show deliberately denigrates the official teachings of the Church by unfavorably contrasting them to the trendy positions of dissenting Catholics.”

With petitions and sponsor boycotts threatened, Manson, Kramer and Anderson insist that they are focusing on their work, not on their critics. But they also note that the Catholic League doesn’t speak for all Catholics, pointing to the Jesuit magazine America, which says: “Judging by the pilot episode, ‘Nothing Sacred’ looks like the best television series ever produced about the rich and often complicated lives of American Catholics.”

Now, with the series to premiere Thursday night, the producers are asking viewers to give them a chance.

“All we would ask of those who are critical,” says Kramer, who came on board when the pilot was done, “is to stay with it, and they will see a very balanced picture of things that will probably take in their point of view in a very satisfying way.”

“If people can suspend their judgment and give the show a chance,” Manson adds, they’ll find that “it’s fair-minded. We’re not ideologues.”

Yes, Father Ray questions the existence of God, says Manson, “but his faith is earned. It is not glib. He finds his faith at the edge of doubt. . . . It’s not like he sees God full-bodied, with angels on high. He sees a glimpse through a glass darkly of the presence of God.”

Both Manson and Kramer are 45 and Jewish. Manson, an honors graduate of UC Irvine and son of film composer Eddy Manson, began his career as a director at the Mark Taper Forum and went on to produce a batch of TV movies and some features; he co-created and executive-produced Fox’s “Against the Law.” Kramer, a Yale graduate, was producer and head writer for ABC’s “thirtysomething” and executive producer and writer of the PBS miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”

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The genesis of “Nothing Sacred” stemmed in part from trying to find a new setting for a TV drama. “We became interested in the idea about a man of the cloth who was deeply engaged in the sort of mess of the world,” says Manson. “When you’re trying to develop and produce television series, the idea of doing another law show or another cop show or another doctor show--it’s very hard to get excited.”

His interest was enhanced by a longtime friendship with a Jesuit priest and playwright who wrote the pilot with him under the name Paul Leland, a pseudonym used to “create some separation; he’s not writing as an official voice of the church,” Manson said. He met other priests through “Leland.”

“They were funny, they were smart, they knew sports and entertainment and pop culture and, more interesting to me, they lived very frugal lives,” Manson explained. “They were very much involved in preaching a social gospel, in ministering the poor and feeding the hungry and taking care of the sick, and I thought they were exceptional.”

With a parish as its heart, “Nothing Sacred” has ready access to all sorts of plot lines and issues. “A priest is almost like the invisible man of today,” Kramer says. “This priest said to me, ‘I can walk into anybody’s hospital room, I can go into almost anybody’s house, any business.’ That allows us to explore a fairly wide range of human experience.”

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Subsequent episodes will deal with a wedding, a funeral, a priest who has AIDS, Father Ray suddenly finding the need for a vacation from his vocation.

“We have been conditioned to stories about those in the religious life as being above the fray,” Kramer says. “Perfect, two-dimensional. One of the things that might be upsetting to people . . . is that all of our religious characters, and also the characters that are not religious, have flaws. . . . And they have doubts.”

Not being Catholic themselves, the producers insist, does not matter. “John Wells [executive producer of “ER”] is not an [emergency room] doctor,” Manson says. “Steven Bochco is not a lawyer.” Still, three of “Nothing Sacred’s” five writers are Catholic, and “Leland” and Michael Breault, a Jesuit, serve as consultants.

Meanwhile, ABC’s broadcast standards department has been sending scripts to Father Gregory Coiro, director of media relations for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. But both he and the producers point out that he is in no way responsible for the final product, nor does involvement imply approval. The producers say they have been making some adjustments, primarily for accuracy, but that dramatic license is theirs to take.

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Anderson, the star of the series, acknowledges that he is a lapsed Catholic but says, “I believe in whatever you want to call it: God, Buddha, the Almighty Creator. I definitely believe in something more powerful than ourselves.”

The God question, of course, is rather intimate. “I would say that what I share with the protagonist is the notion of searching,” says Manson. “I think there is a great mystery in the world--if you want to call that God--and I believe [in] an unnamed first cause, beyond just sort of the origins of the world.”

Kramer simply says, “Watch the show.”


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