The breathless hush of self-importance hangs heavily over "Pray TV," the "ABC Theater of the Month" presentation airing at 9 tonight on Channel 7. The film, on which considerable advance controversy was lavished, turns out to be TV Preview nothing more substantial than a tippy-toed exercise in skirting an issue.
Author Lane Slate has said in an interview that the nervous network laundered his story of a young pastor who is disillusioned by what he learns about a media-mad minister and his religious conglomerate; the film isn't just squeaky-clean now, it's squeaky-dull, and director Robert Markowitz emphasizes that by having characters whisper or whimper most of their lines.
John Ritter plays the innocent bumpkin who falls under the spell of evangelist Freddy Stone (Ned Beatty) and then falls out of it again when he is repelled by the computer-signed letters, prayer wheels and "Thank you, Jesus" pins emptying the pockets of the faithful, and by Stone's dabblings in right-wing politics. In the film, the evangelist uses his TV time to support a political candidate, which of course could not happen unless Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark Fowler got his tiny-minded way and the Equal Time provision were repealed.
The film squanders its hot topic from the first scene, an unnecessarily lengthy simulation of a religious broadcast, replete with 800 phone number on the screen (I dialed it and just got a "call cannot be completed" recording); this mock-up unfortunately isn't nearly so garishly slick as actual programs like "PTL" or "The 700 Club." Stone is not portrayed as particularly corrupt or venal; the film is not an updated "Elmer Gantry" or the "All the King's Men" of religious demagoguery. It's just juiceless, that's all, and drearily flat.
Of the supporting cast, Richard Kiley as a small-town preacher is supposed to represent unsullied grass-roots decency, and the hauntingly intense Liz Oakes plays the sagacious young woman who helps a reluctant Ritter see the light. Their scenes together have an appealing romantic tension, but that's not enough to save "Pray TV" from itself. Jerry Falwell needn't give the film a second thought.