Meet the Davidsons.
Scott has been killed by a drunk driver in a car accident. His daughter, Lori, isn't sure she still believes in Jesus, because her fiance has gotten her college roommate pregnant. Scott's grief-stricken widow, Terry, is being plagued by harassing phone calls from the drunk driver. And her teen-age son Peter has started drinking.
Welcome to Kingsley, the fictitious suburb that is the locale for "Another Life," the nation's first Christian soap opera, where, like sands through the hourglass, the search for tomorrow is easier for the young and the restless because their guiding light is Jesus Christ.
The brainchild of television minister M.G. (Pat) Robertson, "Another Life" is produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the cornerstone in Robertson's 21-year-old evangelical empire.
Every weekday the syndicated half-hour "soap with hope," as Robertson calls it, is taped here at CBN's mammoth studios inside the network's cross-shaped Williamsburg-style complex. The show, which had its debut last June, is beamed by satellite to 3,000 cable systems around the country, including the Washington area--a potential audience of l5 million homes--and to 50 broadcast stations from Boston to San Francisco.
Robertson says he wants "Another Life" to offer an alternative to "the forces of immorality and atheism" that dominate network television. More important, he wants the show to be a commercial success and envisions it as part of a three-hour block of CBN-produced shows designed to attract non-Christians to his brand of evangelism and faith healing.
CBN is developing other shows: "You and Me, Lord," described as "a sitcom about an elderly Jewish man who has a Christian niece," and "Congressional Wives," a prime-time drama, the plot of which Robertson won't reveal.
Even a Christian soap, which like the secular soaps has an audience of housewives, the elderly and college students, cannot be a commercial hit if it features teetoalling characters who recount what led them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
"Soap operas have a universal appeal," said Robertson, a Yale Law School graduate who parlayed a $70 investment into a $55 million corporation. "We want this to be a world-class vehicle."
"This is a real story about real people," says Robertson, 51, host of the 90-minute religious talk show, "The 700 Club," CBN's flagship program. "The central characters are all dedicated Christians and as the waves of life pound upon them, they have a rock to cling to. The secular soaps don't give that kind of answer. They offer despair."
Robertson wants his soap to break into the world of daytime programming with its low production costs and enormous advertising revenue. That would create a financial base for CBN, which is now almost entirely dependent on contributions. So far, Richardson-Vicks, Procter and Gamble and General Mills have bought commercial time on CBN, which sells for a fraction of the cost of network advertising.
Because it is largely a nonunion production, "Another Life" has an annual budget of about $4 million, roughly a quarter of the cost of a network serial. Salaries are equally scaled down and lead actors earn about $300 an appearance compared to the $800 to $1,000 beginning New York soap stars receive.
"Another Life" is as slickly produced as the network soaps, partly because CBN hired veterans of those shows to produce and direct it. The actors, all professionals and most born-again Christians, were culled from casting calls in New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and here which attracted more than 5,000 people.
The show is built around the classic soap formula: a handful of families whose lives intertwine. Some characters are born-again, others are not. The Redlons are black. ("That wasn't accidental," Robertson says. "We're trying to let people in the inner city know we're interested.")
"We deal with divorce, anger, envy, all the things that make up the stew that is human emotion," says David Hummel, the show's executive producer recently hired from Procter and Gamble, a major advertiser on network soaps. "We show people drinking wine, but we also show an alcoholic who had cancer and was miraculously cured."
"Another Life" also deals with other subjects mined by secular soaps: infidelity, abortion, drugs, violence, sibling rivalry and venality. In this show, however, the unsaved invariably pay for their sins, Christian characters are generally treated more sympathetically, and topics like sex are handled with a circumspection befitting "The Donna Reed Show."
"Another Life" has been through several incarnations. Originally titled "The Life Inside," it featured straight-laced characters who recited scripture frequently and were, in Robertson's words, "stilted and Victorian."
That was followed by a period during which the overt evangelical message was diluted to the dismay of some 700 Club supporters, who contribute most of the $71 million Robertson says he raised last year.
Last fall, several writers and executives were replaced and Dallas and JoAnne Barnes, a born-again, husband-and-wife, Hollywood script-writing team with a string of credits including "Baretta" were imported to overhaul the show and give it the proper religious perspective.
Although Lynwood King, a producer who commutes from New York, says the show "teaches by example, not by beating people over the head," subtlety is sometimes less important than the message.
A college student tells a friend that premarital sex is "beautiful, before the guilt, which is hell." A business executive tells a job applicant, "Before making a decision, I always pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit."
And Scott Davidson, before his death, told his just-married daughter, Lori, "I wanted to remind you that until today as your father, I had authority over you . . . . Now that you're Ben's wife, you'll be under his authority, second only to the Lord."
To which Lori replies, "I think one of the reasons I love Ben so much is because he's so much like you, Dad. Don't worry, I'll be a good Christian wife."
Bob Aaron, the former chief of daytime programming at NBC and one of the soap's creators, left CBN last year after a dispute over one episode that reflects the battle between secular and evangelical themes.
The scene involved Jeff Cummings, an alcoholic wife-beater who develops liver cancer and enters a hospital for surgery. As Jeff lies semiconscious in his hospital bed after the operation, a beam of light shines on him. Suddenly, Jeff sits up in bed, rips off his bandages and discovers no scar from the operation--and no cancer. He becomes a born-again Christian and opens a religious book store.
"I had wanted the script to show Jeff getting help from Alcoholics Anonymous and his next-door neighbors, the Davidsons, who are good solid Christians," said Aaron, now a consultant to NBC and Canadian television. "That kind of writing is just deplorable."
Sometimes members of the cast, who despite their born-again beliefs are more accustomed to the more cynical and secular worlds of show business, deliver one-liners after scenes are shot.
One actor, playing a doctor who invites an acquaintance to his home for dinner, says "You'll love my wife's cooking," and then turns and says with a touch of sarcasm to no one in particular, "Yeah, we're going to have lasagna and listen to Lawrence Welk."
A spirit of Christian camaraderie prevails in the lavishly equipped computerized studios. The assistant director wears a silk dress, pearls and pumps, not gold chains, leopard-skin jumpsuit and stiletto heels.
The strongest drug on the set is coffee. Profanity and cigarettes are taboo. Bibles are scattered in the "green room," which resembles a just-completed classroom in a community college more than an actor's lounge.
The cast and crew, nearly all born-again Christians, hug and bless each other. Before a particularly tough scene they often pray. Every morning at 9, the 35-member group holds a half-hour prayer meeting.
The prayer session is led by actor Eddie Hailey, whose list of Hollywood credits includes "Lou Grant." Others in the cast are veterans of the secular soaps. And while most profess a strong religious commitment to the show, many add that steady work in Tidewater beats unemployment in New York.
"This is another credit," said Hailey, 31, who plays Gene Redlon, the show's "good" black non-Christian. A minister's son, Hailey says he was born again when he failed to win the part of Alex Haley in "Roots II."
"I was called back three times, which usually means you have the part. The third time before the audition I prayed, 'God, you don't have to give me the job, just let me knock the producer and directors over and I'll start going back to church.' "
Hailey didn't get the part. "I had a real emotional setback because of it, but I refused to resort to drugs, which a lot of my peers were doing." Instead, he began attending a Los Angeles church whose members have included Bob Dylan. He read about "Another Life" in a church bulletin, auditioned and got the part.
"My agent and other nonbelievers couldn't believe what I was doing," said Hailey, who like most actors does not rule out leaving CBN for a higher paying job in secular productions. "But I feel the Lord wants me to do this. When it's time to do something else, He'll tell me. Right now, I'm glad to be here, doing something I believe in."