Sad Saga of Sister Aggie
This article originally appeared in Issue# 5
The word has come from CBS. "In the Beginning," the new TV sitcom featuring irrepressible Sr. Agnes and irascible Pr. Cleary as a clerical team running a ghetto street mission, has been cancelled after only six episodes. Whether it will ever appear again is doubtful given the vicissitudes of the TV industry and the fickleness of TV audiences.
For many months now the N.S.C.S. has acted in a minor consulting role particularly to Virginia Carter, vice- president and resident social advocate at Tandem Productions, creators of the series. Through her we shared news, ideas and resources about sisters, their communities and the social justice movement in the Church. As a feminist she was excited about the emerging role of women in the Church and together we had hope that the mass medium of television, reaching Ito million people in prima time, could document, even in humor, the Church reaching out to the poor, the lonely, the troubled. What happened? Why was the series cancelled before it even got going?
Priscilla Lopez, the talented young actress who played Aggie, is aware that TV critics panned her performance in contrast to the veteran "Cleary" actor McLean Stevenson. "I never felt complete as a character," she said. "I never even had a last name. It was like playing a limbo character. Where had I come from, how did I get there? We knew Cleary's back story but not mine."
"I wasn't really relaxed in the role. And when you're not relaxed you're not creative." But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Internal conflict at Tandem was a large part of the problem even before "In the Beginning" began this fall.
The initial idea for the series was Norman Lear's himself. For years he had wanted to do a show about the tension between institutionalized religion and the creative new forces of reform, renewal and social awareness within them.
Eighteen months ago they hit on the idea of a nun as a major character battling the forces of bureaucracy. "Even the original title, 'Aggie,' indicated where the emphasis would be. Then they brought in McLean and the focus shifted from Aggie against the establishment to Aggie against Cleary," explained Priscilla.
"Then they questioned whether I should even play the part and they tried a number of other actresses. We wasted a lot of precious preparation time this summer just getting the cast lined up. We could have been investigating our characters and finding out more about what was going on in the Church."
It was just that lack of knowing "what was going on in the Church" that ultimately seemed to kill the series. A successful sitcom requires believable human characters who become involved in contrived, but plausible, plots.
From the N.S.C.S. point of view, there seemed to be a great discrepancy between what information we were putting in about sisters and the Church and what information was coming out in the scripts. For example one of the first things we recommended was that all the writers take a subscription the N.C.R. And we sent over articles about sisters, the LCWR paper, "Choose Life," videotapes of sisters in ministries and the documentary film, "Sister." We also suggested real sisters they could talk with and real missions that they could visit. During the summer, we set up screenings of the pilot for a number of groups so that they could get feedback from a wide cross- section of people.
But sometimes the producers seemed to be more concerned about whether Sr. Lillian's veil looked right (it never did) than whether the premise of the plot was accurate. The show about Cleary being disappointed because he didn't make monsignor, for example, or the idea of his owning a Mercedes. The writers (mostly male and mostly Jewish or raised east- coast Catholic) never did seem to grasp the depth of renewal in the Church since Vatican II. They were writing out of presuppositions and traditional stereotypes.
The best episode of the six aired was the show in which Aggie and Cleary realize a need for a sex education class for the kids who come to the mission. Many say that Cleary's speech at the end was one of the most beautiful statements about marriage ever to come across the airways:
"...The one thing in your life that you can find, if you're lucky, is somebody who thinks you're special. And somebody you think is special. And when you go home at night, you get a little applause. Intimacy isn't taking your clothes off… People can do that with strangers. Intimacy is sharing your dreams and your fears... and you know the other person won't laugh at you. It's knowing one person who's on your side, no matter what. And you feel the same way. Because you're friends. And then... and only then... God blesses you with His most precious gift. The gift of love."
That episode, by the way, was written by two new women writers, one of whom is an active Catholic, involved deeply in renewal in her parish.
Ironically it was the episode that both CBS and Tandem were most nervous about. Was it too "hot" to have a priest and nun involved in sex education? They just weren't sure.
On the other hand, no one seemed to question the premise of Aggie and Lillian "cleaning up" in a local poker game, even to "raise money to take the kids camping." The writers thought it was harmless. We felt it was exploiting the unlikely image of card-shark-nun-in-a-veil. It was outlandish but it was also back to the level of "The Flying Nun," which everybody said "In the Beginning" would never be.
But therein lay the dilemma. In 22 minutes, each edition of "In the Beginning" had to create a situation, develop characters, unravel a plot and keep the audience entertained. Humor is one thing, but buffoonery is another. The creative staff never understood that the worst treatment of their religious characters was not controversy, but foolishness.
When the scripts concentrated on the social problems that the mission faced — teenage sex, gangs, stealing, welfare red tape — they struck a universal chord. But when they focused on the personal lives of Cleary or Aggie, they seemed to create totally unbelievable situations, probably because the writers had only second-hand knowledge of what it is to be a priest or sister in the Church today. But they did not either seem willing to really go out and interview real priests and sisters to find out what the struggles are to survive in an institution much in need of reform.
For example in one unaired but taped segment, the plot turns on Aggie's being made to feel guilty about having her heart flutter over an attractive young guitar-player who gets mugged behind the mission. In reading the first draft script, we noted that what really matters is not the guilt about feeling attraction toward someone but what she does with those feelings, how she handles herself and the situation. We suggested that the writers were writing out of the premise that because she's a nun, she's some kind of neuter gender, that she shouldn't ever have such feelings and therefore should be guilty when she does. That attitude is a stereotype from the past but certainly wouldn't characterize the mature, experienced young woman, like Aggie is supposed to be, who enters a religious congregation today. Unfortunately the script wasn't changed.. .but fortunately the show will never be aired either!
However as a media portray- all of religious characters, "In the Beginning" did, make some significant breakthroughs Though never called Aggie's "superior" Priscilla Morrin played the role of Sister Lillian as a wonderfully Warm older and wiser woman who was Aggie's friend rather than an authoritarian supervisor. And Aggie is seen as having been a typical, if not troubled teenager, rather than a pious patsy who spent an her time in church.
The most amazing thing we learned about the television industry in these weeks of reading scripts and going to Tandem Monday afternoons for the first camera run-through was that ultimately, no one has 'control" over a show. Of course, the president of the company's name is there and Tandem lost at least a creative genius when Norman Lear left the company last spring to go into movie production. But Virginia Carter, even in her position, doesn't have control, 'just influence. I make notes and comments on every script and I'll fight for something I think should be changed. I win a few and lose a few."
"The trick is to create a team of producers, directors, writers, set designer and actors who make a show click. That didn't happen with "In the Beginning," she said.
She's sorry to see the show end. (Tandem also had their other new prime-time series, "Apple Pie," cancelled after only three weeks.) Mentioning the reason as, inevitably, "ratings" she notes that the competition against "Eight is Enough," one of the top ten shows this fall, was hard to overcome and CBS, having one of its worst seasons ever, did not do much to promote the comedy. But she is also aware that "we didn't deal with serious enough themes; we never wade the premise of the show pay off that way."
The National Sisters Communication Service served as consultants for "In the Beginning." One way we assisted was to put the producers and cast in touch with real sisters working with the poor.