Tuesday, September 12, 2006

#2 "Cross Examination" -- Picket Fences (1993)

Anyone who thinks that all television is mindless, dumbed-down entertainment hasn't been paying attention lately. And I'm not just talking about shows that are all the rage today like Lost and 24. Smart television has been around for awhile. The early 90's gave us a good example in Picket Fences, a show that was not only smart itself but gave viewers a serious mental workout each week.

"Cross Examination" is a Christmas episode. But the first hint that this is no traditional holly and eggnog approach comes in the opening scene where the camera follows the path of snowball sailing through the night sky, as nearby carolers sing "Away in a Manger," until it hits a statue of Jesus square in the head.

At issue in "Cross Examination" is the nature of faith. There is so much going on this episode that a little summary is required. Jimmy Brock, sheriff of Rome, Wisconsin and father of the aforesaid snowball thrower, pulls a car out of an icy lake. Inside is a young woman, who is soon declared dead. As the coroner later prepares to begin the autopsy, she revives. Is this a genuine miracle? For many shows, that question alone would be enough to sustain an hour. But we have barely begun. The young woman, Dana Marshall, is in a coma and her doctor, Jill Brock, wife of Jimmy, announces that she is four months pregnant. How can this be, the coroner objects, since his initial examination of the body revealed her to be a virgin?

The townspeople, no mental slouches themselves, quickly make the connection between Christmas and a pregnant virgin. Are we about to witness the birth of a messiah? A second coming of the Christ? The reactions of various townspeople to this event present a study in the contours of faith. The town clergy try to stay out of the fray -- on the one hand not wanting to shut the door on the possible birth of the messiah, but on the other fearful of looking foolish should it turn out to be a hoax. Science and religion clash in the persons of Carter Pike, the coroner, who discounts any possibility of the miraculous and determines Dana Marshall was delusional and concocted a way to impregnate herself and Dana's gynecologist, a religious man, who chalks it up to a miracle. More interestingly, science and faith are engaged in a battle within the mind of Jill Brock herself. As a doctor and a scientist, she is reluctant to accept a miraculous explanation, but as a person sensitive to religion, she does not wish to discount it either.

Jill seeks advice from her husband, asking him "Do we believe in God?" (interesting use of the plural). He assures her the answer is yes, but then confesses he does not really know what that means. He wants there to be a God, but is not sure he wants to be in the same room with him. Further complicating matters is that the Brock's oldest son, the snowball thrower, decides that this is the time to tell their youngest son that Santa Claus does not exist. The parallel is obvious as the show juxtaposes the question of Santa's existence with that of God, essentially questioning the extent to which faith in one differs from faith in the other.

Further complicating things, as though that were necessary, Dana Marshall contracts pneumonia in her coma and so the pregnancy endangers her life. Her father asks for an abortion to save his daughter's life. The clergy, finally deciding to make their presence known, seek to stop it. Thus we move to the courtroom. On the stand, Jill Brock testifies that she cannot believe the pregnancy to be of miraculous origin; yet when cross examined and asked if she believes Mary had been a virgin when she conceived Christ, she confesses "yes" (but appears visually embarrased to do so).

The judge, Henry Bone, must make a difficult decision: does he abort a child to save the mother and in so doing possibly kill the child of God? Before announcing his decision, Henry Bone enters a church to pray. But alas, we never get to hear the verdict. After all, it doesn't matter what the show tells us to think, but what we ourselves think.

As it turns out, Dana's gynecologist had artificially inseminated her without her knowledge. When asked why, the religious doctor said he wanted to give hope to people all over the world. This raises another question about the nature of faith: is a false hope better than no hope at all?

The episode leaves us with a hint that the world is a mysterious place and that the arrogance of science is best tempered by the humility of faith. Dr. Jill Brock informs Dana's father that there is virtually no hope of her coming out of the coma and it is best to let her die in peace. At that moment, however, Dana cries out and revives. Later, Jill tells her husband, as though trying to convince herself, that such occurrences, as rare as they are, do sometimes happen. Yet, we the viewers, are left to wonder if the citizens of Rome, Wisconsin received their miracle after all.


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