ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For a long time, mainstream television has been squeamish about depicting the challenges of religious faith. It has largely stuck to biblical epics or easily understood shows like "Touched By An Angel." This month, three different shows debut which center on religion and faith. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans reviews "Of Kings And Prophets, "The Path" and "The Real O'Neals."
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Of Kings And Prophets" tells the ancient biblical story of King Saul and King David, but there are no burning bushes or showy miracles in the first episodes I've seen. Instead, we see struggles over faith, like this argument where the prophet Samuel tells Saul to kill a rival king, but Saul, played by British actor Ray Winstone, resists.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OF KINGS AND PROPHETS")
RAY WINSTONE: (As King Saul) I have listened to your commands all the years I have sat on that throne, and not once have I questioned you. But now you sanction murder in the name of Anohim.
MOHAMMAD BAKRI: (As Samuel) In your weakness, you put yourself above the Lord.
WINSTONE: (As King Saul) You are not the Lord.
BAKRI: (As Samuel) I am the prophet.
WINSTONE: (As King Saul) And I am the king.
DEGGANS: Religious scholar Reza Aslan and his producing partners developed the show. He says it took years to sell the series because it seemed to scare many TV networks. Aslan spoke to me on Skype.
REZA ASLAN: We got rejected almost everywhere that we went primarily because people thought that the show would somehow offend faith communities.
DEGGANS: That fear of offense may explain why there are so few explicitly religious scripted shows on mainstream television today. But another reason, Aslan says, is because TV often struggles to show characters with a strong religious faith in a modern setting.
ASLAN: Today, when we talk about faith, we struggle with how to reconcile it with the modern world, how to reconcile it with secularism and science and how to understand where our faith fits in a multi-faith world.
DEGGANS: "Of Kings And Prophets" is aimed at both a religious and nonreligious audience with gritty violence that's led some critics to compare it to "Game Of Thrones." It comes across as less centered on faith than classic Bible stories on TV and film. But there's a new TV show that more directly depicts a struggle over religious faith - Hulu's "The Path."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PATH")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) We express deepest gratitude from this day and every day.
DEGGANS: That's the morning prayer by members of the Meyerist Movement, a fictional religion which does some good works like providing disaster relief and helping addicts get off drugs. Ex "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul plays Eddie Cleary, a movement member who suspects some of its tenants are a sham. The problem - if he leaves the cult, his wife and kids might not follow. Eddie tells a friend he can't risk that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PATH")
AARON PAUL: (As Eddie Cleary) My family - I would die without them.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yeah, but you could live in a faith you know is a lie.
PAUL: (As Eddie Cleary) First of all, I don't know that it's a lie. And second, isn't that what the whole rest of the world does?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) They killed my husband when he tried to leave.
DEGGANS: "The Path" asks an interesting question. Can a movement which lies about crucial facts still achieve a greater good? Then there's "The Real O'Neals," ABC's new comedy series. It's centered on characters who seem like the perfect Irish Catholic family, but they're all hiding issues that puncture their perfect image, including divorce plans and an eating disorder. Son Kenny is so conflicted he's having conversations with an imaginary male friend about revealing his secret.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL O'NEALS")
MAX EMERSON: (As Cologne Man) Why don't you come out?
NOAH GALVIN: (As Kenny) I can't come out. Have you ever met my mom? She put a statue of the Virgin Mary over the toilet so we'd put the seat down.
EMERSON: (As Cologne Man) That's intense.
GALVIN: (As Kenny) You're intense.
DEGGANS: Eventually, the whole family comes clean with each other, bound together by a religion which also constantly challenges them. Turns out "The Real O'Neals," "The Past," and "Of Kings And Prophets" are wildly different shows with one important thing in common. Forget about shows like "Touched By An Angel" or "Highway To Heaven." These modern series explore how there are no easy answers when it comes to depicting complex TV characters and their faith. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.