When your episode title is ‘Charlatan’ and you open with a church service in opulent surroundings, with a well-dressed Minister declaiming above a congregation, it’s not hard to tell where the story is going to go. Nevertheless, the show made its course more complex, and more equivocal than it need do, the result being a thought-provoking episode.
We began with three separate strands, two of which became swiftly intertwined, and a third which seemed irrelevant but which became an important counterpoint to the major story.
The Church was the United Pilgrim’s Crusade, founded and led by Dr Thomas Chamberlain. The Trib’s Religious Affairs writer, Marcus Prescott, was there to conduct a standard profile. Joe Rossi was there because he’d spotted a naked man climbing the Church Tower to display a banner reading ‘God Sees All’. What was it God saw? From the Church’s enthusiasm about their disturbed brother’s privacy, it was clearly something needing investigating, as Rossi automatically assumed. Prescott, the son of a Southern Hellfire preacher, did not see it that way.
Our third strand was a sneaky phonecall to Lou from an Arnold Zinner, soliciting Lou’s support against Prior Restraint, that is, the Law’s intervention to prevent a newspaper publishing something, the very thing the First Amendment prohibits. Of course, from the shifty way he didn’t identify any specifics, we knew what sort of publication Zinnah ran – Grabber magazine, a cross between a pre-National Enquirer cheapie and a low-rent porn monthly, but which happened to have all the names and addresses of all the undercover Narcotics agents in LA (how and why were never explored).
There was a lot of stick over supporting a disgusting rag like that, but Lou held to the principle. Because we all know that it’s the difficult to defend cases that are prosecuted first, because it only takes one case to set a precedent.
This would tie back into the min story in two ways. First, however, a succession of minor matters drew attention to the possibility – to some an evidence-unsupported certainty – that something fishy was going on, that Chamberlain was not as he painted himself, that the United Pilgrim’s Crusade was not a legitimate Church with a genuine doctrine. Rossi’s convinced this is so. So’s Billie, when she gets brought in on this. Marcus, on the other hand, is far less convinced, considers the evidence too shaky, is blocking the story to the point where Lou takes him off it.
Is he just too (self-)indoctrinated to accept an anti-Church story? Or is he someone who demands a high level of proof because he’s aware of how susceptible people are to anything that appears to tear a minister down? Or is he just not enough of a bastard? Donovan, who sympathises with Prescott, thinks the latter, and it is his encouraging reaction that spurs Marcus back to the story.
There were multiple levels to this. Prescott interviews Agnes Carson (Ruth Silveira), a believer who’d found salvation in Dr Chamberlain, a volunteer who was giving far far too much money to the Church. Lou, Charlie and Mrs Pynchon discuss things with ‘orthodox’ Minister, Dr Bunning. who confesses his suspicions of and distaste for Chamberlain’s church but who implcably opposes stories against them: hurt one religion and you hurt all.
In the end, it’s Prescott who gets the real deal, persuading Smithfield, the naked man, already identified as a fanatic, to give up the print-outs that expose the frauds. Even then, Chamberlain and his business manager Crossley admitted the truth of the facts but not their meaning, heedless of the figures having gone to the Attorney-General.
No, all of this was Stan’s doing, an attack upon God, by a heathen newspaper, the state, an editor who openly advocated for a pornographer out to destroy their children… Even Agnes Carson told Marcus Prescott he was mistaken, but she was the true Christian amongst them.
And fittingly, the story was left with that ending, no neat little bows of pink ribbon to sign it off, even though all of us, and not merely the cynical, understood where truth lay and that there was no God in God’s Temple. An excellent episode.